Saturday, 19 May 2012

Tracing Your Characters’ Roots

Author David Robinson explains how using a family history book can help writers dig deeper into their fictional characters' pasts.

All writers keep some research books to hand. I have a brace of dictionaries, an ageing and dog-eared copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, and the ever-present The Writer's ABC Checklist, all within easy reach. 

Because some of my work borders on the paranormal and sci-fi, I also have handy reference guides to science and the occult to hand. But why would a writer of fiction keep a copy of Trace Your Roots nearby?

Tracing my family history has never been of particular interest to me, so when Maureen sent me a copy of Trace Your Roots, I thumbed through it out of friendship and tried one or two of the suggestions. Behold: within the space of an hour or two, I’d tracked down both sets of grandparents and their respective weddings, my father’s birthplace which had always been subject to some doubt, the births and marriages of several uncles and aunts, my own birth record in the parish registry and my brother’s.

I was suddenly interested in tracing the family line, but… I’m a writer. Somewhere along the line, I have to turn out the words. Hobbies like genealogy must take a back seat, especially when you’re sitting dangerously close to publication deadlines and you still have another 20,000 words to find.

It was only later, as the pressure eased, that I realised Trace Your Roots had another possible use.

The mainstay of my work is crime fiction, usually from a private detective point of view. How many times has Joe Murray needed to make a link between characters A and Z? How could Alex Croft have dug out the descendants of The Great Zepelli and narrowed down his search for The Handshaker? How can Martin and Saga set about finding TT in BBC 4’s excellent serial, The Bridge... Well they’re Swedish/Danish, but I presume those countries have their equivalents of the National Archives and parish registers.

Frances di Plino’s excellent thriller, Bad Moon Rising, involves a search for… let’s just say, someone. How do you conduct that search? To be honest, until I read Trace Your Roots, I wouldn’t have had a clue. Now I have. I know how that person can be traced, I know how Joe can track down the heir to the fortune he’s stumbled across, and I know how Alex Croft can tackle the search for Julius Reiniger in post war Britain.

Taking a wider view of the matter, there have been novels written where the hero/heroine specifically searches out family history in an effort to come to terms with present problems. How much easier is it to produce that kind of work when you have all the research to hand in one volume, and I could see this working in most genres from romance to horror.

Maureen didn’t produce Trace Your Roots as a handbook for writers, but as a handy guide for budding genealogists, but like thrifty, “waste not, want not” devotees, we scribes can turn any book into a useful tool for our researches.

David lives and works as a novelist on the northeast outskirts of Manchester, England. He is a prolific author, having produced works in cosy crime, psycho-horror, sci-fi and humour. 
Visit David’s Amazon page HERE


Cathie Dunn said...

Insightful post, David.

I've managed to incorporate something I learned from Maureen's book into my current wip, a Victorian romantic suspense novella. I used the detail about marriage licences for my characters. Very helpful! And perfect timing.

Great post.

Kimm Walker said...

What a good idea, David. And I love the way you slipped in a few promotions for other authors. You're a star.

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

yes - geneology has a lot to offer the writer, I think. I always try to do a fictional background family tree to help me get inside a character. Nurture is as important as nature and the culture we are raised in has strong roots we are wise to acknowledge. Great Post!

Maureen said...

Too be fair, Kimm, I only allowed David's post because it mentioned my new book.

DW96 said...

Thank you Cathie, Kimm and Patricia.

Mo, I really must get you to work on my publicity.

Cathie that bit about marriage licences is interesting. I never thought of that. I keep going to the Register Office to see if mine has expired.

Kimm, the secret to pulicity is sleight of hand. Ask Mo.

Patricia, I usually know all there is to know about my characters, but and recently, I've had to draw up a famly tree for Joe Murray. Mo's book helped. I needed somewhere to rest my ashtray ;-)

Maureen said...

Here to help.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi David and Mo .. it's a great thought isn't it .. I mainly have my family trees - but the resources in the Parish Registers, archives, National Registries at Kew etc .. are all fascinating ..

One day I might be able to settle and find out more .. and in due course your book will be interesting to have as a reference.

Thanks for reminding us about Mo's book .... David - cheers Hilary