Using Family History for Novel Fodder

Apr 17, 2012

We talk a lot about using our own experiences in our writing. Sometimes that means literally, sometimes it means we take the basis for the experience and work in the emotions/background/etc. It's a great source of cool and realistic moments for writing.

I've also used another awesome source: family history.

I've recently become a bit of a family history nut. One of my side projects is collecting information and stories from my dad's side of the family, back four generations, and compiling it into a book. Not only is it totally fascinating, but it's given me some great story fodder. For example:

My grandmother hated my grandfather at first, and this was only made worse when he took her and another girl on a date at the same time (he attempted to hide this, but both girls of course found out). However, she came around, and when they were sixteen, they eloped on Christmas Eve. The next day, my grandfather-- who had lied about his age to get into the Navy-- shipped out to the Korean war for a year.

Um...WOW. It sounds like a full book in and of itself!

Other stories include great-grandparents whose graves lie empty because they crashed their car into a lake and their bodies were never found. The picture on the right is of another set of great-grandparents, William and Tinie Sarah Cutler-- she died quite young, and he was so distraught he never remarried. I've even used tiny family details in my books, like the hunting knife I inherited from my grandfather when he died.

What are the benefits of searching out these family history stories and using them in your writing? First, they bring a sense of reality. Because they're based on real life-- even if it's not your life, and even if the stories have changed through so many tellings-- they can bring a ring of authenticity and depth to a story. Second, they inspire further creativity. When I'm a bit stuck on a scene, thinking over my own experiences or family history stories can help bring out some great ideas. Even if I don't use the actual story in my scene, the story can give me a point to start from.

So, my friends, have you ever used stories from your family history in your books? What are some of your favorite family anecdotes? 

26 comments:

J. A. Bennett said...

What an awesome idea! I know I have family history stories out there, I just need to ask around and gather them. I think we can learn a lot from history, and it never hurts to have great stories re-told.

Kittie Howard said...

What an interesting family history you have, Shallee! But I winced at reading about the auto accident. So many deep tragedies back then. For me, family also slips into my writing. Like you, I think it's a rich source to draw from.

Angela Cothran said...

I totally steal from my families experience. My sister found a part in my MS recently and wanted me to give her a royalty for it :)

Jolene Perry said...

My granddad has done an amazing job collecting stories like this.

I have a locket from my husband's side of the family that was given as a - I'm going to find work, I'm coming back for you, please wait for me...
and she did :-D

LOVE those stories.

John Wiswell said...

How the heck did he date them simultaneously without expecting them to know? Was he on Three's Company?

David P. King said...

Dang. You just figured out my secret weapon. I do this all the time! :)

Faith E. Hough said...

I love researching (and occasionally using) family history, too. Have you read "The Year We Were Famous" by Carole Etsby Dagg? Very cool use of family stories...

Tara Tyler said...

i use my own history sometimes, but hope to write my mom's memoir, she had a tumultuous life!

Shallee said...

@John-- Ha, no, not exactly. :) He took them both to the same movie, sat them on opposite ends of the theater, and tried the whole "oh, I have to use the bathroom/get popcorn/get a drink" thing every ten minutes and kept switching between them. Of course, they got suspicious really fast and found him out!

He was a bit of a conniver, I guess. :)

The Golden Eagle said...

I've never used my (adopted) family history in a story. I actually don't know much about it--though I do know they owned a hat factory at some point. :P

Daisy Carter said...

I've wanted to use a story passed down about my grandparents for a while, but I haven't found the right WIP for it yet. I'm motivated, now, to look up more family stories. Thanks! (new follower)

Leigh Covington said...

You're amazing Shallee! I always learn so much from your blog. This is definitely an idea that I hadn't thought of before. I love it though and the stories you've shared are amazing!

Traci Kenworth said...

That is an awesome idea!! I continously research my family roots and you're right what's learned could make some great stories!!

Shelley Sly said...

So interesting about your grandfather and his two dates! :) I agree that using family history brings a sense of authenticity to a story. Sounds like you have some great stories in your family!

Lynda R Young said...

I have a tiny family and don't know much about them at all. I never even knew my grandparents. Your post makes me want to research them.

Ruth Josse said...

I love this. It's a testament that everyone has a story. And I love hearing and reading about other people's stories!

Naina Gupta said...

Wow those family histories are amazing. I think that if your history is interesting enough, we can't help but use bits of it in our own work.

Medeia Sharif said...

Intriguing picture...I love looking at old photos. I used family history in one of my drawer manuscripts. I haven't done so since then.

Emily R. King said...

You have a beautiful heritage!

I haven't used many stories from my own because I don't know very many. My husband spends a lot of time on genealogy, but I'm shameful. My grandmother did a lot of work so I haven't felt the need. I should. There are still many family members who have not been found. I wonder what I'd learn from them?

Carrie-Anne said...

Genealogy is one of my hobbies, but I don't recall ever having used bits of family history in my own writing. The story of my great-great-grandparents Wellek might make for interesting novel fodder—my great-great-grandpap and his co-worker were delivering beer to their Russian customers on Orthodox Christmas Eve, and a train going a mile a minute hit their delivery wagon in a rainstorm. The co-worker died instantly, but my great-great-grandpap wasn't flung as far and lived for about 35 minutes. (The horses survived, the story noted.) I was horrified when I read the front page news story in one of our family photo albums. The people who came upon the scene sent a boy for a doctor and went about moving the 35 beer kegs (all unbroken) to a safer location, while leaving my great-great-grandpap submerged in a ditch with almost every bone in his body broken. He left behind 6 kids, the youngest just 4 months old. The co-worker left 7 kids.

Rachel Morgan said...

Wow, your grandparents' story is amazing! I don't think I have anything quite as interesting in my family history... Or perhaps I just don't know about it!

Brenda Sills said...

Family history and other people's histories are one of my passions. I'm completely addicted to it! I find the most intriguing, heart-sobbing, mesmerizing, cheer-worthy stories there. And oh, what deliciously rich veins it gives to our own tales. Thanks, Shallee!

Jeff Hargett said...

I've not pulled anything from my family history yet--at least not consciously. Sounds like you've found the proper way to pull from yours though.

BTW - I tagged you for "The Lucky 7 Meme" on my blog if you care to participate. Details are at: Strands of Pattern.

Peggy Eddleman said...

Awww! I love this!

Rachna Chhabria said...

Your grandparents sound very interesting, especially your grandfather taking two girls on a date. You have wonderful fodder for stories, Shallee. Interesting lives makes for great reading material.

Teralyn Rose Pilgrim said...

You just perfectly explained why I like writing historical fiction. I've never written about my own family, though.

 
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