One day five years ago, I can across a photo of my grandmother that I’d never seen before. She was standing on a beach in Martha’s Vineyard and had a shy smile on her face. I flipped it over and saw that my great aunt had written on the back of it, “Your grandmother, Dorothy, Dot to us all. She had a soft voice. Yours reminds me of it, Karen.” Here was a picture of someone I never knew, as she had died when my father was six. It had always been a bitter feeling, not knowing my grandmother, but the fact that I was like her in some small way unlocked a little bit of the mystery about who she was – or maybe it made her more of a mystery to me because I wanted to know about her life and the era she lived. About this same time, I became a mother for the first time. Now, I wanted to know more about what traits were wrapped up in this little seven-pound bundle of next generation genes. Would she, perhaps, have inherited my mother’s voice?
Gran Chase, Marthas Vineyard
With the help of my father, I began looking through the genealogy of our family. I looked at records, pictures and several objects – now antiques – that my father had inherited, many of which were in my family living room when I was growing up. Then, they were just things I had to dust. But after considering their owners and how they had been around long before me and would likely be around long after I die, well, they seemed to have a story – and I wanted to read it!
Because all things inform the writer’s life, the seeds of a story were planted. If I couldn’t know all about my family history, I could certainly imagine one. I could take the few objects I had and invent stories about their past and their travels. I could look at the dates on my father’s pedigree chart and research world events taking place on those dates. Then, I could invent experiences and lives about a person during that era.
Such was the beginning of my novel Janeology. The first inspiration for writing it was to dream up a handful of ancestors of a modern American woman, Jane, and trace their roots and their lives. From this, I hoped to discover more about Jane and look into the nature and nurture of her ancestor’s to discover what traits flowed down to this 21st century woman. What happened next was an exciting process.
I took the pedigree chart my father had created for our family and used the dates as a guide to outline the story. This, of course, is the only thing about the book that is not fictional. This chart helped me stay true to historical time periods and also to plot out the birthdates, marriage dates and death dates of Jane’s eight ancestors featured in the book.
For example, here’s Jane’s paternal pedigree chart/list of characters, beginning with her great-great grandfather
Child: Nathaniel (b. 1866)
h. Joseph Downing
child: Jane (b. 1967)
w. Victoria Langley
(see the entire chart on my website – http://www.karenharringtonbooks.com/)
It was as much fun researching my own family history as creating a fictional one for the novel.
If you’ve never researched your own genealogy, why not make it a goal for the New Year! There are so many online tools where you can easily jump in, insert your grandfather’s name and birth date and quickly access records. Some of my favorites are: www.genealogy.org and www.ancestry.com. There’s even an increasingly popular research site called http://www.blacksheepancestors.com/ that allows you to access prison and convict records, historical court records and even execution records.
My thanks to Dar for hosting me on her blog today!
Karen Harrington is the author of JANEOLOGY, the story of one man’s attempt to understand his wife’s sudden descent into madness and murder.