Writers in the Storm

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July 17, 2017

Your Dead Ancestors Can Help You Write That book

Ella Joy Olsen

Who are my long-lost relatives? And what role did they play in determining who I am today? Where does their identity place me in the patchwork of humanity? These are some of the questions people hope to answer when conducting ancestral research, a trend that is growing worldwide. But genealogy has long been big business for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or the Mormons).

Initially, genealogy was conducted in order to aid in a religious ritual called Baptism for the Dead, meaning Mormons endeavor to baptize all who have passed, so they will have a fair shake in heaven. For more info on this practice, click here. But in the age of the internet the church is a pioneer in genealogical digging, for all purposes. And it’s available for Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

I made good use of this valuable research in my upcoming novel Where the Sweet Bird Sings.

In the story my main character, Emma Hazelton, is cleaning out her beloved grandpa’s attic after his death when she happens upon a black-and-white wedding photograph of her great-grandparents…but something doesn’t jive. According to his obituary, Grandpa Joe was born three years before his parent’s wedding. After pondering that inconsistency, combined with a few other mysterious discoveries, Emma decides to untwist the roots of her family tree.

Although Emma isn’t a Mormon she visits the Family History Library funded by the LDS Church to start her quest. The Family History Library is the largest library of its kind in the world, and there she has unfettered access to millions of books and rolls of microfilm, helping her (and the reader) to peek into the leafy branches. But what’s incredible is that many documents are digitized and available to you using the computer sitting on your desk. Here’s how you can get started:

The online search site organized by the LDS Church is familysearch.org. This site is free and uses census reports, military records, marriage records, death reports, ship manifests, you name it. It’s super user friendly. You start with the name of the deceased ancestor you’re searching for, and go from there. Of course, eventually there will be a dead end (no pun intended) and that’s when you consult other sources. 

Another free source is findagrave.com where you can view photos of over 160 million grave markers from all across the world. It is user-driven (and a little clunky) but amazing things are available on this site. However, I prefer billiongraves.com for usability. It isn’t as highly rated but it hasn’t failed me yet.

The most comprehensive site is ancestry.com. This is a paid site but if you run out of luck with the free engines, it might pay to search here. You can take it for a two week test run for free.

If you’re looking for specific lineages or angles there are specialty sites aplenty. You can Google to see if there are any specific to your search but here are a few, just to illustrate the variety: afrigeneas.com for African Ancestored Genealogy, jewishgen.org is an affiliate of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, libertyellisfoundation.org  gives you access to over fifty million passenger records and amazingly helps decipher common translations of ethnic names to the Americanized version.

The title Where the Sweet Bird Sings is in reference to a family tree (you’d be surprised how many people don’t get the connection). Sometimes the things found in the roots and branches are unexpected, but they’re still part of who we are. Emma’s search is fictionalized and her desire to delve into the past is fueled by uncovered lies. Not all searches are fraught, but when it’s your family and your family ties, each new discovery is thrilling. Emma likens the search to a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece that clicks into place is satisfying, further refining the hidden picture.

Have you done any genealogical research on your own? Did you discover anything unusual?

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About Ella

Ella Joy Olsen was born, raised and currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah, a charming town tucked at the base of the massive Rocky Mountains. Most at home in the world of the written word, Ella spent nearly a decade on the Board of Directors for the Salt Lake City Public Library System (and four decades browsing the stacks). She is the mom of three kids ranging from just-barely-teen to just-flown-the-nest-teen, the mama of two dogs, and the wife of one patient husband.

Though she’s crazy about words Ella is also practical, so she graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in Finance. After years spent waxing on about facts and figures Ella gave up her corner cubicle and started writing fiction. Fun fact: she now teaches a course on writing historical fiction at her alma mater. She has also lived in Seattle, Washington & Savannah, Georgia.

ROOT, PETAL,THORN (August 2016/Kensington) is her debut novel. And coming in September 2017 – WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS.


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27 comments on “Your Dead Ancestors Can Help You Write That book”

  1. Not my ancestors, but someday I want to write about Alpha Dog's (my husband). His family helped found the town I now live in. His grandfather was a cook on the Goodnight-Loving trail. Great stories...

    1. Laura, I gotta ask, what is the Goodnight-Loving Trail and why did it require a cook?

  2. My ancestors provide plenty of fodder for my books. For example, I discovered that my maternal grandfather was born before his parents married, quite the scandal in the day, and I learned the name of the ship on which he traveled to Canada at the age of eight in a program we now call the British Home Child Immigration, where poor and orphaned kids were taken from their families and shipped to "the colonies" to provide labor to farmers there. Many children were abused, neglected, some even died. My grandfather survived and raised four children, including my mother. Sadly, he died before I was born, but records are now telling me a bit of what I wish I could ask him in person.

    1. This sounds like the premise for an amazing story! Interesting one of the things you discovered (that your grandfather was born before his parents married) is one of the things my character discovers in Where the Sweet Bird Sings!

    2. My paternal grandmother also came over on a ship as a child with her little brother and they were relocated on separate farms in Ontario, Canada. We surmise that she was mistreated and abused because she had serious psychological issues and was institutionalized by the age of 40. Who knows what these children suffered through in the misbegotten attempt at giving them a "better" life? So many stories. The British government sent checks to these children I believe, but a pittance.

  3. Yes, genealogy is fascinating. I learned my 7th great-grandmother, who came with her second husband from England to Salem, Massachusetts, around 1637, became a Quaker in the 1650s, repeatedly defied the hierarchy of the Puritan Church, and was eventually, along with two daughters, stripped to the waist, tied to the tail of a cart and whipped through the streets from Salem to a nearby town as punishment for her disobedience. But even that didn't tame her rebellious nature. Following her husband's death, she refused for five years to distribute to her own children their share of their father's estate, as required by law, and only did so after they sued her in court. I absolutely love this woman! Someday I'll write a book about her.

    1. What a story! What was the source document for the march through the streets because that's amazing detailed information!! Love it!

  4. Finding my great-grandfather's one-line-a-day diary began my quest. Using his diary, I wrote the first novel "The Late Sooner." "The Late Sooner's Daughter" followed. In the third novel, I used my dad's letters from WW II for part of the story line. All together, I've covered three generations beginning with the first land run of Oklahoma in 1889 to 1945. Available on Amazon.

    1. A one-line-a-day diary? That's a great idea...not so much writing that it becomes daunting, yet tracks current thoughts and events.

      1. I'm so glad your great-grandfather left you such a wonderful resource, @sallyjadlow. My mother wrote a one-line-a-day diary, too. I only recently discovered it. She wrote simply but thoroughly, marking births, deaths, cataclysms such as 9/11 and small things such as visits from friends. Inspired, I started my own.

        1. Hooray! I think these writings will someday bless our future generations. It took over 110 years for g. grandfather's to fall into fertile hands, but I'm so thankful it did!

  5. Great tips! Thanks Ella.
    I can't wait for everyone to be able to read WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS!!!

  6. I'm using what little I know about my ancestors' mission in Peru in the 1890's to invent their story. The good news is that it's easy to imagine plenty of conflict in that scenario, the bad news that the research about life in Peru is very time-consuming and demanding.

  7. My mother was very deep into genealogy in the 50s and 60s. She was able to delve into her Czech family history all the way back to the early 1600s, mainly because she bartered with relatives who still lived there. This was during the age of the Berlin Wall. So they gave her information and she sent them books that they were unable to purchase. With my dad's family, she got his Scottish maternal great-greats over here right after the American Revolution, and paternal great-greats from Northern Ireland (also originally from Scotland, specifically Argyll) right before the Revolution. She'd be having a field day with all the resources now available. All her info was gathered through letters, all of which I still have. The most famous was from President Harry Truman after he was out of office. In his background is a family with the same name as one of ours. Unfortunately, no relation. But he did write a very nice letter.

  8. Thanks for this informative post. Ancestry.com can be pricey, but many public libraries will allow you to use their account to search the site for free. I was able to do this at my local library.

  9. My paternal grandfather was a notorious bootlegger from South Carolina and various members of my family had run ins with the law. I find them fascinating! Thanks for the great resources.

    I have to admit I didn't catch the symbolism of the family tree in your book title but that's okay. I think our subconscious mind recognizes them and it touches us on some level.

  10. A photo of my great great grandmother, an Irish immigrant, got me interested in writing novels. Though I know very little about her, I imagined her life and she became the model for a character in my first novel, Divided Loyalties (which releases next Thursday). Family history (on the other side of the family tree) has inspired my second book, now in final revision, and an ancient ancestor will be the focus of my third book, now only in outline. My family has a long and varied history in Maryland and so it seems I keep running into long gone relatives who spark the need to write their story, even if it is all straight from my imagination.

  11. I do think about my ancestors and I wonder what kind of influence they have on my writing. My ancestry has multiple origins so that's multiple sources to draw from.

  12. There's so much I'd like to know about my ancestors and with no one left to ask, I've resorted to Ancestry.com, but there are still many unanswered questions. I'll check out your links. Thanks.

  13. Finding the Mayflower ancestors was only the first step; learning nearly half my ancestors came over from Europe in colonial times shook things up. Although I grew up an Anglophile I identified Swedish from the 1/4 of the family I was closest. I've visited cousins there a couple times and will again. But now it turns out I really am predominantly English; go figure.

    Then there was the out-of-left-field revelation: my dad always said his mom (whom I never knew) was more German because in her time, once she left Copper Country in the Keweenaw where her immigrant dad was a miner, that was even better than admitting her parents were from Slovenia and Croatia. 1/4 Balkan? I didn't know till I was nearly fifty!

    But I worked my online magic and located my cousin still living on the family farm of three centuries in Slovenia where my colorful great-grandpa grew up. I'll visit there someday, too. And though everyone and their brother has a "going home" story written, I can aspire to write someday something as genuinely GOOD as Jennifer Wilson's Running Away to Home.

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