Seekers, thank you for inviting me here today. Excuse me a moment while I cross a goal off my bucket list…
Since my topic is about using genealogy to enhance your writing, the title works, don’t you think?
Genealogy is the study or history of a family tree. It’s looking through your family photos and asking who everyone is and how they are related to you. It’s searching the internet for birth, death and census records for details on your ancestors. And it’s being a graver and graving, which simply means walking through physical or virtual cemeteries looking for - and taking photographs of - family headstones to glean the inscribed information.
I believe my passion for genealogy is why I’m finally a published writer. Research into the lives of our ancestors propelled me into the Edwardian period, often called the Titanic era. Until then, I’d concentrated my research in the west, but my husband’s family were some of the original settlers in the land of York County, Ontario – north of what is now Toronto – so that’s where my focus switched. Especially since I discovered that a tome entitled, The Drapers in America gives credence to the mystery of six Draper siblings who made their way to Upper Canada (Ontario) around 1800-1805 and yet none of them ever released details about their parents. Nelson’s 3x great grandfather was one of those siblings and that’s exciting from both a family and writing point of view.
Between the census records, online grave sites, history books, and newspapers, I know so much about Nelson’s side of the family I sometimes forget it’s his life story and not my own. Speaking of newspapers, Google has recently brought online hundreds of historical newspapers at http://news.google.com/newspapers and they’re available for free viewing. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, search for alternate names and spellings.
My main use for period newspapers is confirming information mentioned in the 1911 Courtship Letters which I post weekly on my Author Memories blog at http://www.anitamaedraper.com/author-memories.html. Written during the months preceding the wedding of Nelson’s paternal grandparents, Noah Draper’s and Ethel Nelson’s letters have provided an insight into the lives of common Canadians during a time when telephones where appearing on kitchen walls and automobiles were racing down the narrow dirt roads at 35 miles an hour.
|Post Office, Belhaven, York County, Ontario (where Ethel lived)|
I know that some of my blog readers are relatives, but other readers are interested in the historical aspect, which is why I research every person, place, and topic mentioned in the letters. Anything of particular interest is detailed at the bottom of the post under Genealogical Notes, and that’s where the local newspapers come in because I clip snippets confirming the topics mentioned in the letter for that week. I’ve covered relatives and politicians, weather and diseases, transportation and tourism, and even words, clichés and literature.
Each of these topics show how events of the day affected average citizens like Noah and Ethel in small farming communities, and sometimes city residents as well. Like the heat wave that swept through eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S. during the summer of 1911 which killed hundreds of people and horses.
Living in 1911 was dangerous. If a writer needs to kill off a character, they only need to read the local newspaper to find an array of mishaps that kill, maim, or disfigure:
- Bolts of lightning weren’t picky where they struck
- Alcohol and kerosene stoves exploded in tiny apartments
- Children drowned in cisterns, wells, and wash tubs
- Female skirts of all ages caught fire
- Livestock kicked their handlers
- Frightened runaways (horses) ditched their burdens
- Trains and streetcars severed limbs
- Automobiles drove whichever side they wanted
And I haven’t even mentioned weapon accidents.
I was surprised to find that the following words were in common use during 1911: kids, trike, bike, kiddo, okay, phone, photos, and fac-simile.
As well as showing early usage of colorful phrases like, “he screwed up his courage”, and the word, “pretty” as an adverb as in, “pretty sick,” the newspapers showed new phrases such as, “ring off” which came about because of the need to turn the crank at the end of a telephone call so the operator would know you were done. For writing purposes, I file a copy of each snippet where a word and phrase catches my attention just in case I use it and it’s questioned by an editor later.
When I was offered the opportunity to write a short story for A Cup of Christmas Cheer, I sent in two synopses. One was for a contemporary which I created specifically for this opportunity. But for the second story, I immersed myself in Ethel’s dangerous world of 1911 York County, Ontario. One photograph on the Family Tree kept drawing my attention.
|1944, Alice, 15 yrs old|
Although the photo was out by 30 yrs, I was captivated by the young girl’s pleasure in her bike. Without much thought, a story idea caught hold…A young girl’s Christmas wish… A father’s protective nature… The mother who wants to give her daughter freedom while honoring her husband's wish to keep the beloved girl close to home.
Since I wanted realistic character names, I searched the 1911 Canada census as well as the local newspaper. For the mother, the name of Eliza was in common use for a woman in her forties and we had several in the family tree. We also had several men named Thomas in our tree. God-fearing farmers who took care of their own and helped their neighbors when needed. And although the name Thomas is most-often thought of as someone who doubts, it worked well with my story because after losing two children, Thomas is flagging in the faith department. Naming the teenager, Sadie, was a given because in the actual 1911 Courtship Letters, Sadie is Ethel’s 16-yr-old sister which gave me lots of material to base my character on. The setting would be Keswick which was close to where Ethel lived, but afforded better shopping and busier roads. With the characters, setting and storyline in place, I wrote the synopsis for Riding on a Christmas Wish and submitted it to Guideposts.
Within a couple weeks, I received THE CALL from my agent. The editor had chosen Riding on a Christmas Wish as one of sixteen short stories for A Cup of Christmas Cheer. During my conversation with the editor later, he said my story was rich in historical detail.
After years of writing imaginative westerns without results, I am now a published author because I immersed myself in my genealogy research and wrote a story based on what I actually knew.
Have you looked into your family tree?
Riding on a Christmas Wish appears in A Cup of Christmas Cheer Volume 1: Tales of Faith and Family, October 2013, available as a 2-book set online only from ShopGuideposts.
Anita Mae Draper lives on the Canadian prairies where she has finaled in several contests for her stories about Canadian Mounties and the American West. Through genealogy, she’s re-discovering her birth province of Ontario with its rich idea-laden history.
Anita can be found online at:
Today Anita Mae is generously giving away one set of A Cup of Christmas Cheer which is a 2-book set (Volume 1 and 2) to a commenter. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition!