Last weekend, I attended a workshop at my local library hosted by novelist Jen Sookfong Lee. Jen, who has written novels that explore her heritage and familial roots, was Writer in Residence for the month of May. The workshop, “When Memoir Inspires Fiction” attracted people who long to know more about their ancestors and share their stories. I am one of them.
We talked about doing historical research and using primary documents such as letters, diaries, and certificates, along with family stories and imagination to create fiction. As we navigate this shadowy terrain, ancestors transform into characters who love, fight, travel often far from home, raise families, and experience joy, struggle, and heartbreak.
My fascination with the past has inspired me to shake the ancestral tree for several years. One of the tools I found most useful in my research was ancestry.com. Here are some tips for using the site.
To start, sign up for a 14-day free trial when you know you will have time to dedicate to exploring. It can take hours to sift through historical documents. I uncovered birth, death, and marriage certificates, photographs of ancestors and their tombstones, and even the passenger list from the ship my grandmother sailed in from Liverpool to Montreal. Each discovery of an ancestor’s name in print provides another thrilling piece of the puzzle.
If possible, collaborate with other family members. You can create one tree, invite willing explorers and give them editing privileges. My uncle created one branch of my father’s family tree (his mother’s line from southern England) and uploaded information he had acquired. My cousin helped with my mother’s line as we share maternal grandparents. Meanwhile, I started backtracking my father and mother’s roots.
One of the coolest things about ancestry.com is that other people are doing exactly what you’re doing. You can share documents and photographs and ask to visit their trees. Many folks will send you messages and requests. I was contacted by a cousin I never knew existed (she calls my father Uncle Bill) who had visited a parish in Yorkshire and scanned all the records for my father’s family back to 1600! Other relations also have different pieces, perceptions, and memories. You get messages like this:
The Carr in Cobourg was Grampa Carr’s baby brother born out of wedlock 2 years after Margarets husband Stephen died, and he was a big fat man that used to get stuck in gramma Carr’s rocking chair that sat in our kitchen.
I struck up another friendship with Nancy, a relative on my mother’s side, who sent me several photographs of Tuscarora ancestors. One is a tintype of “Lezze” who married Thomas, a Dutchman in Ontario. We shared the same family stories though we’d never heard of each other. Her grandfather was named Obediah–he was my great-grandfather’s youngest brother.
Nancy also scanned me a letter Thomas wrote to another brother shortly before he was killed in a bar fight. He was thrilled that his fifth child had just been born—a son they named Obediah after his father and brother. The story Nancy told was that Thomas was actually murdered. He and Lezze had moved to Michigan to be near her brother who’d fought with Louis Riel and fled Canada.
This is a sample of his writing from the letter:
Well you wanted to now where Obediah was. I don’t now whare he is. I hant heard from him sench you hare but I hope he is all rite.
Apparently, Obediah was all right. He lived longer than Thomas and his granddaughter became my friend.
This is a novel waiting to happen.