Friday, June 24, 2011

Need Characters? Borrow From Your Family Tree (Reprised)

By Kim

I originally wrote this post back in July of 2009, but we have a lot of new readers since that time. Some may be curious as to how I came to write a novel about my great-grandfather, and why I would think anyone would want to read it! Here is a slightly edited version of my answers to those questions.

I’m an accidental genealogist. I know it’s a strange hobby for a woman in her 30's, 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.

Eleanor Douglass
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 1880’s 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 2nd 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 Oak Lovers. 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.

Madonna Ahrens
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.

Carl Ahrens
We later inherited a photo of a young Carl dressed in buckskins, with the chiseled features and confident stance of a movie star. I stared first at the image and then at my own father. 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.

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 like Bottenhagan, Cuthwolf, Dunfrund and Frithogar would be. How about Godfrey Lothier III? He happens to be my 24th great-grandfather, but I’ll share.

What about you? Have any of you considered borrowing characters from your family tree?


  1. Anonymous24 June, 2011

    Great post! I also have taken some information from my great grandparents and embellished it :)

  2. Your book, Kim, has the historical part that will appeal to a smaller group of readers who want to know how people lived in the early 20th century. The photos are very good to make it real for these readers. The main part is the story of a husband in an unhappy marriage falling in love with a younger woman, and surprisingly she falls in love with him, even though on the surface he doesn't have much to offer. That part is relevant to the lives of most adults in the US. And then, I guess, you have the third part of Carl's adventures. Readers will buy the book if it's exciting even if it was written by a non family member. Have a great weekend.

  3. Carol Woods24 June, 2011

    Kim, where and when was Carl in Montana?

  4. Carol,

    Carl was in Montana and the Canadian Rockies back in about 1878-1879 or so. I'm not entirely sure where, but I would think more the eastern part of the state, close to Dakota Territory. He probably met Calamity Jane around the Deadwood area.


    Thanks for stopping by, Giora. When it comes time to query, I'll have to think about when/where in the query letter to mention that the story is about my relatives. My hunch is that it is best to hook them first and then mention that part casually.

  5. Kim, you can start or end the query by saying that this is the story of your great grandpa Carl. Readers who believe that family is the most important thing in life, will really appreciate that you care so much about him to write this story. But the way to put it is by connecting with readers, like ...

    "Family is the most important thing to many Americans, so this book is about a beloved member of my family, my great grandpa Carl."

    This way you draw the reader in. It's not about your family per se, but about the love for family shared by many readers.

    You will find the query to be really interesting, because it will make you focus on what your book is all about. You have to tell your book in just 2-3 sentences.

    I didn't understand the focus of my writing before the query. The query forces you to decide what is the most important theme in your book. Wishing you to finish quickly and get to the query ..:)

  6. Anonymous25 June, 2011

    What a cool post. I have become, because of my love to stories, the gatekeeper of my family's history. I've learned stories of witchcraft, goblins, bootleggers, murderers, Indian princesses, and war heroes. Knowing my family's history has made me proud of who I am. These were some really interesting people.

    Your stories about your great-grandfather were excellent. The photos were beyond that. Thanks for sharing. :D

  7. Catie,

    Thanks for stopping by! I, too, have become the family historian and am lucky that I come from a long line of pack rats. I have original letters here from as early as 1836!

    If you liked those stories and photos of Carl and company, you might want to check out my website at You'll see many photographs of both the artist and his work.



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