This week I had the joy of a visit from some of my favorite cousins. In addition to food, good conversation, and touring the some of the prime historical sites here in Philadelphia, we had reason to talk about our grandparent’s lives. They brought some boxes of papers left by our late uncle. Some stories our parents tell us. Some we find out by other means. I wonder what gems I may find in those boxes?
I had a few to new stories to share that I uncovered through research. When they asked how I found
them, my methods became a story in themselves! Digging through census records, court records, and books of assembled records (Not to mention newspapers, city directories, photos, military records and on and on) inevitably yield surprises. As a writer, my mind quickly begins to spin stories around the records, instinctively trying to fill in the gaps and answer the inevitable questions.
I’ve written a bit on History Imagined about the relationship of micro-history to fiction. After my cousins left I started wondering how many novels are based on ones ancestors. There is no way to answer the question. I did find a surprisingly lengthy list on Goodreads called “Fiction Based on the Author’s Ancestors.” Some titles tickled me because they are books I enjoyed, Cold Sassy Tree and Sarah Plain and Tall among them. East of Eden and the Glass-Blowers were unexpected. I often wonder if all fiction isn’t on some level autobiographical, our efforts to make sense of our lives or the lives of those who came before.
I have no answers for this. Merely musings.
What use will I make of my genealogical research in fiction? The likeliest candidates are the ancestors in Detroit in the 1700s, a time of conflicting loyalties and changing flags. I’ve considered a children’s novel based on the trading company an ancestor owned on the Great Lakes in that period. How does my life impact my regency novels? Largely I fill them with thoughts from my travels, overlaid with my own values. On my second visit to Rome, for example, I asked the question, “Would it be possible to set a regency novel here?” It turns out the answer was yes, and Dangerous Secrets is the result.