I’m an accidental genealogist. I know it’s a strange hobby for a thirty-five year old, but compiling a family tree can be as much about stories and the characters who lived them as names and dates. What better raw material for a novelist?
Yes, your query would be rejected immediately if you begin with I’ve written a 150,000 word novel about my great uncle; but if that uncle happened to live a compelling life you can always wow an agent with the story first and casually mention your relationship to the protagonist later.
Still not convinced? While researching for my current work in progress, I’ve found Eleanor Douglass, a fiercely independent artist at the turn of the last century (and a minor character in my current book). Then there’s Edgar and Sarah Niles who left New York for the western frontier in the 1880s in a desperate attempt to cure Edgar’s consumption. The level of detail about pioneer life in their letters to family back home is enough to make any novelist salivate. Just last month I discovered that no one has ever written a book on one of the most famous Indian agents during the Revolutionary War. That’s three potential books right there, thanks to my second cousin, my great-great grandparents, and my 6x great grand-uncle.
I never had to search for the subject of my current work in progress. The most cherished fairy tales of my youth all featured a rather colorful character named Carl Ahrens. My grandmother, Tutu, used to entertain me with stories about Carl running away from home to live with the Indians or making a catastrophic attempt to fly off the barn roof. (My daughters cringe when I recite the flying tale, but always ask to hear it again.) As I grew older, the stories multiplied. Carl was a cowboy in pioneer Montana, befriended Calamity Jane, traveled the California coast by covered wagon, and spent an afternoon hiding in a buffalo hollow while warring bands of Indians shot arrows over his head. She never explained how he did all this while suffering from a crippling form of tuberculosis, and it seemed an unimportant detail.
Of course, all good heroes must have a heroine, and Carl found his while working in the Roycroft arts and crafts community. To keep the story interesting, or so I thought, Tutu complicated their relationship in deliciously scandalous ways. Carl, then 38, already had a wife who despised him but wouldn’t let him go. The “Madonna” he worshipped was all of 17. He was a genius with a paintbrush, but cantankerous and destitute. Irresistible as well, apparently, because Tutu occasionally slipped and called them Daddy and Momma.
Having grown up surrounded by paintings of trees that laughed, grieved, danced, and even embraced, I never questioned that my great-grandfather was both a real person and an amazing artist. However, it wasn’t until I was about seven that I began to associate the adventurer with the frail old man in the family photographs. One day my mother saw me playing with a small antique basket that has always fascinated me. She mentioned she believed it was Indian made and had likely been Carl’s. Running my fingers reverently over the basket’s intricate designs, I peered at the nearest old photos. They were candid snapshots instead of the dour portraits that were the vogue of the day. Madonna not only laughed as she sat beside Carl, but leaned into him, sometimes touching his arm or his hand. Carl gazed at her rather than at the camera, an expression of naked adoration on his face. Even then, looking at them made me smile.
We later inherited the photo of Carl I have included in this post. It was the first image I had seen of him as a young man. The resemblance between my real life hero (Dad) and my fictional one (Carl) was so striking that I could no longer doubt even the most outrageous of Tutu’s accounts.
After years of intensive research, I have proved the fairy tales true.
Now, obviously, not everyone has been blessed with such a character in their family tree, and some of you may be reading this and quaking at the idea of committing to a historical novel. I was, too. I fought the inevitable for years, going to college and graduate school and getting a “real job.” When I finally settled down to write something, I spewed out a contemporary and largely autobiographical novel I refer to as “literary vomit.” It is condemned to dwell in a box in my closet for eternity. My next attempt was better – some concepts can be recycled. The third novel was better still and will be worth resuscitating someday. As I typed the last few lines of it, however, I panicked. I minored in history. I took research classes in graduate school. I enjoyed being trapped in a room filled with nothing but old documents that no one had looked at in a century. I had written a novel with an artist protagonist. In short, I had spent the last ten years of my life preparing to write Carl’s story and had no excuses left. Gulp!
Even if you would rather run a mile barefoot on broken glass than look at eighteenth century census records, you can ask questions. Talk to parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Don’t listen simply for the names and dates, but wait for a character to speak to you. Look at those old family photos and study the faces. Some stories can be updated and others will remain firmly in the past. If nothing else, you can probably find some interesting character names. Think about what a conversation piece surnames such as Bottenhagan, Cuthwolf, Dunfrund and Frithogar would be. How about Godfrey Lothier III? He happens to be my 24th great-grandfather, but I’ll share.