Tips from a Writing Consultant: Family History


It’s Monday and Tips from a Writing Consultant day!
Today, I’d like to share with you an easy way to add more authenticity to your writing. Specifically, I am dealing with historical fiction, as that is the primary genre that I write. It’s obvious to readers that nonfiction requires much research on the part of the author. Fiction as well though is often supplemented by research. If an author is writing about a plumber or a mechanic, he or she will need to learn the tools of the trade. I once spent an afternoon reading about driving a 1920s Model T, so that I’d be able to authentically allow a character in an upcoming novel to drive one.

Books and reputable websites on the internet are an obvious first choice for many writers. Some writers even joke about how awkward their Google search history looks to an outside observer, with a mishmash of information. This is especially true among crime writers!

For historical fiction writers, there is an extra need for research. Unlike contemporary writing, we live in a world that is removed from that which we are writing about. Unlike fantasy writers, the world was real and so it must be accurate. I’ve previously written about the excellent resources found in museums for writers. Visiting some of those museums and the beaches of D-Day in person helped inspire my first novel, Flight Before Dawn. You can read about that inspiration here and here.

Today I’d like to share with you another source: family history. Genealogy is becoming increasingly popular. Sites like have commercials for tests to determine where your family came from. There is much to be gleaned from family records. Names recorded in a family Bible could provide you with character names for a specific period. An ancestor’s profession may provide an interesting backstory for a character. Maybe your own unique combination of backgrounds makes for a compelling tale. If an ancestor overcame incredible odds maybe that will provide the strength that a character needs.

Or, maybe, you’ll learn about an ancestor and it will compel you to learn more about something from their backstory. This was the case for me in What Edward Heard. I knew that some of my ancestors were among the first settlers of Virginia and that they had come from French Huguenot silk merchants. Through my research I was able to learn more about the history of what happened to this people and weave it into the narrative of What Edward Heard.

Sometimes family history is more recent and can lend itself to a good story. For my most recent release, North Star Home, the characters live on the prairie in 1875. You need look no farther than the dedication page to see that my family inspired the story, at least in part. Part of the story involves quilting. I have a teddy bear made by my great-aunt from a quilt that my great-grandmother made. Knowing the family stories of the quilts made the history of North Star Home more palpable.

An easy way to include family history is to talk to your family. Ask your grandparents about life when they were growing up. Remember stories from your childhood. How was life different for them? Where did they go to school? How did they react to the changing and modernizing world around them? The sky’s the limit!

It is important to remember that you’re not writing a biography of an ancestor and so you shouldn’t only transcribe their story if you’re writing a novel. Fiction is a blending of fact with the imagined. Historical backdrop, including family history, can be an excellent source to add authenticity.
Happy researching and happy writing!

My best to you all,

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