Genealogy is a process akin to assembling a massive jigsaw puzzle that has pieces scattered across multiple locations and times, some of which cannot be found, and with no indication of the picture that’s to be assembled. The more pertinent facts one has the better, because that can help establish who an ancestor was, and why he or she was in a given place at a given time. Working on my family’s genealogy, I found it helpful to develop timelines on each individual, and doing so helped me sort out a number of people with similar names, who were born within a few years of one another. The basic process is to take every known fact relating to an individual, and place it in order by known dates, and in doing so, often times a fuller picture of the individual begins to form.
In writing fiction, whether prose or scripted drama, the author is creating facts out of the blue, but applying techniques similar to genealogical research can be helpful in crafting a story that works logically as well as emotionally. In writing my original work, The Long-Timers, on which my current series of novels is based, I found that creating timelines for the characters helped me anchor them within the historical periods they were living. Of course, my novel is a historical fantasy, so placing the characters in the proper historical context was vital to the story, but understanding the relationship of a character to his or her time is as important as creating the environment and the interactions with other characters that occur in the narrative.
The process of genealogy is to reconstruct the story of a family, so it’s important to know where they were and, if possible, why they were there. In the wake of the Revolutionary war, a lot of people moved from Virginia, North and South Carolina to Georgia. One reason for this was that Georgia opened up a lot of land through a series of treaties and military actions that displaced the Native Tribes that originally lived there, and started giving away the land for little or no money. Revolutionary veterans were given preferential treatment in the lotteries held to distribute the land, but anyone who was white, of age, eligible to vote, or the child of someone who’d fought in the Revolution was given a draw. The land in Georgia was parceled out in lots of 202 1/2 acres, quite an incentive for someone looking to relocate and start over, which led to a lot of migration into Georgia between 1790 and 1820. A number of my ancestral families, including the Lupos, Striblings, Peavys, Hintons, Smiths, and Carters moved to Georgia during this time period.
While creating a formal timeline on a character may not be the solution for every writing project, it’s never wrong to consider why a character behaves as he or she does in a certain situation, and often, the historical context can have a bearing on the reasons behind those actions. Knowing the external factors that may be influencing a character can provide valuable insight into what’s motivating the character. For instance, someone born and raised in Alabama during the 1960s is likely to have vastly different experiences than someone raised in Oklahoma during the 1880s. If the story is set in a particular point in history, then the events of that history will no doubt play a part in helping to shape the characters’ point of view. Knowing the character’s history, and how it shapes the character, adds richness to the story, and provides a logic to a character’s behavior, regardless of whether the character is working in concert with the events of history or against them. In the opening chapters of Catch 22, Yossarian’s actions seem crazy, but once the proper context in which these actions occur has been established, they make perfect sense.
In working on the history of my family in Virginia, I was faced with the lack of definitive records tying one generation to the preceding one between 1728 and 1779. My ancestor, James Lupo, made out his will in 1789, and a will recorded in 1779 established who his mother was, but no record identifies his father, or when he was born. Equally, there is no information on the ages of James’ sons and daughters, so developing timelines on them proved helpful in sorting this out. Below is an partial example of the timeline I worked up on my ancestor, William Lupo, which contained every known date he appeared in official records, and one or two instances where he wasn’t found in the records.
William Lupo of Johnston County, NC
1782: William Lupo is not listed on the Virginia state census of 1782, though James, James, Jr., Phillip and Laban Lupo are listed in Isle of Wight County.
1784: William Lupo purchased 100 acres of land from Joshua Hayls or Hails and his wife Amy, who are listed as living in Edgecombe County, NC.
1784: William appears on a tax list, recorded as owning 420 acres in Johnston County, NC, though no corresponding deeds have been found to account for all of this property.
1787: William appears on a state census enumeration with 1 male 21 or over, 2 males under 21, and 5 females in his household.
1787: William appears as a witness in a court case involving William Ward and John Rhodes, for which David Bell acted as security; William acted as security for the appearance of John Fields and John Dimont.
1789: William Lupo is listed as a son in the will of James Lupo of Isle of Wight County, VA (recorded September, 1790) but does not appear in court when the will is presented, or when land from the estate is sold.
1790: US Census of Johnston County, shows William’s household now has 2 males 16 or older, 2 males under 16, and 7 females.
In the absence of other information, I made the assumption that the individuals listed in his household in 1787 are William, his wife and their children. In general, births in Colonial America occurred every one and a half to two years. If these represented individual births, occurring 18-24 months apart, their earliest child was most likely born between 1775 and 1778, meaning William and his wife probably married between 1774 and 1777. Assuming William was at least 21 when he married, he would have been born 1753-56. This time period coincides with when James Lupo first showed up in deed records in Isle of Wight County, VA.
For my novel, The Long-Timers, the timeline I developed on the main character, Victoria Wells, began with her birth on the day of Queen Victoria’s coronation in June of 1838. This event is referenced several times throughout the novel, notably when Victoria learns her life span is different than that of an average person, and when she meets a kindred spirit on the occasion of her one hundredth birthday. I first included any historical events that would impact the characters, such as when her sister Amanda was transported to Australia in 1861, and since Victoria’s story was told in parallel to that of her sister Allison, I included notable events in both their lives.
Timeline for A Tale of Two Sisters (formerly The Long-Timers)
1834: Margaret Smythe marries Thomas Seely
1835: William “Billy” Seely born
1837: Thomas Seely killed in an accident at the docks
1837: Margaret meets Niles Gunnerson and has an affair with him
1838: Victoria born
1840: Amanda born
1846: Gunnerson returns
1848: Gunnerson dies
1848: Sarah born
1848: Margaret disposes of Sarah, and places Victoria and Amanda in an orphanage
1848: The Stepneys find and adopt Sarah, rename her Allison
1848: Margaret dies; Billy sent to a workhouse
The primary difference between the timeline for the novel and the family timeline is that the family timeline is more reliant on available documents, but many of the events described follow the typical events that occur in families, births, marriages and deaths, and most likely could be found in existing records, if they’d actually happened. England at the time of Victoria was already a heavily bureaucratic nation, where events such as births and deaths were noted, if not by the state, then certainly by the parish, whereas many of the official records from Colonial and post-Revolutionary America tended to be land and estate records, but these, too, can provide a rich source of documentation on a family, provided they can be found and include enough details.
Establishing timelines can also help sort out the logical sequence of events as they occur in a fictional piece, just as placing historical events connected to an ancestor in their proper sequence in history can help to separate fact from fiction in oft-told family legends. At separate times, my grandmother and one of my cousins related to me a story told to them by my great-grandmother, that when she came to the United States from Germany, she sailed into New York harbor and saw the Statue of Liberty. However, records relating to her immigration show she and her family arrived at the port of Baltimore, not New York, and, more importantly, my great-grandmother was born in 1863 and came to the United States when she was eight or nine, around 1872. The Statue of Liberty wasn’t completed until 1886, and construction on its pedestal did not begin until 1883, meaning there’s no way she could have seen it when she immigrated, even if had she entered the U.S. via New York.
By the time the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, my great-grandmother would have been an adult and married to my great-grandfather, so I’ve often wondered if, in fact, my great-grandparents traveled to New York to see the dedication of the Statue, and that somehow the story got mixed up with the story of her arrival. Otherwise, the best I can conclude is that she saw something upon her arrival that she equated with being in America — there is a prominent statue called Lady Baltimore at the courthouse downtown, where immigrants may have been processed — and over time, repeated retelling within the family caused it to morph into the Statue of Liberty, that being the most iconic image for immigrants in America. That the story doesn’t match the actual facts of her immigration doesn’t diminish the sense of what it must have been like for a young German girl to arrive in a new land full of anticipation, promise, and probably not a little dread. It’s a universal story, and knowing it can only enhance both the actual history of a family, as well as a fictional representation.