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.
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.
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.
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?