The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across a keyboard

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Does Your Character Need to Access Her Past? Genealogical Searches for Writers with Juliette Godot



Using a genealogical search as part of a plotline has always been a fascinating topic to me. Recently I met Juliette Godot on Twitter and asked if she'd mind letting me pick her thoughts a bit on the subject.

Here's Juliette's genealogy story:




Juliette - 
I have a weird name that kids picked on and I hated it, so when I got older I wanted to do my genealogy to see if I was related to someone famous - LOL. I have been working on my family for about 10 years now and have over 35,000 names in my family tree. Some dating back to the 1400s. Two Saints, two witches, one guy who was beheaded for incest, and rumor has it, my Crispin ancestor was the Crispin that accompanied William the Conqueror in the 1066 Norman invasion of Britain. Silas Crispin, born 1655, the guy who negotiated the treaty with the Indians for William Penn in Penns Woods was my 7th generation grandfather.

Anyway, after I found my link to France and entered people on my tree, I started getting messages from people in France who were very distantly related. Most of the time, we talk for a while, several times a week for a couple of months, and then we lose touch. So one day, I received a message from Francoise Cordier, a distant cousin who asked if I know about a particular person who was married in 1585. I knew the name, but nothing more, and I said "No, I'm in the US and the only information I get is on the computer, but if you find out anything, please let me know." I've said that dozens of times and I have never heard anything else.


Well, a couple of weeks later Francoise emailed me that she couldn't find anything. I was not surprised. Once you get back that far, the records are very sparse. So for some reason, out of the blue, I said, "Well, then we can make it up and write a book." I was just joking, but it turns out that Francoise is a retired journalist who had always thought about writing a book! So we started bouncing ideas off each other. We both had different visions for the book and we each wrote our own versions, but the family is, of course the same.She self published hers - it's in French, called Les Demons du Pays de Salm, but since I wrote so much more, and had never written anything before, it took me much longer and I just now finished with mine.


I had never met Francoise face-to-face until I traveled to France and she escorted my husband and I all around the old country of Salm, and showed us all the places mentioned in the book. Now we are great friends and talk via email at least once a week for about three years now, so there are many advantages in learning about your past - finding true friends.

















Fiona - 
How fun is that?

Now, if you were a character in a novel who decided to follow along your real-life experience, how would she begin?

Juliette - 
You start at the obvious beginning, ask everyone for as much information as you can get, then take it all with a grain of salt.
Sometimes, people know what the family wants them to know and there are always skeletons in the closet that nobody knows about.

It is the skeletons that make a good book, of course, you don't want everyone in the family to hate you either

So I would go back far enough that nobody would be embarrassed by what you find. In my case, I went back to 1585.

Fiona - 
It sounds like an amazing way to twist a plot - especially when you said that there are things that a family edit in the retelling. Can you give us some examples?


Juliette - 
For example, in the past babies were born "premature" a lot. I don't know if that makes for a good book, though. I know the infant mortality rate was high in the past, but sometimes I wonder about every child dying... No proof there.

A lot of times babies were given away or people pretended they
actually had a baby later in life, when really, the child was their grandchild.

I had one ancestor who was convicted of incestuous relationships. He was the mayor of the town. The paperwork I found said the women were paraded out of town and were not allowed to return. The mayor was beheaded

So you have to wonder, was it a set up? or was he really a pedophile?

So you could start from there and write the book either way because history does not tell you.

Fiona - 
Where would an intrepid heroine go to start culling through the genealogical data are there sites you suggest? And what kind of documentation can you find on these site?

Juliette - 

  • Like I said, Start with your ancestors still alive. 
  • Most libraries have genealogical departments storing obituaries, that's where I went next, 
  • The local courthouse for census records.

It took a while for me to finally get across the pond to France, and I actually got the information by luck.


I knew my great grandfather worked at a glass factory and was a glacier in France, but my grandfather said he came from Nancy. There was no record of him in Nancy. I happened to get a hold of the employee roster from this closed glass plant. It turns out, someone from the plant actually went to France and recruited glaciers, my great grandfather was one of them. On the roster, everyone was supposed to write their hometown. None of the men did, except my great-grandfather, and I found he was actually from Harbouey, not Nancy.


Once I found relatives from Harbouey , I joined geneanet.org which is based in France.

For someone who is just starting out, I would say try all the free sites first.

The biggest free site is familysearch.org, run by the Mormon church. You can find a lot of information there, but there are other free sites.


usgenweb.org, findagrave.com, there are also many genealogy family pages on Facebook, so search there too.


Fiona - 
So it seems a real boots on the ground adventure and less Ancestry.com searching...which makes for a more intersting plot anyway.

Are there rule for gaining access to public records?

Juliette - 
Well, Ancestry is expensive, about double what Geneanet costs. I would do as much free as I could first before spending money.

Rules? Yes. Some churches may give out information but only 100 year old information, and they are not very accommodating.

For me, I would have to drive to the diocese in Pittsburgh and look there because the local churches do not keep records.

Libraries have old newspapers, but you almost have to know what day an event occurred to be able to find it.

Europeans seem to be much more interested in their genealogy, at least that's what I have found. And since the records are over there for most of us, you really need to join a site over there to get the most information.

I just happened to be adding people from someone else's tree and they had it in the notes about the incest.

That's how I found out about my protagonist, too. One of my relatives over there asked me if I knew what had happened to her, and she told me.

Fiona - 
So can you list some records that would be available? I'll start: birth records, marriage, death certificates... what about medical records? school records...?

Juliette - 
I have never found any medical records, or school records. The census is a good place to get names, but once you get to the birthplace, unless you live there, it's hard to get records, though you can order them online and pay for someone to look them up for you.

That's why I joined Geneanet. I am really only familiar with them because my ancestors are from France, which is where Geneanet is based.

Though they have most of Western Europe in their database.


Fiona - 
You mentioned pay. If you were trying to do a thorough search of someone's history can you tell me about budgeting that - there is the European vacation ... but say here in the States, how much money would it take to do this?

Juliette - 
It depends on the era. If it is recent, you can find a lot of information at the library. They have archived newspapers, and obits. The courthouse has the census and deeds.

Getting copies of birth certificates - from Geneanet, you used to be able to buy a pack of points and each record, depending upon how hard it was to find cost so many points.

In total, besides my trip that was a great vacation, I probably don't have more than $500 in my whole tree.

The first thing you need to buy is software. I have Family Tree Maker, but there are others. Don't try to just use excel or something, I tried because I'm cheap, but it was just too much of a headache. The software is worth the money.

It is not an expensive hobby if you are willing to spend the time doing it. If you want to find people fast, then join Ancestry.com and pay.


Here's another good free site. http://www.cyndislist.com/
More than 327,000 links! 325,000+ links, categorized & cross-referenced, in over 190 categories. Another 1790 uncategorized new links in the works.

Fiona - 
As a history major this kind of thing is fascinating to me - I think it could lead to all kinds of plots. 

Juliette - 
I had never even thought to write a book until I found my protagonist.


Fiona - 
Can you fill in a little about your protagonist?
Which parts are factual which did you create in your imagination?

Juliette - 
Her death is historical fact. The time and place were very thoroughly researched. We know the politics of the area, the religious wars were going on. We know what was going on all around them.

Fiona - 
Which era? What country?

Juliette - 
The country is Salm - It was swallowed up by Lorraine and then later, Lorraine was swallowed up by France, then Germany, then back to France, but the era of my book is when it was still Salm.

Salm was a small country caught in between Lorraine - Catholic, France - Catholic, though Henry of Navarre was Protestant, and the Holy Roman Empire, Germanic - Protestant.
This was during the Renaissance.

The Protestants were making a lot of noise and upsetting the Catholics.

Salm was actually Independent, which was another fascinating aspect of this era. It was run by 2 Counts, one Catholic, one Protestant.

About the only place in the area where you weren't persecuted because of your religion.

This is when Mary Queen of Scots was in jail, Elizabeth was Queen of England, and Henry of Navarre was King of France.

I didn't know any of this before we started researching, but it really made for an interesting backdrop.

Fiona - 
Absolutely!

Juliette -
So I think in order to write a historical, you really have to look in to the politics of the day.

When a character looks at her tree, though, she doesn't really need something horrific.

Sometimes, there were entire families – 10 kids, and none of them lived. Were they just unlucky, sickly or something, or maybe something more sinister?

If you go back far enough not to offend anyone, you could use your imagination.

If you know the history of the era, you could probably find out if there was an influenza outbreak or something like that could have wiped out the family, or could it have been a wild animal, roving bands of thieves, maybe a crazy person randomly murdering people.

Fiona - 
I always thought it would be cool to go to Ellis Island and see my ancestors' names in the books.

Juliette - 
Yes, actually, Ellis Island has a free site. They ask for donations.

I've never gone there, but I do have a copy of the ships registry where one grandmother and her 6 kids names' are listed.




Fiona - 
Looking into the past does seeing these records of times and people past ever just -- I don't know make you feel very mortal and wonder what future generations will find when they look you up?

I'm wondering about the character reactions to seeing their records.

Juliette - 
Well, they certainly will have more to read than in the past.

Most of the people in times gone by could not read or write so it was up to the church to keep the records.

History is always written by the winners, too, so you never know how accurate it really is.

Fiona - 
A thrillWriting traditional question is - would you share a scar story or your favorite harrowing story?

Juliette - 
I don't really have any scars, and I've never been in any harrowing situations.

We did have a funny experience in France.


After we left Francoise, we spent a couple days in Paris. We wanted to do everything French, including eating Frog Legs. So one day we were going down to the subway and an older gentleman stopped us and said the train was not working and they had told him it would be at least half an hour. The man was very kind and we started talking to him about our trip. I mentioned that I wanted to eat Frog Legs and he said to come with him, he was on his way back to work and we would get off at his bus stop where we could get the Frog Legs. So we followed him on the bus. We rode for a very long time - I started getting nervous. I didn't know this guy at all. Where was he taking us? So finally we got off the bus and he pointed down the street at a very small shop and said we could get our Fried Eggs (!) down there... LOL! Fried Eggs! We had no idea where we were, we didn't speak French and he just smiled and waved and left, so there we were. We walked around a bit before we found a restaurant - they didn't have Frog Legs, I don't know if they had Fried Eggs :-). I got Lapin (Rabbit) it was very good, and luckily we found someone who spoke English who pointed us to the subway, and we were able to find our way back.

To stay in touch with Juliette she is

@juliettegodot on Twitter

Her my website is juliettegodot.com,

Her facebook is https://www.facebook.com/pages/Juliette-Godot




Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. Cheers,When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.



3 comments:

  1. Thanks for this article, Fiona. I'm both a writer and a keen genealogist and I love finding genealogy threads in the plot of books, so much so that I'm developing a site on the topic! There just aren't enough books like this out there, and a good proportion are out of print. I hope Juliette is successful getting hers published.

    One's own family and other people's can certainly be a rich source of plot ideas, as Juliette found. Families are very good at keeping quiet about less savoury characters and events, and (from a distance) they can be great fun to discover. I'll add to Juliette's list of sources that old family letters, if you are lucky enough to have them, can be fantastic. I have one that led to me uncovering a family link to a utopian society set up in the 1840s in Venezuela. NOT what you expect from a family of tradesmen in northwest England. The venture failed miserably: "Thy dead companions' fate we know too well..."

    For me, the appeal of genealogical fiction is to build a plot where the shadows of the past fall across the present, where things long-buried come to startling light, and where questions of identity abound. With regard to the last of those, the rapid rise of ever more affordable DNA tests means it has become easier to ascertain if there were what are politely called "non-paternity events" in a family. Plot gold!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much for sharing this, Sarah. How fun is it that you found utopian minded folks in your lineage?

      Cheers,
      Fiona

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  2. Hey folks,
    Here is a comprehensive comment that one of my readers made to this blog article. You might find it helpful. It's from Connie Sparrow.
    https://ofbooksbearsandbodies.wordpress.com/2015/05/30/genealogy-and-fiction/

    ReplyDelete