Saturday, April 24, 2010

Using Family History As Story Material

Several friends and I use our family history--very loosely, of course--in our historical fiction. My father's family came to Texas in 1877, and that's close to my favorite time period. I love a  story set in Texas between 1870 and 1899. Not that I limit myself to those times. Regency and Victorian England also reel me in as a reader. Victorian America lures me. Contemporary stories in any setting interest me. Ah, but I fall in love with late nineteenth century Texas stories!

Genealogy is one of my hobbies, and I especially love to hear family stories. My friends Jeanmarie Hamilton and Pat Capps Mehaffey also use family history in their writing. Jeanmarie's family are more, um, financially upscale than mine, and settled Castroville, Texas. Pat Mehaffey's ancestors were early Texas settlers and she uses her family history to write children's books and memoirs.

A recent time when I used family history as a kernel for a story was for my novella, LONG WAY HOME in the anthology NORTHERN ROSES AND SOUTHERN BELLES from The Wild Rose Press. That anthology won #6 in the Preditors and Editors 2009 poll and received a 4 Star rating and review from Romantic Times magazine. LONG WAY HOME is set in Northwestern, Georgia, near the Civil War's end. That part of Georgia is where my dad's family lived before moving to Texas. Other than a few descriptions of the fictional town of Witherspoon's buildings (including the old family home), there's no further basis in fact for the story. Except for the heroine's name. Parmelia was a family name in my Johnson line, and Bailey was a surname before it was passed along as a middle name for the Johnson men--which has nothing to do with my cat being named Bailey. LOL.

When writing a historical romance, I find that using family names from that era lends realism to the story. Using a Biblical name is also a safe bet, for those names are popular in any time period.

I'm better at naming characters than I was with our daughters. In retrospect, Hero and I should have chosen family names for them. Due to our common family surname, we went with what we thought were unusual names. Not! Both Darling 1 and Darling 2 ended up being in classrooms full of girls with their first names. At one time we lived next door to a girl the same age and with the same first and last name as Darling 1. We should have named Darling 1 Victoria Elizabeth, because she has turned out to be a devotee of British history. Darling 2 should have been named Kathryn Maeve or Kathryn Josephine. No wonder the American Indians used to wait a while before naming their children. But I digressed. 

Choosing a character's name is important. The name has to fit with the character's strengths and personality. Heroes need strong names with hard consanants. Scots names are always good for an American hero--there are so many Scot-Irish descendants here. In my WIP (work in progress) the heroine is named after my new sister-in-law, Penny Jane. In the upcoming June 4th release, OUT OF THE BLUE, the heroine, Deirdre Dougherty, is from 1845 Ireland and comes forward to present day Texas. She brings her black cat, Cathbad, who was named after a famous Druid priest. Since she is a devout Catholic named after a mythical Celtic heroine, I thought it humorous for her cat to be named after a Druid. (Well, it's funny to me.) The hero, Brendan Hunter is a police detective who has this huge, scruffy mutt named Prince. You can see that even names for pets are important, can't you?

You're saying that OUT OF THE BLUE'S hero's name, Brendan, doesn't fit the criteria for hard consanants. You're so right. However, his first name is part of the story, so you'll have to read the book to figure that out. (Unrepentant plugging of book, here.) Both books are from The Wild Rose Press at

Now, for more on family history as story material. If you saw the old Jack Webb show "Dragnet" you may remember that it started with "New York is a city with eight million stories. This is one of them." Maybe we don't have eight million stories, but each of us has hundreds of stories in his or her past. Whether it's historical or contemporary, those stories provide timeless material. Women with lousy fathers leave to marry a louse. Men who break with tradition and forge a new trail. Women who stood by their men through perilous times. If you don't know your family's history, do yourself and your descendants a favor and start working on it today. You'll be enchanted by the fascinating stories awaiting you!

1 comment:

Stephanie Suesan Smith, Ph.D. said...

Genealogy is a nice hobby. I especially enjoy finding out about the rogues in the family. They have the best stories.