With the current interest in genealogy and tracing ancestors, you may have created a personal family tree or at least considered doing so, but have you developed one for one of your books? While I’ll be the first to admit that you don’t need a family tree for many stories, I’m here to tell you that they can be extremely helpful and – yes – powerful for some books.
It’s confession time. I grew up reading sagas. You know what I mean, those long, multi-generational stories that were popular more years ago than I’m going to admit. One of the things that fascinated me about them was that they almost always had a family tree in the front of the book. Those were designed to help readers keep track of who’s who and who’s related to whom in what way. I was hooked! But as much as I liked the idea of a family tree, I didn’t have a need for one until I started plotting the Cimarron Creek trilogy.
From the beginning, I knew that my fictional Texas town would be founded by two families from the North and that there would be multiple generations involved in each story. While I wasn’t writing a saga, there were enough characters involved that I had the excuse I needed to create a family tree.
And so, I did. Here’s a simple version of the first tree.
The ProcessHow do you start to create a family tree? In real life, you collect information about people. It’s a similar process with fiction, only you get to decide what the facts are. As I thought about Cimarron Creek, I began asking questions.
• Who were these founding families? Although I could have had the founders be from unrelated families, more interesting dynamics were possible if they had a common ancestor.
• When did they emigrate to Texas? That helped determine their ages as well as critical events in the backstory. After all, a town founded well after the War Between the States would have had different challenges than one where the residents had experienced the war and Reconstruction.
• How many children did the founders have? While not all of the children play roles in each book, it was important for me to know how many cousins my hero (Travis Whitfield) had and what ages they were.
• What were their professions? Although that’s not something you see on the family tree or any of the related reports, it was a key piece of information, so I added it to one of the reports I’d printed.
You can see that I changed a number of things as I actually wrote the book, including some characters’ names and ages. Like the manuscript itself, the family tree was a work in progress.
The AdvantagesWhy go to this much trouble? There are a number of reasons.
• It forced me to think about each person as an individual. While I didn’t include birth and death dates on the chart, they’re part of the underlying database. (More about that later.)
• Because I knew a fair amount about each of the people on the family tree, I was able to include “insider” details about some of them in the book. The result, I believe, was a more authentic-feeling town.
• Seeing the chart helped me avoid repetition of names or creating too many characters whose names began with the same letter. While the character chart I always create for my books is useful for that, because of its graphic nature, the family tree made it easier to see duplication.
• The reports I generated provided me with information about each secondary character’s relationship to the protagonist.
Yes, I could have made notes about which people were cousins vs. aunts and uncles, but having the software do the work for me made my life a bit easier, not to mention that I knew it was accurate. I’ve never claimed to know what second cousins twice removed means.
To Automate or NotWhile you can always create a family tree manually by drawing squares on a piece of paper, I chose to use Family Tree Maker software. (And, no, I don’t own stock in Family Tree Maker, Ancestry.com, or anyone else who’s sold this particular package.) I’ve used FTM since the days of Windows 95 and have found it relatively easy to learn. I also like the reports it generates. While the Outline Descendant report is the one I use on a daily basis simply because it’s so concise, the Descendant report provides an easy-to-understand explanation of who’s who.
One of the advantages of the software is that whether you prefer to start with the current generation and work backward or with the first generation and move forward, you can do it. You can also start in the middle and work both ways. Those of you who know me won’t be surprised that I started with the first generation and worked forward, but I’ve used the flexibility of adding descendants on numerous occasions. And, of course, I like the fact that I can change names, birthdates, and other key pieces of information as my story evolves.
For me, building a family tree was an essential part of outlining this trilogy. Using automated software made that process easier and resulted in a tree that Revell could (and did) include in the book itself.
Have I convinced you to at least consider creating a family tree for stories that include multiple generations? If not, here’s one last advantage I found: it allowed Revell to create an interesting graphic for social media.
Don’t you love the different hairstyles for the various generations?
Amanda Cabot is the bestselling author of more than thirty novels including the Texas Dreams trilogy, the Westward Winds series, the Texas Crossroad trilogy, and Christmas Roses. A former director of Information Technology, she has written everything from technical books and articles for IT professionals to mysteries for teenagers and romances for all ages. Amanda is delighted to now be a full-time writer of Christian romances, living happily ever after with her husband in Wyoming.
A Stolen Heart – Amanda Cabot
From afar, Cimarron Creek seems like an idyllic town tucked in the Texas Hill Country. But when former schoolteacher Lydia Crawford steps onto its dusty streets in 1880, she finds a town with a deep-seated resentment of Northerners—like her. Lydia won’t let that get her down, though. All will be well when she’s reunited with her fiancé.
But when she discovers he has disappeared—and that he left behind a pregnant wife—Lydia is at a loss about what to do next. The handsome sheriff urges her to trust him, but can she trust anyone in this town where secrets are as prevalent as bluebonnets in spring?
Bestselling author Amanda Cabot invites you into Texas’s storied past to experience adventure, mystery—and love.
Join the conversation on creating a family tree! One lucky commentor will get a copy of A Stolen Heart of their very own! Remember to stop by and check out the Weekend Edition on Saturday!!
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