Family History--A Treasure Box of Research Goodies
My 2003 Golden Heart manuscript FAIRHOPE lured me into genealogy research. Over lunch one day, I happened to mention to my aunt that I was writing a story set in Texas. My aunt informed me that my maternal great grandmother was from a little town in north central Texas called Bells. Shortly before Christmas, a photo of my great grandmother arrived from my aunt. Have you ever had that déjà vu feeling when you've looked at a photo of a long lost relative? The resemblance was enough to pique my curiosity and start me digging.
Since that time, I have developed a passion for family history and have found it to be a great resource for story ideas as well as information on various regions of the country. Many genealogy sites on the web have archives of old photos, old maps, historical information about the area, and letters. Old photos can give you invaluable information about period clothing, architecture, and cultural practices, all handy research items for the historical author, but also for contemporary stories with rich backstories. All of our characters have family stories and relatives with interesting quirks. Old letters are great a place to find family skeletons for your characters. Many of these letters have been transcribed and are available online. They also give you insight into the economy and mindset of the period. Check out Rebekah’s letter and see what I mean at www.bellstexas.com/families/pletter.html
Old wills are another source of interesting historic detail that can be found online at genealogy sites. Many of these have been transcribed word for word. It's amazing how personalities and family conflicts are written between the lines. Let's face it, our stories need conflict. Wills are a way to find family issues true to the period. If you need to kill old Uncle Minty off in your story and don't know what disease to give him, death certificates are full of deadly illnesses with period names to insure Minty's quick demise.
Does the town you've decided to set your story in need interesting detail to bring it to life? One of my favorite sites for my family history is http://www.bellstexas.com/history.html
Not every town has a site as detailed as the Bells site, but more are being added every day by generous family history buffs, so check back periodically for information. Many counties have email loops with generous members who are willing to share information. Don't be afraid to ask for help.
Cemetery listings are a great resource for interesting names for your characters. There are genealogy sites worldwide with such listings. If you are looking for British surnames for your regency historical, check out this site I found on Google http://www.bigenealogy.com/
If you search by state and county in the United States, you can find plenty of FREE information on the following link: http://usgenweb.org/
If you feel inclined to delve into your own family history and have a list of names, I suggest you start with the following site: http://www.familysearch.org/
I'll have to warn you, however, this can be addictive if you have a fascination for history. Happy searching!