Secret: I am totally obsessed with family research on ancestry.com. I love picking family members’ brains for memories, dates, and the vaguely remembered names of cousins. I love sifting through the scanned census records, copying out tiny details–like that my great-grandfather (a different branch, not in this photograph) worked at a cigar factory in Berks County, Pa–and patchwork piecing together generations of lives. (The two most exciting moments for me are when I either figure out how a certain couple met and fell in love–job, church, or family friend–or when I dig back far enough to figure out which generation immigrated and from where.) When I don’t have much information to go on, I love visiting the graveyards where my relatives are buried. Gravestones, in my opinion, are the greatest short stories, and I love imagining what happened in-between that birth and death date.
My great-Uncle Dick remembers where everyone is buried and took us on a little field trip to Edgewood Cemetery and Temple Road Cemetery in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, this past weekend and I was able to trace back three generations in one row of gravestones.
To me, researching family history is like learning the back story to a cast of characters; you dig and read until you understand their motivations, the turning-points, the red and black letter days in their lives. You learn their occupation, their hobbies, who they lived with, and–ofttimes a surprise–how many times they might have secretly divorced and remarried. For writers who have a difficult time fully developing their fictional characters, I think plucking someone from your own family tree is a great writing exercise. Even if you don’t think your ancestors lead terribly important or interesting lives–or perhaps they took all their secrets to the grave–thereby denying you enough materials to write an entire book (such as the super fabulous memoir, Glass Castle, and the historical-fiction-memoir-blend Half-Broke Horses, by Jeanette Walls and the less fabulous, but wonderfully titled conversation-style memoir Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness), I’m sure that there’s a family story that has been told so many times that the details are burned into your memory. It might be small–as small as the fact that my father was a lefty, but got hit by the principal of his public elementary school so many times that he became ambidextrous–but I’m sure it’s enough to inspire you to write a historical short story. When you have writer’s block, try to integrate a family story. You don’t have to imagine or think-up something believable, because it’s already done for you. You probably know your relatives better than you know your fictional characters, so use that to your advantage!
For example, there’s some mystery surrounding my maternal grandfather (see above). In the top photograph you can see him, his siblings, his father, mother, and maternal grandmother. The story goes that the mother, Theresa, ran off with another man, leaving William with four children to raise. Financially, he couldn’t do it. So he put his daughter, Viola, on a farm and put the boys in the Home for Friendless Children. It was basically an orphanage, but the Hechinger boys got treated better because their father would visit them once a week and give a little money to the Home. He didn’t like talking about it so we don’t know what daily life was like. All we know is that at one point, the three brothers ran away and never returned to the Home. We don’t know if they made it on their own, or if they moved back in with their Dad. Isn’t that story just ripe for the writing?
P.S. If you’re particularly interested in family stories, what they mean, and considering writing down all of yours, I’d highly recommend Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins, a book I’m halfway through reading and loving.