I am delighted to welcome fellow kitten Sue Barnard to my place today – her debut, award-nominated novel The Ghostly Father, is one of the best books I have ever read. But she has moved on from there, and reveals an astounding secret about herself while she delves into family history as a basis for fiction.
The very first Creative Writing course I ever took, back in the summer of 2006, was a short course with the Open University entitled Start Writing Family History. The twelve-week online course (which has sadly since been discontinued) covered the basic principles of studying genealogy, and combined them with basic writing skills. The final tutor-marked assignment invited the students to choose a particular aspect of family history, and describe how it applied to their own circumstances and also to families in general.
It was at this point that I first realised how family history can be a very rich source of material for the writer. Most (if not all) families probably have at least one guilty secret lurking somewhere in the background. I myself spent the first forty-eight years of my life as a skeleton in someone else’s cupboard – a secret baby who was given up for adoption because of the unforgiving attitudes of the time.
But in fact I’d been interested in family history since my teens – ever since the day when I became aware of a mystery surrounding my (adoptive) surname. It was a very unusual surname, and one which, frankly, I’d always hated; it was very susceptible to being mispronounced, and as a result I was very susceptible to all sorts of horrible childhood nicknames. It was only when I was sixteen that I discovered, quite by chance, that the rest of my paternal grandfather’s family, who lived two hundred miles away in rural Somerset, had a completely different (and much nicer) surname than ours.
I enviously asked my Dad why the rest of the family were blessed with a nice surname, whilst we were blighted with an awful one. The explanation is too complicated to go into here, but suffice it to say that the discrepancy could be traced back to an illegitimate birth two or three generations earlier. It took me thirty-odd years to get to the bottom of it, but in the course of my investigations I discovered something else: that my great-grandparents had celebrated their Golden Wedding a year early. The party was held a respectable sixteen months before their first child’s fiftieth birthday – but if they had celebrated in the correct year, the rest of the family would very quickly have realised that they had only taken four months to produce him!
This anecdote formed the basis of an article which was published in the Skeleton in the Cupboard section of Your Family Tree magazine in October 2007, and more recently it found its way into my second novel, Nice Girls Don’t (published by Crooked Cat Publishing in July 2014). The two main protagonists of the story, Emily and Carl, attempt to trace their respective family histories, and in both cases they uncover an intriguing web of secrets and lies, dating back throughout the twentieth century as far back as the battlefields of the Great War. To talk about this in detail here would give away far too much about the story, but two of the episodes in the book are based on real events, and several others have at least some basis in fact.
Everyone has a family, and every family has a history. Why not take a peek at yours? You never know what you might find!
Sue’s Website: http://broad-thoughts-from-a-home.blogspot.co.uk/
Family history certainly is one of the richest sources of stranger than fiction tales. Sounds like you have your fair share and also know how to research it. Obviously, nice girls do!
Thank you! 🙂