So where do I get these juicy stories?
In keeping with the theme of spinning old family stories into your own fictional short stories, novellas, or full-length novels, the next question seems to be, “Where do I get the stories?” The best advice I can give to younger writers is get those stories now while there are still family members older than you are! There will come a day when you’ll find yourself among the “older” family members--and then it’s too late. I’m grateful for my own curiosity and grandparents who loved to talk!
But let’s assume you’ve waited almost too late. Are the stories gone for good? Perhaps, but story ideas can still be resurrected. Here is a list of tools to consider:
Found in local libraries and repositories such as state archives, city directories will provide you with several pieces of factual information: Staring with the first familiar street address at which your family member lived in a given year, you may find names of other people residing in that household, and often the occupation of the head of the household.
Turn this address around and search backwards to see who lived at that address when and for how long. Just like a family, a house has a history, too. If you go back far enough, you may find a time when the address was non-existent!
These days, most newspapers have been microfilmed and are stored in the genealogical section of a local library or the state archives. You’ll find a date of death, place of death, survivors, names of pre-deceased family members, former places of residence and occupations, and often tidbits of unknown information someone felt led to share just because. And, sometimes, you can ‘read between the lines’ and come up with unanswered question. Always read something more than once!
If you’re unable to travel to where the newspapers are, check with the library to see if anyone will look it up for you and send you a copy. Public libraries are often quite helpful and don’t charge for their services. Ask if the local genealogical society has anyone who does ‘look-ups’ for a nominal fee.
In most states (but not all), these are filed with the county clerk wherever the family member died. Sometimes they’re at the state level (Bureau Vital Statistics). I’ve been asked to provide information such as a mother’s maiden name to get my paws on the desired document. Call ahead to ask what’s required. A death certificate (depending on the knowledge of the informant) can tell you exactly where the person died (home, hospital, or other), cause of death, type of death (natural, suicide, homocide), parents names (including the mother’s maiden name), place of birth, and often other gems depending on what that county decided was relevant to such a document.
While you’re looking at obituaries, glance over the local/national/world news du jour. Consider how current events might have affected your family member. You might even find out he/she was somehow involved in the front page news!
Letters, Diaries, Old Family Bibles, Other Items Left Behind
If you’re fortunate enough to have access to these things, go through them with a fine tooth comb. Too many things are tossed these days, either by a surviving family member or by the deceased person who didn’t want to leave any incriminating evidence behind!
But you can draw conclusions from innocent items such as newspaper clippings. My mother left behind perhaps two dozen newspaper articles on breast cancer, which she refused to acknowledge in spite of everything. In the records section of the Bible, look for names and dates which don’t quite match up with what you’ve always thought. And diaries and letters--well, you’ve just hit the jackpot!
So there you have it. Some things are lost forever, but others can be put back together again much like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. And, despite missing pieces, you can still get a look at the picture.
Which of these tools could you use? Have you used anything besides what’s mentioned here?
Coming next week
Next week I’ll be talking in depth about Four Summer Days, the book I wrote based on an old family story. You’ll want to read three different versions of the story on Monday, cozy up with part of the first chapter on Wednesday, and finally, on Friday, learn about five characters--were the real or not?