Blogoff: A crash course in Genealogy
Have you ever caught yourself wondering about your ancestors’ lives? Their day-in day-out everyday lives? Their childhoods, romances, marriages, losses? I found myself ruminating on these thoughts one winter day while I was wandering around in an old cemetery in southern Indiana. I gazed at the weathered graves and went over in my mind about the day the people there were laid to rest, how many people were standing where I stood, grieving over the loss of their loved one. What would it be like to be with them on that day? What would it be like to spend a day in my ancestors’ shoes?
I stopped and looked at one little gravestone with a little lamb on it—the grave of a child. How heart-wrenching, I thought. Then it struck me: our ancestors’ lives were full of the same kind of experiences that we go through today. They felt happiness, love, sorrow, and fear. They were real people. They may seem distant, untouchable, but they were more like you than you know. And their lives were filled with stories. Stories that you could write about.
When you think about it, our family history is full of writing opportunities. If you do a little research, you can discover the bare bones facts about your ancestors—their dates and places of birth, marriage, and death, where they lived, what they did for a living, how many children they had. These details can serve as an outline for a story! And you have thousands of ancestors—think of the possibilities!
How to get started? Here’s a crash course in getting started with genealogy. Start with your living relatives. Call up your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles and ask them about their family growing up. Who do they remember? Write down as much biographical information about your family as you can. With any luck, you’ll soon have the names of great-grandparents and great-great grandparents, and from there take to the Internet. The first site I suggest you visit is www.familysearch.org. It has thousands of records, and it’s completely free. Type in your ancestors’ names in the Genealogies search, and you may come up with their family tree. Search the records. Many can give you names of your ancestors’ parents and carry you further back in time. Census records tell you when and where they lived, who lived with them, as well as information on occupations, and dates and places of birth. The site even has digitized books, including county histories and family histories, where you may be able to find biographies of on your ancestors. Click around on the site. You never know what you’ll find. (Hint: give yourself plenty of time for this—it’s bound to draw you in!)
Once you’ve chosen an ancestor you want to write about, use every tiny detail you’ve found on them to inform your writing. Their biographical details serve as the outline to your story. Give your ancestor life again, and anchor your story in the facts. I’ve written about everything from immigrations to holidays, but my favorite is writing about how two people met and fell in love. In almost every set of grandparents is a romance that is just begging to be told. You may not be able to find the exact details about how your great-great-great grandparents met, but if you learn enough about their lives, you can surely imagine how it happened and create a story out of it. The possibilities are endless!
Another idea came to me the day I visited that old cemetery. My husband and I had spent the day driving around Monroe and Brown Counties in southern Indiana, tracking down locations important to his family history. We had visited several cemeteries and driven down roads where his ancestors had lived. Our final stop of the day was this tiny little cemetery located down a gravel road inside a state forest. We had learned it was even located on land that my husband’s ancestors had owned. A hiking trail passed by the cemetery and we took a walk down it to a creek, trickling on that warm, sunny winter day. The whole time my imagination was running, thinking of the ancestors that had lived there, and how the woods surrounding the cemetery probably hadn’t changed since they were buried so many years ago. I pretended to be walking in their shoes, viewing my surroundings in their eyes, my mind turning over their lives, what had taken place on the land on which I was now walking, and I had a new thought. “What if I could go back in time and meet my ancestors?”
This question set me off on a journey I am still traveling today. It inspired the books series I am now writing—The Wayfaring Sisters. The first book, Going over Home, released in 2012, follows a girl named Maddie who is able to realize my dream—she actually goes back in time and meets her ancestors. The reason? Though she grew up in the 1990s and 2000s, she learns she was actually born in the 1800s, and belongs there—she has descendants living now, and if she doesn’t go back, their lives will never be.
Writing this story allowed me to explore my imagination and passion for family history in a new way. I was even able to utilize some of what I’d learned about my own family history. My 3rd great-grandmother, Almira King Holsclaw, who was born and raised in southern Indiana, wrote a memoir of her life, and I utilized her description in how I portrayed 1830s Indiana in the book. The grandmother in Going over Home and its sequel, Going over Jordan, is based on Almira. She drives the story forward and has become one of my readers’ favorite characters.
I say all this to encourage you to begin your own search into your family history. Nothing has inspired my writing more than my journey into my family’s past. Your ancestors’ lives can serve as writing prompts, as well as short story ideas. Even a visit to an old cemetery to visit their graves can inspire an entire series of books, as it did for me. Plus writing based on your family history is entirely your own, inextricably tied to your very life. It brings history to life, allowing you to view it from your ancestors’ point of view. So, dive in! You never know what you’ll discover.
KATIE ANDREWS POTTER