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.
|Military Registration Card|
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.
|Civil War Pension Record|
A few of the heroes in my books bear 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. Note the 1900 census report here. Enlarge and see all that you can learn about people there. 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.
On the 1870 census, you'll notice there is less information, but still enough to be helpful.
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?
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