Using Geneology As a Research Tool, by Charlene Raddon

What? Using genealogy to research a historical novel? No way.

Way. Let’s say you’re writing a Civil War story. Your hero was born in the South but moved to the north as an adolescent. The skills he learned hiding out in the woods to avoid beatings from his father now serve him well as he sneaks through enemy lines to gather intelligence for the Union. The Rebs call him “that dang Yankee ghost.” So what is his name? Something that sounds Southern would be best, something strong.

On Ancestry.com, I clicked on military records, then Civil War Records and Profiles. There’s a box for selecting Confederacy or Union, then you choose the first two letters of a surname. I chose Ra because R names have a strong ring to them. My hero is now Stephen Dodson Ramseur. Or how about Winter W. Goodloe? These are actual names of men who served in the Confederate Army in the Civil War. Neither of these names might strike your fancy, but they can give you ideas, or you can keep looking.

Now, remember, names are not copyrighted. Even so, it’s wise to be cautious when using the name of a real person. After all, it might be understandable if someone became put out because you named your horrible, conscienceless villain Abe Lincoln.

More than one of the heroes in my books bears the name of a man who lived in centuries past, such as Bartholomew Noon (from Forever Mine, available at e-book stores now), and Columbus Nigh (from Tender Touch, to be released October 18, 2012).   

Stephen Dodson Ramseur’s father remained in the South and is buried there. Stephen missed the funeral but knows the old guy died of apoplexy, a common cause of death back then, better known now as a stroke, and was buried the next day. Why the next day? Doesn’t sound very respectful, does it? Well, morticians capable of embalming the dead were few and far between back then except in larger cities and towns. Plus, they cost money. So next-day burial was often a necessity.

Infant mortality was high, so old cemeteries tend to have more graves for children than for adults, although you can’t always tell because it was common to bury an infant or toddler with a parent or even a grandparent already buried. Babies lost in childbirth with their mothers were generally buried with Mom.

From death certificates you can learn the most prevalent causes of death and the terms used for them. Unfortunately, such certificates didn’t come into being until mid to late century. Birth certificates are even more difficult to find. Often, in rural areas, there was no such thing as a birth certificate. I couldn’t get one for my father when I was trying to join the DAR.

Census reports are a great place for gaining an understanding of how people lived in the second half of the nineteenth century. Until 1850, they reported only the name of the head of household and how many children of certain age groups lived there. The 1850 report, however, lists each member of the household. The later the report the more information is available. You can learn how long a couple has been married, how many marriages they had before the report, what they did for a living, how much land they owned, their yearly income, where their parents were from, who was literate and who wasn’t.

Does my Stephen Dodson Ramseur know how to read? Few people did back then, especially the women. Children often left school as soon as they were big enough to contribute some real labor to the farm or family business, so their reading abilities were not always good. It’s interesting to see which occupations list the most people who were literate. Farm families were generally at the low end of the scale. Those children were needed at home, and farms were out in the country, frequently too far away for children to attend school.

Another great research source available through genealogy societies and online sites is county history books and town newspapers. These require some time-consuming reading, but you can learn a lot about how people lived, what their social lives were like, and their activities, even how they thought.  County histories list the towns and give descriptions of the area, such as how the towns were laid out, rivers, fields, trees, etc.

Names of towns and counties were changed time and again. You don’t want to set your book in a town or county that didn’t exist then. The wise thing here is to consider inventing your own town. Hard to invent a county, though, and have it be credible, although a quick study of counties in various sections of the country will reveal numerous names that were used over and over. Lincoln County, for example. Washington County. But before you invent a Lincoln County, make sure there wasn’t one already in a different section of the state.

Histories also give biographical information on the earliest and most prominent citizens. Another great chance to learn about life in the time period, and to collect names.

Personal journals are also available through genealogy sites, and these contain a wealth of information. I once started a book set in Utah in 1857. My heroine was a young lady fresh out of finishing school that travels west to live with her father who is an officer at a post called Camp Floyd, southwest of Salt Lake City. As part of my research I acquired the journal of a soldier at that post, which gave me oodles of those tiny details that can make your story truly believable.

All of these sources are available through sites such as ancestry.com, genealogy.com, Cyndi’s List, Genealogy Bank, Archives.com, and many others. Most require paid yearly memberships. You can get around this by finding a local LDS (Mormon) Ward House that has a genealogy library. There you can use a computer to access sites like ancestry.com without having to pay a fee. The people who maintain these LDS Ward House libraries are usually canny about doing genealogy research and free with their valuable advice. If you need a record that is housed at the main LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City, these small local libraries can order a copy for you to study.

I’m only an amateur genealogist, but If you have questions about genealogy research, I’ll be happy to do my best to answer them, or to find someone who can.

Now, I need to excuse myself so I can write down all the plot ideas that came to me while writing this. Stephen Dodson Ramseur is going to be a very busy, very sexy, and courageous young man. Hmm, who is going to be my heroine? Looks like I need to peruse my personal genealogy, or pay another visit to ancestry.com.

How much do you know about your own genealogy?

Charlene is giving away a copy of Forever Mine (excerpt below). All you have to do is leave a comment for her.

 

Charlene’s webpage

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Charlene Raddon’s love of the old west drove her to start writing historical romance novels over thirty years ago. Her first completed book was a time travel, unsalable at the time, and had not yet sold, but she’s reworking it now and hopes to have it available soon. Her second book was a Golden Heart Finalist under the title BRIANNA. Between 1994 and 1999 she had five books published by Kensington Book’s Zebra imprint. Her most popular book, FOREVER MINE, received high ratings and a Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award nomination. This book is now available as an e-book, and Charlene will be giving away a free copy today to a random winner. Here is a blurb and excerpt:

THEIR LOVE WAS FATED…

A mail-order bride from Cincinnati, Ariah Scott had traveled all the way to Oregon to marry one man…only to lose her heart to another. What would become of her now? Ever since her father died at the hands of a vengeful relative, Ariah’s life had been shadowed by dark secrets. And now her forbidden desire for Bartholomew Noon filled her with uncertainty—and a secret longing that could never be fulfilled.

AND FORBIDDEN…

From the moment Bartholomew saw Ariah at the Portland train station, the keeper of the Cape Meares Light was lost. Hopelessly in love with this angelic beauty who was fated to live beside him at the isolated lighthouse as another man’s wife, Bartholomew never dreamed that destiny would someday bring them together. Would Ariah truly be the woman he could cherish…forever?

FOREVER MINE  – Excerpt

Ariah. The name suited her. Light and airy. Perfect for a nymph. He struggled to regain his composure and remember what he was about.

Around them, passengers continuing on to Goble, where train and all would be ferried across the Columbia River before resuming the journey to Seattle, were boarding the train. Soon the platform would be empty except for porters and employees of the Union and Northern Pacific Railroads. And Bartholomew suddenly realized he too was eager to be away; he could not wait to have Miss Ariah Scott to himself.

Bartholomew glanced at Miss Scott, wondering if she could be one of fate’s tricks. Something niggled at his memory. He shrugged it away.

“Miss Scott, if you’ll point out the rest of your baggage, I’ll get it loaded while you and your friend finish your good-byes. We’ve a long way to go.”

“Oh, yes, of course.” She gestured to two small crates and a large trunk. “That’s it there.”

            Bartholomew shouldered the trunk as though it contained nothing more than bird feathers, holding it in place with one arm while he squatted to pick up one of the crates.

As he put space between himself and the two women, he chuckled silently, remembering how he had wondered what he would do with the girl during the four long days of the journey home. There was no doubt about what he wanted to do. His hands ached with the need to stroke that smooth, velvet flesh, to explore and discover its secret contours. Thinking about it, four days no longer seemed enough.

He set the crate alongside the boxed-up fancy rosewood étagère Hester had insisted he buy her, and lowered the trunk onto the wagon bed.

Hester. Bartholomew’s fantasy about Ariah burst like the seed head of a giant dandelion, scattered by the wind.

Hester was his wife—till death do us partno matter how much he might wish things different. And Ariah Scott belonged to Pritchard.

His shoulders sagged under guilt as ponderous as a steam engine. He rested his arms on the sideboard, braced his forehead on a fist, and tried to banish the image of the girl’s sweet tempting mouth, so lush, so—

A warm hand closed over his arm. “Are you all right, Mr. Noon? Is there anything I can do for you?”

Bartholomew looked down to see Ariah Scott standing only a kiss away, gazing up at him with those unbelievable forget-me-not blue irises, her luscious lips moist and parted, her concerned expression sweetly, guilelessly intent.

And he plummeted into hell.

FOREVER MINE available at:

http://www.tirgearrpublishing.com

http://www.amazon.com

http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/207071

and all other e-book stores

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Blogger
Updated: September 17, 2012 — 12:31 pm

42 Comments

  1. Genealogy is incredibly interesting. I’ve been working on my tree for a couple of years now. Sadly I haven’t come across any wild west residents (most are British), but I have been able to find military records of great (etc) grandfathers including unit diaries. One line I’ve tracked back to the 17th century. Another stalls out in the early 1800’s, and due to the fire in the Irish records office, I’m not sure I’ll be able to go back any further than that.

    Tip: If you get stuck trying to work out who the parents of someone might have been (ie your great-grandfather’s parents), research his siblings. Their marriage, death and/or birth certificates (or entries in newspapers) can sometimes give a key nugget of information.

    It’s very easy to get sidetracked, I’ve spent ages reading about people who aren’t at all related. Something about them has caught my eye, when their name/story has been on the same page as the person I’m researching at the time.

    I’d never thought about using genealogy for writing research, but it would offer a wealth of information! Can’t wait to read more about Stephen Dodson Ramseur!

  2. Hi Charlene! Welcome to Petticoats & Pistols. Genealogy is such a rich source of names, personal history, and the details that make a character come to life. A reader once emailed and asked where I got a particular heroine’s name, because the name was *her* name. Also, the hero in “Kansas Courtship” is Zeb Garrison. The great-great-great granddaughter of a real Zeb Garrison contacted me with the hope of gleaning more info. Fun stuff!

  3. Hi Charlene,
    I loved your post, so interesting. I am excited to meet you and learn of another historical romance author. Can’t wait to read your books, I love mail-order brides AND time travel.

  4. Fascinating blog, Charlene. I know how much you love genealogy. I also know firsthand what a wonderful writer you are. So glad books like Forever Mine and Tender Touch are available for readers. They are such great stories.

    With more than 300 million people in the U.S. it’s almost impossible to find a name that isn’t in use. I once called my heroine Molly Ivins, the name of a well-known political columnist. Didn’t realize what I’d done till my son saw the book and pointed it out. Never did hear from Molly, who has since passed on.

  5. I love that you talked about this subject. I’m the reference and genealogy librarian in a small-town library and help people research their family trees frequently.

    You’re so right. Local histories, newspapers, census records, etc., are treasure troves of historical information, story ideas and sources for names. I love it. I’m constantly printing off stories from the microfilm newspapers to file away for future stories. 🙂

  6. What an interesting way to pick out a name for a character in a book.

    I love mailorder bride stories! I’d love to find out what happens in Ariah and Bart’s lives!

  7. What an interesting post. I enjoyed the excerpt greatly and your book sounds captivating and special. Time travel is enthralling and your writing is wonderful. Congratulations and best wishes.

  8. Hi Charlene! Welcome to the Junction. We’re so happy to have you blog with us. And what an interesting subject. I could spend so much time doing genealogy but I have to limit myself or I wouldn’t get any writing done. But I love the history and the fascinating tidbits I always uncover. Another place I like to get my names from is on tombstones in cemeteries.

    Absolutely love the cover for Forever Mine. It’s great. And the excerpt sure hooked me. Wishing you lots of luck.

  9. Hi Charlene, what a wonderful post. We’re so happy to welcome you to Wildflower Junction today. Gorgeous cover and intriguing excerpt!

    I am eager to start researching my ancestry. Prompted mostly by a treasure trove of old family pictures. Maybe that will be my new years resolution for 2013.

  10. P.s. I think my family thinks I’m a tad weird because I love visiting old cemeteries.

  11. Charlene,welcome, an what a interesting post,,never knew a lot of that information,so thanks for sharing with us

  12. Wow, I’m thrilled with all the comments I’ve gotten already. Thank you, everyone. I would have liked to have replied individually, but didn’t tune in on time. Today, my husband’s favorite aunt turned 100 and there’s a huge party for her at her cabin in the mountains. Fortunately it’s close enough I can run back and forth a few times to join in on the fun here at P&P. When the date for today’s blog was set, we didn’t know about the party, and she’d said she didn’t want one.

    OZKNITTER, thanks for the tip. I’m afraid I’ve already done all the research I could on both my great-grandfather and the only sibling we know of, a brother. The only thing I haven’t done yet is hire a pro, and I may do that yet.

    VICTORIA, how fun that a descendant of the man whose name you used contacted you. I would love that.

    TANYA. Wish you lived near me. We could go cemetery hopping together. I love touring them also but hate going alone. Most of my ancestors are from Missouri, so I went there a few years ago and a cousin and I went all over doing genealogy and visiting cemeteries. So fun and interesting. I took a million photos and posted them on findagrave.com.

    Thank you all so much.

  13. Charlene, the book sounds amazing! My mother spent many years tracking down our family’s roots and I even had an idea of writing an historical romance based loosely on the family history. Your article has resparked that idea. I keep telling myself I won’t write another historical romance, but I have to admit that it’s hard for me to keep away from them. Good luck! Dellani

  14. Hi Charlene! Genealogy can be so much more meaningful when you research the timeline, the history of the area, and even the political climate of the country at the time, don’t you think? One reason it is so hard to find information on many of our relatives is, like you said, many were illiterate and couldn’t keep the records. So, if you have that information and think, “I wonder what their story was…” you can write a book and choose your story to suit!

  15. Dellani, you should defiitely write that historical based on your genealogy. I think you’d find it amazing fun. Keep me posted about it, ok?

  16. Hi, Pat. You’re right about illiteracy being part of the problem in doing genealogy, but so many people were illiterate back then. I know my great-grandfather could write. I have a photocopy of entries he made in the family bible. With him, it almost seems like either he and his brother didn’t know anything about their parents (maybe they died when the boys were very young), or they didn’t want people to know their history. Supposedly his mother was Indian, something people considered shameful at the time. Who knows. But I hope I solve the mystery one of these days.

  17. Speaking as a military historian, I strongly recommend against the use of Stephen Dodson Ramseur as a name for your hero since the real Major General Ramseur is a very, very well-known historical figure. He was one of the youngest generals in the Confederacy and was called “Lee’s Boy Artilerist.” He fought with distinction in the Peninsula Campaign, at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the Wilderness.

    Do not…again I caution you do NOT…use his name. He’s just too well known.

  18. “Artillerist.” Sorry.

  19. Thanks for that information, Shay. I would have researched the name further if I decided I really wanted to use it, so I would hopefully have discovered Ramseur was well known. But now I won’t have to. As a military historian, do you know of any military records that would include the names of a soldier’s parents or where he was from?

  20. Wow that is truly interesting… I have always wanted to look into my family’s history, but never actually did it.

  21. The best way to research your family, Colleen, is to join ancestry.com. Unfortunately that, costs money. There are some sites that can help that don’t change. Findagrave.com, for instance. You can find out when your ancestor was born, when he/she died, where-if you’re lucky-and sometimes even find photos of them someone posted. Of course you learn where they’re buried as well. I’ve made contacts with other distant family members through FAG which were helpful too. State, county and town historical societies can be very helpful, and as I said, look for books on county and town histories. Try it, you’ll get addicted. Let me know how you do.

  22. Your blog on using geneology was very helpful. You mentioned several kinds of information which are available, while I usually think of
    “geneology” as a lot of names and some dates. Thanks for making me “think” of other uses for such research—and all the places I can go to access it!

  23. Thanks, Brenda. Now go research your family 🙂

  24. Charlene, what a wonderful and informative blog. I didn’t know there was any way you could find geneology without paying some major bucks. You gave some very helpful advice about other resources like the census. I never thought the census would be a good resource until you explained what could be taken from it.
    I have used family history and used real town names because I knew they were there back then. For my western series, I used a fictitious town just so I could make up things about it without having to research for just the right place. I figure, if Tenneesee Williams can do, I probably can, too. LOL
    Forever Mine looks like a lovely story.
    All the best to you, Charlene.

  25. What a great idea for sourcing names. I’ve used name origin sites and books to find out when a name was used and how popular it was at different times (John and Mary make the top ten lists for most times). For contemporary surnames, I use our local phone book. Fortunately, being a university town, Guelph has diverse names to choose from. I’m thinking if I used census or military records, I’d mix and match first and last names so I wouldn’t have Abe Lincoln as character, but maybe Ulysses Lincoln, or Abe Grant… hmm, I rather like Abe Grant.

  26. Thanks, Sarah. Making up towns does give you more leeway to have it the way you want it. Play God, sort of. Which is one of the best things about writing, I think.

  27. Hi Charlene! Welcome to Wildflower Junction today. This post is just fabulous. Lots of good tips in here! My aunt has done a lot of genealogy research from my mom’s side of the family. I actually had a grx4 grandfather whose name was Columbus. That must have been pretty popular back in the day. These books of yours look wonderful, too–my TBR list grows ever longer. LOL
    Cheryl

  28. Hello Charlene, Long time no see! You helped me a great deal in earlier years when I was learning the craft of historical romance. That was about three books back (LEADVILLE LADY, Gale/Cengage 2006). Historical research is so fascinating! I’ve tried going back past 1850 to find more info on my great great grandfather (maternal), a Capt. Peter Carr from Edington, ILL., some years ago, and ran into blank wall. Must try again.
    Now, I’m writing western contemporary romance. Just love your cover art for FOREVER MINE! Looking into ebook publishing as well. You are an inspiration, my dear. All best!

  29. Cheryl, thanks. Genealogy is really fascinating. So far, I haven’t used much that I’ve learned about ancestors in my books, except for To Have And To Hold which I expect to see released next January. The heroine lives in a dugout and I used stories my mother told me about living in such homes.Fun stuff.

  30. Leslee. We really need to get caught up. Why contempoary, why not historical? Have you had anything out since Leadville Lady? Write me.

  31. Charlene,

    Interesting post. Using genealogy is such a great tool for writing, but I never thought to use it for finding names. Thank you for the tip.

  32. You’re welcome, Kirsten. Thanks for the comment.

  33. Great post, I am sorry to say that I have not read your work before but must change that. I love mail order bride stories so will be looking for this one. Thanks for sharing with us today.

  34. Charlene, I often come away from a burial with a list of names from surrounding headstones. 🙂

  35. Hi Charlene, HOpe I’m not too late. Loved your post today. Had company all day and just now got to go online. I have been doing genealogy for over 50 years on my Mother’s side. I have been able to trace to the 1500’s where a sea capton and his son in law were both killed on Barbados in 1534. And that’s all I have! Great story if I could find out more. Makes the mind wander, too. My problem is I love research. Sometimes I get too carried away and forget what I started looking for. Good luck on your book. Sounds great.

  36. That’s the trick with research Mary J, knowing when to stop. But it sounds like you have a good story there. If you can’t find enough research about them, make it up. And good luck.

  37. Charlene, if you know a soldier’s regiment, you can look up the regimental history which will usually give the dates and the towns where the companies in the regiment were raised. Most states have online Civil War rosters that are a good place to start.

    Whew! After I posted it occurred to me that I was being just a tad officious, and I’m glad you didn’t take offense.

    Ramseur is an old Huguenot name and not uncommon in the Carolinas. Your hero could still be a Ramseur but name him Godfrey or Hector or something (General Ramseur was known as “Dod,” btw).

  38. Oh, I wanted to add that there were a lot of Civil War soldiers from what is now known as the Midwest (during the CW, the states of Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, etc, were called the West), who emigrated there as children from the Southern states. Three of the four regimental commanders of the Army of the Potomac’s famous Iron brigade were born in the South and grew up in Wisconsin and Indiana.

    That they might be fighting kinfolks was something they realized and accepted as part of the cost of war.

  39. I ha never heard of the sites you’re referring to, but they sound very interesting!
    I would love to make my family tree, but unfortunatly that would be very hard because both my grandmother and grandfather were illegitimate. So I don’t know anything about their fathers. 🙁

  40. Enjoyed reading the comments. i know bit about my lineage but would like to spend time learning more.
    Your book sounds really interesting.

  41. Stephanie, you might be able to find adoption papers for your grandparents. Also, check ancestry.com for family trees that include your grandparents and you may find one that also lists their biological parents. It’s even possible that the true parents might be listed on their death certificates, if they knew who their parents were or the person giving the information for the death certificate knew. There are ways to get past that wall. Don’t give up.

  42. Thank you everyone, for having me on Petticoats and Pistols and for visiting and commenting on the blog. I appreciate you all and enjoyed my visit here. I hope I can do it again sometime.

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