Friday, October 9, 2015

Old family stories--just go looking!

Resource #1
A) Listen. You’ll hear more than you dare tell (or write). It’s true every family closet has its skeleton or perhaps an entire family of them.
B) Ask questions. Someone is bound to tell you more than you should know. Keep in mind some of it may all be lies or at least embellished.

Resource #2
A) Get your hands on the oldest family Bible you can find. Turn to the middle section which lists births, marriages, and deaths. You may turn up a name you don’t recognize or a date that’s out of whack.
B) See B) in Resource #1.

Resource #3
A) Ask the family historian (every family has one) about their family’s war service. Go for broke--ask about the Civil War first. Keep in mind, if you’re asking someone about his own service, take your cue from him. He may prefer not to talk about it. Don’t push.
B) Unfortunately, all the sites advertised as “free” when you do an internet search are NOT free. You can search free, but the records themselves are held for ransom. Try to locate discharge papers and draft cards. Find a library/local genealogical group which grants free access to such genealogical research sites as and go from there.

Resource #4
A) Look through old picture albums. If the pictures aren’t labeled, take them to the oldest living member of the family and ask if he/she can identify people and places (especially houses).
B) Search the internet for information about the places. Check out that county’s genealogical page. You might find a familiar name.

Resource #5
A) Visit cemeteries where family members are buried. Older cemeteries are best. Sometimes markers reveal a wealth of information about the person.
B) In most states, death certificates weren’t kept until the early 1900s. Verify when they were kept in whichever county you’re interested in. If you can show relationship to the person whose death certificate you want to see or show cause for seeing it, you will find information such as the cause of death--which sometimes spawns more unanswered questions. (Most county clerks won’t charge you for a non-certified copy--or at least, not very much. Keep in mind, sometimes these records don’t reside locally but rather with the state, and the state Bureau of Vital Statistics isn’t always easy to deal with.)

A Word of Caution
Please don’t write true/tell-all stories about the recently deceased. Someone is bound to take offense, and rightly so. Besides, it’s not nice.
Even if you are writing about the long-dead, disguise names and places and skew your facts a little. It’s the right thing to do.
Be creative. If you’re a genealogist, like Sgt. Joe Friday you only want “just the facts”, but as a writer, you can take a little and do a lot.  That’s what writers do, isn’t it?

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

"Stained" - A Short Story

a short story spun off from the main story
which inspired Four Summer Days

Like dry branches against the eaves of the house, the bristles scraped the wooden floor. Ella’s mind drifted free from the reality of her swollen belly and the cramping that had come regularly since dawn. This had to be done. Only when the stains disappeared from the wooden floor, would her soul be cleansed.  Ma said the past, like the blood stains, couldn’t be washed away. They’d all tried, but Ella knew that someday she would make it happen.
A cramp, harder and lasting longer than the others, doubled her over until her face almost touched the soapy floor. “Sorrell! Bring me another bucket of water,” she called when she could speak.
From the corner where he’d been watching, the boy uncoiled his lanky frame and fetched the second bucket, already drawn and waiting, from the porch. “I’ll do that, Ella Ann.”
She shook her head. “Almost done.”
“Ella Ann, I’m going for Andrew.”
“Not yet.” She plunged the pig-bristle brush into the fresh water. A wave of pain forced her forehead to the edge of the bucket. She groaned.
Sorrell tried to take the brush from her hand. “Stop it.” He tried to lift her to her feet, but she fought him until he was afraid she’d hurt the child inside her. “I’m going,” he repeated.
She breathed deeply and began to scrub again. So much blood. She’d never seen so much blood, even when Ma had birthed the twins and, later, Garvey Lee. But that night it had poured from the man’s shredded chest and bubbled out of his mouth, spreading across the floor until it lapped the edges of the new rag rug she’d finished only that morning.
She backed up on her knees to look at the wooden floor. Maybe this time.  Maybe when the floor dried, it would be clean again.
Ma had washed the rug and put it back down, but they all knew what it hid.
The pain came again, causing her to roll to the side and draw her knees against her belly. “Ma…Ma…” But her mother had put the little girls in the wagon early that morning and gone down the mountain to Uncle Austin and Aunt Rose. “Don’t need to hear you birthin’,” she’d said.
Ella remembered all the birthings in the house, though she’d only been five when Sorrell was born. The night he came, and again when Tilford was born three years later, she’d curled herself into a tight ball beneath the kitchen table and covered her ears with her hands. No matter what she did, the sounds coming from the downstairs bedroom kept on.
When Ruby and Ruth were born, and then Garvey Lee, she’d been big enough to help out, running errands for the midwife, making dinner for her brothers, keeping an eye peeled for her stepfather…and praying that somewhere in the darkness, he’d met with death instead of enjoying himself in the warmth of the tavern in the valley below.
Each time she’d vowed she’d never get herself into the same fix, but she had. She’d become aware of Andrew as more than just the boy from the next farm, and he’d promised her everything. Coming to live at the farm to help Ma and her and the younger boys. Building them a house of their own within hollering distance of the one in which two generations of her family had seen the light of day. He’d done the first and begun work on the second. Meanwhile, almost from the first time they’d been together, his child grew in her belly.
“I don’t want to be like Ma,” she told Andrew. “She was only eighteen. Papa was an old man.”
“He was rich.”
“Don’t matter.”
“Maybe she loved him.”
“I don’t know. Never hardly talked.”
“Well, they made four young-uns.”
Ella Ann flushed. “That’s nasty.”
“Ella Ann, that’s what married folks do. We been married a month, and you let me in your bed, but that’s all.”
She turned her back to him. “And the other one. Gave her three more and…”
“I know about Garvey Kane. Wasn’t no good anyway. Never understood why your ma took up with him.”
“He came strutting around here in that fancy uniform with the gold braid and buttons…”
“How’d he get that rig anyway? Never saw a Reb that wasn’t ragged, not around here anyway.”
“I don’t know. Don’t care.”
“And don’t care he’s gone.”
“No.” She spat the word, then wiped the spray from her lips with the sleeve of her nightdress.
“Ella Ann, I ain’t like that, but I’m a man, and I need…”
“Don’t want no babies. Not now anyway.”
He turned her back toward him and fumbled with the buttons on her nightdress. “Ella Ann…”
When she pushed him away, he grabbed for her and, ignoring her weeping protest, took what he deemed his rights.
Now he stood over her as she writhed on the floor. “Your Ma’ll  be back soon,” he soothed her, lifting her in his sweaty arms. “I’ll get you to bed.”
“Why’s she scrubbing the floor?” she heard him ask Sorrell as he carried her upstairs. “Just scrubbed it yesterday.”
She wasn’t sure if Sorrell answered or not, because she could only hear herself groaning.
Morning turned into afternoon as she twisted on the bed. Sometimes she thought her brother John was trying to comfort her as he had that night in the barn. Other times she felt Garvey Kane on top of her and heard him laughing as she begged him not to hurt her again.
Andrew hadn’t hurt her, and somehow he hadn’t known about her. As time went on, before she knew she was with child, he’d coaxed her along, telling her that things could be good between them. Eventually, they almost were.
She opened her eyes during a brief respite from the agony and discerned a tenderness in his eyes as he wiped her face with a cool cloth. “I’m sorry, Ella Ann.”
Before she could reply, her belly tightened again. Above her screams, she heard the door open and recognized her mother’s firm step. “She’s in a bad way,” Andrew said.
Behind her mother, she heard Sorrell say, “She was scrubbing the damned floor again.”
“Get out,” Emma Tilford Harkins Kane said. “I’ll tend her.”
Suddenly, she wanted Andrew to stay and managed to say so. “Then I’m here,” he said. “I’m here, Ella Ann.”
She grabbed for his hand with the same desperation that John had grasped the pitchfork leaning against the empty stall where Garvey Kane had tossed her as he unbuttoned his pants. When her mother pushed her knees up and apart for a look, she screamed,  “Don’t! I’ll tell!”
“What’s she talking about?” Andrew asked.
“She’s crazy out of her head with pain,” Emma snapped.
She’d never heard the words coming out of John’s mouth as he advanced on them. For one terrifying moment, she thought he was going to kill her, too. She managed to roll away from Garvey and scramble to her feet.
“I’ll kill you,” John muttered between gritted teeth. “By God, I’ll kill you.”
He’d tried, but Garvey twisted the pitchfork out of his hands and then doubled his fist and knocked  John against the wall before he strode out of the barn, laughing. She wiped the blood from her brother’s mouth. “He’ll kill you, John. He’ll kill all of us. He told me so.”
Together they stumbled across the dark yard toward the house. Half-way there, they heard the yelling and the sound of Garvey Lee wailing. She felt John go rigid and tugged at his sleeve. “Don’t, John. It’s done. He’ll…” But John was already on the porch.
She was never sure what happened before she reached the door. She heard the gunshot, felt the dull, heavy vibration of a body falling, saw Ruth clinging to the doorframe and scooped her up. Inside, her mother stood with Papa’s shotgun dangling from her fingers.
Then John jerked it away and brought the stock down on Garvey Kane’s face again and again until it was unrecognizable. Blood spattered her mother’s skirt and John’s arms, and she thought she tasted it briefly on her own lips.
Something warm and wet oozed between her thighs the way it had that night. Blood. Always blood.
“They’ll come looking for him when he doesn’t go back to his company,” her mother said.
 “They won’t find him,” John said.
It took the three of them together to drag him out, leaving a trail of blood behind. Ella Ann retched all the way across the yard.  She  went back for a lantern to set on the floor of the smokehouse where John said he could dig the hole deep enough.
The next morning John packed his clothes, took the shotgun, and said he was going. “You’re only fourteen,” their mother said.
“Rebs are taking anybody they can get. You say I left two days ago. He left this morning.”
They never saw him again, and no one came looking for Garvey Kane. Emma told everyone he’d died in the last days of fighting.
If Sorrell and Tilford knew what happened that night---and Ella Ann didn’t see how they could have kept from hearing in the lean-to where they slept---they never said. Only her exaggerated startling at loud noises hinted that the night remained in Ruth’s memory. For three years, all of them took turns scrubbing the floor daily, sometimes twice, but the stains never even faded. Not to Ella Ann’s eye anyway.
She saw daylight through the gauzy curtains. “Tell Sorrell to fetch me a bucket of water,” she said.
Andrew leaned over her. “What?”
Emma said, “Bear down,” and pressed on Ella Ann’s belly.
Ella Ann screamed, then strained even though she tried not to. By mid-morning, she thought of how she could be out of her misery under the smokehouse floor, though if Garvey had killed her, she’d be in the Rawlins Cemetery down the hill. “You killed him, and you’re killing me!” she moaned because she had no more strength to scream.
“What’s she talking about?” Andrew asked. Ella Ann thought he looked slightly sick.
“Nothing. Bear down, girl.”
“I can’t do it. I’m dying. He should’ve finished me then.” She began to tear at her face and tasted blood.
Emma slapped her. “It’ll be over, if you’ll quit whining and get it out.”
Ella Ann’s tears almost soothed her stinging cheek. She strained once more and felt the baby shoot out of her.
“It’s a boy,” Andrew said to no one in particular.
Ella Ann closed her eyes. “John. His name is John.”
The baby suckled her breast as she stood in front of the smokehouse. “You’ve been down here everyday since you got up,” Andrew said over her shoulder. “Why?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“You know. I’m the one who doesn’t know anything, but I’ve been thinking about what you said while you were birthing John.”
“What did Ma tell you?”
“Then I’m telling you nothing.” She felt the baby go limp with sleep and buttoned her loose-fitting waist that she still wore even though she could fit into her dresses again.
“Something to do with Garvey Kane. I know that much.”
She didn’t reply.
“What happened to him, Ella Ann?  Did your ma kill him like you said?”
“He killed me.” She watched Andrew consider her words for a long while before she knew he understood them.
She shrugged again and handed him the baby.”
“I’m going in now. I’ve got to wash the floor.”

While this is a rather "dark" story, it is in keeping with the time in which it is set. The book itself is very different. Look for the first chapter of 
coming in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, come back for The Friday Five in which you'll discover five resources for finding old family stories to inspire new fiction!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

You meet the nicest people. . .

October at The Word Place
The theme for October at The Word Place is “Family History as Story Sources”. There’s method in my madness, of course, as I hope to release Four Summer Days, a story built around a family tragedy in 1876, at the end of this month.
And, today is “Do Something Nice Day”, so to finish the title of this first October blog, “You meet the nicest people when you’re doing genealogical research”.
I used to pack the pop-up camper and stuff two little boys in the K-5 Blazer and take off to hunt ancestors. Let’s face it--they were raised in cemeteries and courthouses, which marked them for life. They are still genealogically-inclined.
Alabama, 1984 (or thereabouts)
One summer we went to the county in Alabama where my maternal ancestors landed after migrating from South Carolina. The old courthouse records were in sorry shape, but we were given carte blanche. I knocked an empty dirt dauber’s nest from one cardboard box which I lifted down from a high shelf at risk of life and limb.
Then, someone pointed me in the direction of another person trying to salvage all these ancestral treasures, and I took off. It was a small town, so I had no problem finding the house. On the way up the walk, my oldest son who was perhaps 11 or 12 kept saying, “But, Mom, we don’t know her.” I replied we were going to and kept walking!
Not only did we turn out to be distantly related, she had “liberated” a box of documents and brought them home to restore before they crumbled into dust. She showed me how she literally ironed the creases out of some of the old papers. I mentioned I’d love to have copies and would gladly pay for them, but no copy machine existed locally for public use.
I’d mentioned we were camped about 15 miles away in another county where there was a library. She looked at me for a few minutes before saying, “Well, take them with you and make copies there.”
“But you don’t know me!” I gasped. “These documents are irreplaceable.”
She indicated she trusted me and sent me packing. (They were returned to her in pristine condition the very next day, by the way.)
Arkansas, 2003 (or thereabouts)
Years later, the same son (now an adult) left me sifting through more old documents in another state while he took off to meet someone else we’d been told had information. He didn’t worry about “not knowing” the man--he just went. He’d learned his lesson, I suppose, that summer in Alabama.
Most genealogists are nice folks who want to help other folks. Most of us are a polite sort who approach county clerks with the knowledge they are doing current business, and we need to wait our turn and stay out of the way. Most of us don’t complain if we’re asked in other places like archives to divest ourselves of purses and briefcases and take with us only a pencil, some paper, and change for the copy machine. And, in places which aren’t as secure, most of us would never dream of making off with original documents and excuse the blatant theft with, “Oh, these concern my family. No one else will want them.” We leave nothing behind in cemeteries but footprints.
Genealogists, who are also writers, take away not only documented information but also, when facts can’t be verified, flickerings of ideas for fictional stories. I wrote Four Summer Days about my paternal grandfather’s family. I had a few facts and three separate stories of what made him shoot and kill his stepfather. A short story, “Stained”, which incorporates one of three non-witnessed stories, will be published on the blog something this month.
Hope springs eternal
A genealogist never loses hope she’ll find the answers she’s looking for.
A genealogist who is also a writer never loses an opportunity to turn shadowy, unproven facts into fiction.  

Look again. Did you miss the blood stain?

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The best laid plans. . .often turn into more!

What started out as a 40K word novella is moving toward a full-length novel. Ruthann’s War was going to be a ‘fun write’--a break from the hard work of putting together two series in three years. The Penelope Pembroke Cozy Mystery Series spun into six books, while The Dreamland Series wound up with only three (thank goodness!). With a book and a sequel needing to be formatted for publication, I decided I’d earned some R&R, which for me meant some no-stress-no-pressure tale spinning. Hence, the idea for Ruthann’s War.

The entire point of the new story was to give ‘blogging a book’ a try. I’d done it before with plenty of views but then ended up taking it down and making it book #1 of a series. This was going to be just for fun, you understand. Alas, as the poet Robert Burns wrote prophetically, The best laid plans o’ mice and men gang aft a-gley. And mine did.

Oh, yes, I brought in the finished story quickly and under 50K words, but in the process I fell love with the two MCs--Ruthann and Jeff--and I couldn’t give them short shrift. So the revisions began, and I added a bit here and a bit there, and I’m still at it!

Ruthann  Her fiance died when his B-17 went down over Germany in 1943. She doesn’t want to admit it was just a wartime romance, but now she can barely remember him. When she arrives for her first teaching position in Camden, she meets Jeff and sets off a storm of controversy in the small town.

Jeff  A German shell knocked him head over heels during the war to end all wars years before Ruthann was born. He’s held onto the ruined leg and a past which haunts him. One look at Ruthann convinces him he’s finally ready to move forward to being more than just the superintendent of the Camden Schools.

Joan is devoted to the father who raised her, she’s not ready to give him up to anyone--much less Ruthann who’s only a year older than she is. And she’s not ready to confess her secrets to her father either.
Rena  doesn’t hide her ethnic background because she’s ashamed of it but because other people wouldn’t see her as the same person if they knew the truth. She owes Jeff for her narrow escape from a mistake that might have shattered her life, and she knows Ruthann is right for him.
Julia  helped Jeff raise Joan and has hidden the truth about them for  years. But her desire for revenge against the person who took the love of her life may explode a ticking time bomb.
Merle takes what she wants and doesn’t care about the wreckage she leaves behind. And she wants Jeff.
Nathan knows Merle killed his brother no matter what the coroner’s jury ruled, and he’s not going to live the rest of his life with justice denied.
Ricardo Cabrera  didn’t have the chance for an education as the son of impoverished immigrants, but his ability to run the school plant and fix anything that goes wrong has earned him the respect of the entire faculty and staff. But he can’t fix what someone is doing to Ruthann and Jeff.
Tomas Cabrera did his duty for Uncle Sam and returned to enter law school at the University of Texas. He has a bright future, but his heart is in Camden with the girl he’s loved since sixth grade.

Coming Soon. . .Somewhere. . .Watch for it!