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    Writing a Novel From Your Family History

    As we research our family history, we often find fascinating people and exciting incidents. Sometimes these can be turned into stories for publication...either for our families to read or for the general public, too.

    We do need to be careful, when writing these stories for general readership, that we don't invade the privacy of family and ancestors. Generally, when we write about people of another century, there is no problem.

    But I usually try to take tidbits from their lives to act as a springboard for my story. Then I don't need to follow their lives exactly but can fictionalize to drive my story forward.

    Research the Setting

    In the research of my family, I've come up with many people and incidents that would serve as ideas for novels for youngsters or adults. As you discover your ancestors, research the setting and the era.

    • Check out historical information you may find on the Internet.
    • Look for books of regional history.
    • See what you can find about living conditions and dress of that era.
    • Look for old letters and journals, either those of your ancestors or other people. These will give you the language/speech of the era and personal insights. These will help you with conversations and with letters or diaries you may have your characters write.
    • Read novels others have written based on their ancestors to see how they treated family history information.

    Story Ideas

    Some of the characters I've found in my personal research have stimulated my imagination.

    Great great grandmother Cynthia was widowed when in her 40s, during the mid-1800s, and left with eight living children. (Three others had died.) The older four were married and able to care for themselves. The four younger boys were living with her.

    She decided to leave their home in New York State and move almost halfway across the United States, west to Illinois. I learned about her struggles as she and the boys homesteaded, lived in a log cabin, raised crops, and tried to pay off her husband's debts.

    Eventually two of her sons fought in the United States Civil War. Little by little, I learned about her life and found where she is buried. She has impressed me with her strength of character and her determination to meet life's challenges and raise her children after her husbandís death.

    This story also could be told from the viewpoint of the youngest boy, James, whose father drowns. He accompanies his mother and brothers to live on a pioneer farm in the midwest. His older two brothers go off to war while he stays on the farm with his mother.

    Great, great grandmother Olive's family lived during the Civil War, too. Three sons/brothers/ uncles fought in the war. One ancestor was a widower with two young children. He remarried so his children had someone to look after them while he was away.

    How did the children adjust to this? How did they react to his being taken prisoner during the war? What was life like at home for them? I'm developing a story for youngsters, "Papa Goes to War," based on these characters and incidents, telling it from the viewpoint of the 10-year old girl whose father goes to war and leaves her and her brother with a stepmother.

    My mom, as a young school teacher in the 1920s, took her first position in a town 50 miles away. She'd never been that far from home and as a 19-year old had students only seven years younger than she.

    Mother also met the man who eventually would be her husband. She told me stories about her experiences and wrote me letters about them when she learned I was interested in family history. I shall tell her story in non-fiction form for her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. However, this could become a work of fiction, too.

    Other ancestors escaped from England during religious wars in the late 1600s. The father, a minister, and mother had some of their children sail on another ship with friends so the authorities wouldn't detect that the family was leaving. Their adventures before leaving England, experiences on shipboard, reunion in the new country, and setting up a new life could be fraught with all types of interesting incidents in a novel.

    As you research your family history, look at the ordinary people you discover. Their stories, although not well known in the history books, tell of people with many types of experiences and adventures. You'll find you have material for exciting children's and adult stories. I'd enjoy learning about the stories you find and write.

    Copyright © 2001 Mary Emma Allen

    Mary Emma Allen researches and writes about her family history as well as the history of the state where she lives in the United State. She's a children's writer, print and online columnist, book author and teacher/speaker. Her many publications are listed on her Web site --

    The Authentic Self: Journaling Your Joys, Griefs and Everything in Between by Shery Russ

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