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.
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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.
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 part—no 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:
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