Why Private Passions Aren't Merely Writing Distractions!

By Vicki Weisfeld

The most frequent lament I hear from people who write (or want to) is “not enough time,” and I get that. A chronic time shortage has forced me into becoming a miner and a recycler. Whatever else I’m doing besides writing has to contribute in some way to my creative output. My interest in family history may seem too particular for this purpose, but it’s helped me in at least three ways.

Any topic you delve into deeply can improve your research skills. Perhaps you’re interested in botany or in the behavior of sharks. Whatever you know about them lurks somewhere in your brain, ready to be laid on the page when your fiction requires it. Meanwhile, the techniques of factual, photo, and geographic research, such as those I’ve developed working on my family history, have made the research I do for fiction both more creative and efficient.

The kind of family history I create is not merely a “tree of facts.” It tries to answer the question, What were their lives like? This is great practice for writing about fictional characters whose worlds I haven’t directly experienced. I’m a middle-class white broad. I won’t ever know exactly what it’s like to be a rural deputy sheriff, a small-town police detective, a big city architect. But my practice in imagining the lives of past family members has helped me isolate the conflicts and choices people in other situations face. These recreations can contribute to deeply imagined, authentic backgrounds for my characters if I absorb their power and make them mine.

Stories From My Family
What a lode of human stories I’ve uncovered! On my mother’s side of the family are ancestors who settled in Massachusetts when only a few hundred Europeans were there, some who stole Indian lands, brothers who served on different sides in the Civil War, a preacher who died on an Oklahoma Indian reservation. Smithville, Texas, is named for my great-great grandfather, who won the right to name the town in a coin toss.

My father’s family includes Hungarian immigrants who came to America in the early 20th century to settle in the industrial heartland, an uncle who “had a different father” from the other children, and rumors of the violence that resulted.

Mining Others’ Family Stories
But, you say, you don’t have the time or inclination to delve into your family’s past. The minutiae of family history may still help you.

What makes a set of old records useful to researchers? Digitization. Before the typewriter (1860), all records were written completely by hand. Nearly a hundred years later, the key information on many public records was still hand-written on printed forms.

To speed the massive task of digitizing these records, the free online resource FamilySearch encourages volunteers from around the world to help. Last year, in one weekend, some 116,475 people, including me, indexed more than 10 million records in multiple languages.

I entered data from hundreds of Kentucky marriage records from the 1930s and 1940s, as well as some from the 1880s—before clerks even used consistent forms. I also worked on English probate records for hundreds of people named Cox.

This work was a goldmine of plot ideas. Reading between the lines of the marriage records were some real heart-breakers. Many Ohio couples were married in the border counties of Kentucky, which had no waiting period from license to ceremony. Need for speed. Some were married by Justices of the Peace, and some in “police court.” Eyebrows raised. Notes on some records said “Please Do Not Publish.” Juicy conjecture.

On one day, a rural Ohio man divested himself of two daughters, ages 17 and 19, to U.S. Air Force men from California. You can’t help but wonder whether these fellows turned out to be as glamorous as their new wives probably believed. A few brides were only 16 and one was 15—the groom an Air Force man, age 24—with the ceremony witnessed by “John Smith (the bride’s father) and James Smith,” in my mind’s eye, holding the shotgun. In the 1880 records, many men signed their marriage licenses with an x (“his mark”); by 1950, I encountered only one record where the groom could not write his name.

The English probate records were equally tantalizing. One told how Arnold Cox, dentist, left his estate of £54 to Maude Cox, spinster (his sister?). To spend your life as a village dentist and die with only £54 to show for it seems more than a little sad. How’d that happen? I was intrigued by the number of Coxes from northern England who left bequests to Archie Cox, chemist. You’ll recall that in England a chemist is a pharmacist, and I wondered whether our Archie might have helped some of his ancient and ailing relatives along a bit.

So—research skills, empathy development, and story ideas—invaluable resources for fiction writing. Best of all, I need never feel guilty for the time I spend on family history.

Vicki Weisfeld is an award-winning short story writer with an active website (http://www.vweisfeld.com) that includes book, theater, and movie reviews, travel tips, and posts about both the creative and business side of writing. She’s also a reviewer for CrimeFictionLover.com, a UK website.


Thonie Hevron said…
Interesting post, Vicki. Research has always been almost as exciting as writing for me. To have the insight to see what you discerned from musty old records is a gift. Thanks for your ideas. Very helpful!

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