Monday, May 21, 2018

Mining Your Family Tree for Story Ideas


by Jan Drexler








We tend to think our families are nice, normal, boring people, right?
Oh, sure, there’s Aunt Hattie, who was rumored to have been a flapper back in the 1920’s. Or Uncle Jack, who left home when he was fourteen and didn’t write to the folks he left behind for twenty years, after he had become a successful cattle rancher in Colorado.
But other than that…


From my very first book, I have delved into the roots of my family’s past to find characters and story ideas. One part of my family has solid Amish roots dating back to the Reformation, and that branch gives me some great fodder for my Amish stories.
Another branch is a bunch of ne’er-do-wells who ranged from murderers and thieves to river rats living along the banks of the Ohio River. I haven't started writing about that side of the family. Yet.
In this post, I hope to give you some ideas of how you can exploit use your own family stories in your writing. 
Don't assume this post is only for historical writers, though! Once you've found your story nugget, you can put it in any story setting you like!



Start with the Facts
The first place to start is with your genealogy. I use Ancestry.com, but there are other websites to help you search for your ancestors. Almost every library has a genealogy room, and they are often staffed with people to help you get started. Or perhaps one of your relatives has already started a genealogy study - ask!
Old photo albums are another great place to start. Hopefully, someone identified who is in the pictures!

Once you plug in your grandparents’ names and where they were born, a whole new world starts opening.
A simple family tree grows branches as you find the names of your great-grandparent’s siblings and their descendants, and when you dig deeper, you find details that you might have skimmed over if you weren’t looking for stories.
For instance, you might find that your great-uncle had a wife who died in Ireland before he emigrated to America, and that he left three children behind.
Or you might find that the person you knew as “Great-Grandma” was actually your grandfather’s foster mother, who had only stepped in to take care of the children when your great-grandparents disappeared in a snow storm…
It's easy to get caught up in the "what-if's!"



Fill in the Missing Pieces
Through studying your genealogy, you can find out when your ancestors came to America. Further searching can reveal the ship’s manifest, listing the other passengers. 
Census records will tell you where you ancestors lived, who lived with them, and who their neighbors were.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

Once you have your details – even only a few – you can let your imagination and story-building skills go to work. And remember: You’re writing fiction, not biography. Anything goes.



Expand the Playing Field
When you have your story nugget, you start expanding your knowledge of the time period and setting.
Let me use an example from my own research.
While working on my husband’s genealogy, I found that his great-grandfather emigrated to America from Germany in 1880, accompanied by his wife and two adult children, Barbara and Caspar…and a nine-month-old girl named Maria. 
Further searching revealed the name of the woman who would eventually become Caspar’s wife, who was traveling alone on the same ship.
Those are the bare-bones facts, but do you see the story fodder in these details?
Less than three months later, Barbara married a man twice her age who was living in Toledo. Augustus had emigrated five years earlier from the same town in Germany as Barbara’s family, so they must have known each other back then.
The story’s details keep growing, don’t they?
And what happened to Maria? After Barbara’s mother passed away a few years later, Augustus moved his family – including a five-year-old Maria – to a Nebraska homestead just south of Lincoln.


When I finally write this piece of family history into a story or series, I’ll research homesteading in Nebraska, ocean crossings in 1880, what the immigration experience was before Ellis Island, overland travel from New York to Toledo, and then to Nebraska.
I’ll use some of my favorite resources.
One is Historic Mapworks, where you can search maps from around the world for almost any time period. I have already been able to find Augustus and Barbara’s homestead using this resource.
I also use Google Maps extensively. Even though the maps are contemporary, you can still learn a lot about a place through their street view and 3-D features.
 After I get a sense of “place” through the maps, I start looking for source materials for research. I use internet search engines to start looking for books written about my subject. For this story I would search for European immigrant’s stories and homesteader’s diaries from Nebraska. I would also search for any other books written about these subjects.

Give Your Characters Life!
Once I have the setting, I start forming my characters. I use what I’ve learned in my research to create their Goals, Motivations and Conflicts. People are similar in all time periods, so while I’ll want to remain true to the culture of the time period I've chosen, my characters will have the same wants and desires that we do today.
When I write this book, I think Barbara will be an interesting person to learn to know. How did her experiences shape her life?
And then there’s that mystery: Whose daughter was Maria? What would she have been like as a young girl?



Dig Deep into Your Roots
Don’t tell me your family is full of boring people!
Think about why we write - it’s because we’re interested in people. We listen when they tell their own stories and our minds snatch the fascinating details out of the air.
When you mine your family tree, you're digging for those details. Those tidbits that cause your mind to start chasing the "what-if's."
Talk to your relatives. Ask them what they remember about your family. And it doesn’t have to be someone a generation or two older than you – my brother remembers stories from our family's past that I don’t, and he’s less than three years older than I am. 
Ask questions, then listen. What you hear just might be your next great story idea!


Have you ever mined your family tree for story ideas? Tell us about it!

One commenter will win a copy of my latest release from Love Inspired Historical, The Amish Nanny's Sweetheart. (US only please)



Love in Plain Sight 

As nanny for her nephew, Judith Lapp’s finally part of a vibrant, joyful Amish community instead of living on the outskirts looking in. But teaching her neighbors’ Englischer farmworker to read Pennsylvania Dutch wasn’t part of her plan. And the more time she spends with Guy Hoover, the more he sparks longings for a home and family of Judith’s own.

Guy figured he would never be truly accepted by his Amish employers’ community—even though the Mast family treats him like a son. But Judith’s steadfast caring shows him that true belonging could be within his reach…if he and Judith can reconcile their very different hopes—and hearts.








73 comments:

  1. Good morning, Jan! What a great post. I'm always interested in hearing how you get your story ideas and these are fantastic. My dad has done a lot of genealogy research for both his and my mom's families. I will have to talk to him about some of the more interesting facets of our family's history. Thanks!

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    1. Glynis, you should ask your dad for a copy of all his research! It would be great to have as a keepsake.

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    2. I agree with Missy! Ask for your own copy. Not only would it make a great keepsake for your family, but what he thinks is interesting might be different than what will capture your imagination!

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    3. Great ideas. Thanks, ladies!

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  2. Good morning, Jan and Seekerville! Interesting stuff. I've mined the Irish side of my family pretty well (there's ALWAYS a story if you're Irish), but I haven't done anything with the French-Canadian side.
    I agree, "You're writing fiction, not biography. Anything goes." Even a good family story is raw material, and we need to mold it and shape it until it's good fiction. I've been in a number of critique groups and remember cringing whenever someone defended a poor piece by saying, "That's the way it really happened." Well, what we're about is making "what really happened" better or even the best it could be. The good family story or the bizarre incident is the starting point, not the finish line. "hat's how it really happened" takes its place alongside "The Lord gave me this and I don't want a word of it changed." Fine for hobby writers, not good enough if you want to play with the pros. Fiddle-dee-dee, how I do run on...and on a Monday morning...
    So much to learn...
    Kathy Bailey

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    1. Kathy, you make a great point. Often, real life can make boring fiction. I know my life if usually that way! :)

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    2. That's a wonderful point, Kathy! I love how you said the "good family story or the bizarre incident is the starting point, not the finish line."

      That's the point where you leave the real story behind and start building the fictionalized version. :-)

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  3. My great-aunt Florence was a flapper for a brief time. Problem was, in Manchester, New Hampshire, there weren't that many places to "flap."

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    1. LOL! Same with my Aunt Hattie in northern Indiana!

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    2. LOL! Kathy! I can just see her, all dolled up, with no place to go! LOL!

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  4. Jan, this is such a great post. Thank you for the link to Historic Mapworks!

    I haven't done any major family research, but my sister has. And she's shared a lot of it with me. It's so interesting! There's also a man who has done a ton of research on my dad's side of the family who has done a website and published a book. That's been a fun resource!

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    1. You're ready to dive in with all that work being done for you already!

      My dad had done a lot of genealogy work as his "retirement project" and wrote a narrative history of our family. That book has been a great resource.

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    2. Jan, it's great that you have your dad's book!

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  5. I never thought about doing this. I do draw from personal experiences as I write. I will keep this in mind

    Recently I received a critique on my current wip that said the scene would never happen in real life. I wanted to shout back but it did. Instead I will work on it more to make the scene more believable.

    Hope everyone has a great day!

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    1. Good morning, Wilani!

      Using family member's experiences is just a step away from using personal experiences. You just need to use a lot more imagination!

      And best wishes with that scene. I'm sure you'll be able to tweak it to make it more believable without losing your story. You might ask the critiquer for specifics - what was it that made her make that comment?

      I hope you have a great day, too!

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  6. Jan, this is such an interesting post. And thank you for all the great links. I've been wanting to try Ancestry.com for some time, and your post has inspired me to head on over there. I'm in the midst of starting a new book and I'm sure your links will come in handy. Your post has my mind spinning with possibilities.

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    1. Hi Christina!

      One warning about Ancestry.com - it can be a time sucker. Worse than Pinterest!

      Have fun with your new book! I'm starting a new one this week, too, and I'm just itching to get to work on it. :-)

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  7. Great post, Jan. I haven't written anything using family stories, but there are some interesting ones in mine.

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    1. Hi, Sandy!

      It sounds like you need some time to let your imagination work on those family stories and see what happens! Put your feet up, sip on a tall glass of ice tea, close your eyes, and have fun!

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  8. Jan, I so enjoyed your story ideas. My father is the one who tracks our family's genealogy. He's shared some fascinating stories from our family tree. Thinking back on some of that has given me a story idea.

    I loved reading some of the stories from your family tree. Thanks for the practical suggestions on how we can mine our family tree for characters and ideas.

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    1. Hi Jeanne!

      Have fun fleshing out that story idea! That's one of my favorite parts of writing...following the idea as it grows into a book!

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  9. For reasons of writer weirdness, I LOVED THIS!!! I was writing stories in my head while I read it, and thinking of my own family tree, which a sister has traced extensively.
    Now I've got questions.

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  10. You did Ancestry.com? Was that okay? I guess it scares me some. I'm not afraid I'll find a child my mom gave up for adoption or my father left behind with some other woman. Frankly my folks were pretty exhausted with eight kids. I doubt they had any other ones!!!
    But I guess I heard Ancestry.com and that's what comes to mind, that and finding out I'm 1/2 German, 1/4 scott, 1/4, Irish, 1/4 English, 1/10 Swedish, 1/4 Latvian (too many 1/4ths but you know what I mean).
    Do they actually tell you ancestors names and their backgrounds, their stories?
    YOu must've done it.
    Any surprises?

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    1. I use Ancestry.com, but I didn't do the DNA test. To me, that's just creepy. I don't have any "where did my family come from" mysteries I need to solve!

      One caution about the website, though. The family trees are built by amateurs and can be full of mistakes. It's good if you have other details to corroborate details, like a family Bible with births and marriages recorded in it.

      Things that make it easy to make mistakes in genealogies are times when a couple uses the same name twice for two different children (often happened when the older child died before the younger one was born - they would reuse the name sometimes). Another tricky situation is when a man's wife and unmarried sister have the same name!

      But other than that, the website is easy to use, and sometimes you can follow the line back more generations than you can count!

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    2. I'd love to do more research into my family's genealogy. My niece has done a good bit, so I can piggy-back off her. :) I just don't see the need to sign up for Ancestry.com now when I don't have the time to actually play with it. Way too tempting! :)

      DNA test - Okay, I am fascinated by this, but skeptical. Again, my niece's aunts on her mother's side of the family all paid for the DNA test. I think like THREE sisters. They all got similar, but conflicting reports of their DNA history. That would freak me out. I'm too detail-oriented for that. I think I'll wait until it's a little more reliable. I'm not saying that what they got was wrong, but if one sister showed 1/4 German, 1/4 French, 1/4 Italian, and 1/4 Native American ... or whatever, then my OCD brain would say that they all should. Granted, it was all explained away as that different people get different DNA from their ancestors, so that accounted for the discrepancies. Okay, I can buy into that, but then I'm back where I started. In the words of Tantor, "That water looks questionable to me." lol

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    3. Pam I know someone who did this and brothers and sisters with the same parents, got different history. And whoever was telling me said, "Well, different parts of ancestry come through each child." Uh, okay, but this what does it really tell you? If my sister's dna isn't ancestrally the same as mine, the whole thing doesn't seem to be worth much.

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    4. Pam, from what I heard recently on NPR, the differences in the results can come from the size of the database. One woman tested herself at several sites and came up with different results. So you'd just need to make sure to use a company with the biggest database to get more accurate results.

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    5. Hi Jan and Pam:

      I also have a disbelief in DNA revealing a person's heritage. I read a news story in which identical triplets (much rarer than fraternal triplets) sent off for a DNA test and while two were quite similar the third was very different as to heritage. They all had the same DNA. What went wrong: it could have been the sample, the testing itself, the algorithm for determining heritage, or the tester reporting on someone else's test results.

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  11. I loved the pictures. What is that one with the bonneted (<not a word) woman poking sticks into the water. Are those Amish women? Were pictures allowed? It's a very spooky-cool picture.
    I loved the one with the horse pulling kids behind it on sleds.

    So many cool pictures.
    I've got an old one with (I think) my grandma and grandpa in a buggy and oddly, the horse has their weird....thing draped over it's back. That thing is just dozens of long, sort of knotted leather strips that hang down mostly to the ground. I've speculated with others what that thing is? Does it brush flies away? Is it decorative?
    Strange to stare for so long at the harness on the horse!

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    1. I love my collection of old pictures! Digital scanning has made it possible to preserve them, and I love it.

      The picture with the Amish girls fishing was taken by my grandmother in the 1920's. The girls were her neighbors, so they were friends.

      The prohibition about taking pictures varies between Amish communities, but this one doesn't show faces, so would be acceptable in almost every community.

      And it sounds like the horse is wearing a fly net. They were common in the past to keep the flies from bothering the horses while they were in harness. (Can you imagine the poor horses trying to chase flies away while they're in one of those rigs???)

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  12. And I did write a book about my family. My mom's parents had a marriage of convenience that resulted in four children and, what appears from the outside looking in, to be a happy marriage begun in tragedy...when my grandpa's first wife died.
    It's out of print now but this encourages me to get it back up somewhere.

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    1. I remember when you mentioned that story once before. Yes! You'll have to make it available again!

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    2. Mary, I love the story of your grandparents!

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  13. Anyway, love this post. I find it exciting and inspiring to my own work.

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  14. Jan, this is a great post. However, as a contemporary writer, how would family history benefit my stories? Make it my characters' history or give the historical story a modern day twist?

    That said, while we haven't done any Ancestry.com research, my husband has a rich history behind him with some interesting stories that have often made me wish I could write historical. I won't say never, because that's just enough to get God to nudging me, however I do not see historicals in my future. :P

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    1. I think your husband probably has some fascinating stories in his family's past! A true Texan, through and through!

      Why not use historical situations in a modern day setting? Like you said - give the historical situation a modern day twist. People today aren't all that different from people in the past - we still have the same need for friends, family, and most of all, faith.

      And you made me laugh! I don't see any contemporary stories in my future!

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  15. I love hearing about the lives of real people throughout history. My ears perk up during a boring lecture or dry sermon (ahem) when the speaker says, "I'm reminded of the story of so-and-so".

    And, yeah, I think I have some of those interesting characters in my family tree. :)

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    1. "Story" is what makes dry facts come alive, isn't it?

      One thing I've found, too, is that what seems "normal" to me is fascinating and appealing to someone who lives in a different part of the country or the world. So dig up those interesting characters! It will be fun to see what you do with them!

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  16. Very informative and I love the pictures. But have you ever been criticized by your family? Have they read things and told you why did you write about so and so and that is not true, even though it is fiction? I have written nonfiction articles using situations involving me and gave lessons to my readers, etc. and have been told that wasn't true by my family, so I don't talk to most of them about my work. I have this book you are giving away and looking forward to reading it.

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    1. Hi Tammie!

      I stress to my family that my stories are FICTION!!!, but I know that I hit a little too close to home sometimes.

      The Amish Nanny's Sweetheart is one of those. I based the hero on my grandfather who had passed away before I was born. I've heard since the book came out that I might have made him a little too true to life for his children. But I still stress that this is only my perception of him, and it is only based on the facts of his life, not the truth.

      Everyone is still speaking to me. I think! :-)

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    2. Haha, Jan! I'm glad!

      Yeah, it would be a little tricky to write about something that other family members might not want out there.

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  17. Hi Jan! What a fun post! I love looking into my family history, and you're right, the stories you get aren't just for historical writers. I recently discovered a first cousin through Ancestry DNA. When I contacted her, I found out that one of my aunts had given up a baby (her) for adoption. NO ONE in our family had a clue. And according to the hospital records, she also 2 other children that she had given up for adoption through the years. Mind. Blown. So I tell everyone to be careful when digging into family history...you may uncover some skeletons! I'm definitely going to use the whole situation in one of my future stories!

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    1. Secret baby times three! What great story material!

      And yes, you can uncover some family skeletons in your research, and they have to be handled with care. There are some things in my family tree that I will probably never write about, but I can still imagine the feelings that came out of those situations and translate them to other stories.

      Enjoy getting to know your cousin! Will you be trying to contact the other children, too? That will be an interesting story in itself!

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    2. LeAnne, that's crazy!

      Jan, that's a good idea to use the emotions in another setting.

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  18. Loved the article, as I so enjoy history and genealogy. Why have boring ancestors when they can be "colorful" and interesting? Some family members want to know the entire story and others only the good parts, or so I have discovered with some of the reports I have compiled.

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    1. Hi Cathy!

      I've found that time tends to soften the blow of the "not so good parts" in our family stories. But I agree - why hide the interesting and colorful details? Unless revealing them is going to cause pain to someone, it can be good for younger generations to know that their ancestors weren't perfect.

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  19. Interesting post, Jan! I have a family history of my Mom's family....would love to have Dad's, but (sigh)..no one has done it.
    Still want to read your giveaway book....thanks!

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    1. You could do your dad's family history...but once you've been bitten by the genealogy bug, there's no going back!

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

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  20. Love this post, Jan! I totally bookmarked Historic Map Works. How have I not heard of this resource before? It's pure GOLD for historical writers!!!

    I have not mined my family for fodder yet...my family tree can't decide whether to be a fruit tree or a nut tree, so there's lots there! LOL

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    1. LOL! Fruits and nuts! We have plenty of both!

      And you're right about Historic Map Works! I'm not sure where I stumbled across that site, but I use it constantly!

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    2. Erica, you're definitely a nut! LOL

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  21. Jan, your post is so interesting! I'm fascinated by your Amish roots and loved all these pictures. Do you know who they are? The children are just adorable with the smiles and enormous hair bows!

    I love history and the search for family tidbits is so much fun! I'm planning to learn more about my husband's ancestor, the first Dean that came from England. We have the foot adze he brought with him, which was used to shape or hollow out logs.

    Janet

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    1. Hi Janet!

      I know who everyone in the pictures are except for the last photo of the little girls. It was among the pictures my mother-in-law got from her mother-in-law, and no one in the family knows who they might be. For some reason it intrigues me!

      That's exciting that you have that old tool. Don't you wonder how often he used it and if any of those hollowed out logs still exist?

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  22. Hi Jan:

    I really like the idea of checking family roots for story ideas and details. In a way, I feel it provides a different dimension into understanding characters similar to something like the difference between detailed research on a location and actually being at that location. There is just something that being there gives a story with its full sensory experience which you would not get otherwise.

    What do you think of extending this 'roots' idea to researching the family tree of a friend or neighbor who is of the ethnic heritage as your story character…like Amish. Would this also provide that extra dimension?

    I did have to smile when I read your comment: "You’re writing fiction, not biography. Anything goes." How many times have I've read and been told that 'just because it is true' is no excuse -- if the event does not seem real to the reader or the story situation. I think less goes with fiction. With non-fiction you only have to be right. Fiction you have to seem to be right.

    Almost all my published writing has been non-fiction and I find fiction to be much harder.

    Vince

    P.S. One of the first jokes I ever heard as a child was when my father came home and said, "My boss told me he just spent $50,000 doing his family tree." That seemed like a lot of money. He said, "Oh, it was only $5000 to do the research and $45,000 to keep it secret". I was so young I thought he was being serious!

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    1. Hi Vince!

      I love that joke!

      You mentioned exploring the roots of someone else's family - I'm actually doing that (with the family's permission, of course) as I research a new series idea. This would be a western series, and I'm coming up with some wonderful story ideas from this family's history!

      The next thing to do is make the time to write it...

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  23. My dad provided a wealth of family stories and genealogy that I need to mine. I did write a short story inspired by him that came in 3rd place in a contest. Thanks Daddy, your spirit lives on in that story and future ones to come. RIP.

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    1. Those family stories are a legacy that will last for generations, aren't they? What a wonderful gift your father gave you. :-)

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  24. Jan, I'm late! Such an interesting blog. Loved the photos too! Thanks for the info about Historic Mapworks. What part of Germany did your husband's family comes from. Mine came from Fulda. I went to the church in Germany where my great-great-grandparents were married, which was so special.

    I need to research my family! Sounds fascinating and so special to uncover info. Even without research, I know of a few stories I could include in a book! You've got me thinking...

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    1. Hi Debby!

      My husband's family came from Bohemia...at least that's what it was called then. Now it's part of southern Germany, south of Stuttgart and west of Munich, and close to the borders of Leichtenstein and Austria. That's as close as we've been able to pinpoint it. Someday I'll subscribe to Ancestry's Worldwide service and explore our European roots.

      My Amish ancestors were from Switzerland, and I've visited the small town where they lived in the Emmental. It was so interesting to explore the town and sad to think of the persecution that drove them away from their homes. It's a beautiful part of the world, nestled in the Swiss Alps.

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  25. What a fun post, Jan. I've uncovered some great stories in my family's history as well. Someday I'll flesh them out into novels. Someday... ;)

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    1. Thanks, Meg!

      And I know you'll get those stories written. :-)

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  26. My hubby a few decades ago merged the genelogical research he did on both our families and the tree printed out covered an entire wall. There were some interesting nuggets of family history on both sides.

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    1. Hi Jubileewriter!

      If I were you, I'd lose myself in the details on that wall! It sounds like you have a lot of story ideas in there.

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  27. I agree with LeAnne Bristow about being careful - or make sure you're ready for surprises - before digging in. My dad has been working on the family genealogy for a long time. He constantly hits snags so he's been slowly working on his parents and my mom's parents). So far we've discovered one grandparent was born out of wedlock, father unknown, and adopted by his mother's husband; another is a product of an affair, the man being a boarder and the husband being a traveling salesman; another's father had two families on opposite sides of town unknown to each other and his elder brother was actually adopted into the family when his entire family died from the Spanish Influenza epidemic; and the last was abandoned at an orphanage, surname unknown and randomly assigned. There's also a branch of the family that is massively wealthy to this day, with a huge estate in South Carolina, every descendant a doctor or lawyer, while our ancestor was the black sheep who squandered his share and most of his wife's fortune too. DNA is literally the only way my dad is getting anywhere in most of his search and it is amazing what it uncovers.

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    1. Wow! You do have a lot of twists and turns in your family history!

      Thanks for sharing!

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    2. Years ago, my husband's great-uncle moved because, two years after his wife passing, he had somehow reconnected with his high school sweetheart and they were getting married - at 80+ years old. I always wished I had been familiar enough with him to ask for their story!

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  28. What a fun post, Jan! I love genealogy and family history. When my parents passed away, I ended up with all the family history books. I have old books copied by hand from the parish registers in Switzerland, following my maternal grandparents back to the 1500s. When my grandparents came to America in the early 1900s, they paid a man to trace their lineage through the registers.

    We could be related, Jan! My grandfather's family is from Wilderswil near Interlaken, which isn't far from your Swiss people. I was able to see the house where my grandfather grew up when we visited Switzerland several years ago. It's so beautiful in that area.

    Just a note to those interested in tracing their family--if you don't want to pay for Ancestry, FamilySearch is a free site. It has fabulous resources to help you.

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    1. Those family history books are a treasure, Winnie! I'll be the keeper of our family history eventually...although I have no idea where I'm going to keep my dad's collection!

      And Switzerland is beautiful wherever you look, isn't it?

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  29. I have been writing some of my grandparents' story recently and am so excited to try out the Historic Mapworks site to see if there's a map of the town from when they met. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Have fun with your map searching, Amy!

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