Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Your Precious Family History by Donna B. Gawell

Writers of all genres need to carve out some time to write about their ancestors, as their stories will only be preserved if someone takes the time to write them down. As a genealogist and author, the inspiration for my novels comes from the lives of the few ancestors who were infamous and the majority whose lives were less spectacular.

I assumed all of my ancestors were like my grandparents: ordinary folks who did little more than be born, marry, work, and die. Most were average citizens, but I learned some were abolitionists, many in Poland were serfs until 1848, and others served honorably in each American war or skirmish. I now see about a dozen stories right there!

You might discover an infamous ancestor such as my 9th great grandmother, Mehitabel Braybrooke.  My first reaction was “Wow! That’s an ugly name!” when I first found her in my family tree. Then, I started noticing the word “witch” pop up! And so my first historical novel, In the Shadow of Salem was born after making sense of the bits and pieces found in town and court documents from the 1600’s.

Another source for a fascinating family history story is your ancestors’ setting. My current novel-in-progress is set in the village of my great grandparents in Poland during the Holocaust. They lived in a wilderness area where Hitler built the largest SS training camp outside of Germany and his top-secret research facility for the V1 and V2 rockets. My family, who were forced-laborers for the Nazis, and their priest are the main characters in the novel. They were very poor Catholics who lived during these extraordinary and terrible times. I just returned from a whirlwind research trip to Poland and came away amazed at the bravery of the Polish people.

Other stories were inspired as I unearthed more ancestral records. There was my Swedish great-grandmother Augusta who found herself the recipient of an unwelcome “parting gift” when her beau (my great grandfather) went to America to work as a seaman. I found numerous records from Sweden revealing her real story, not the one she told in America to cover up the birth of her illegitimate child. My Mennonite ancestors’ records tell of their frightening experiences as German settlers in western Pennsylvania when hostile Native Americans besieged them in the early 1800’s.

Family history doesn’t have to be written with the intention of big-time publishing. Start small and write the stories your parents or grandparents told you. You may be like I was−the “document poor” descendant who inherited no family Bible, diary, or even photos before 1940.  You might be one of the fortunate who inherited “the stuff.”

Historians note that we rarely know any stories about our ancestors who came before our own grandparents. This ignorance is a literary and genealogical tragedy. Of all the types of writing we can do, none is more precious than the stories of those who came before us.

Is there a relative in your family background whose life might make an interesting story?


Donna is a writer and genealogist who enjoys writing novels about her infamous and more humble ancestors. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband Mark. Her website, features history and travel articles.