A trip to the New York Public Library’s Milstein Division this week with three friends was a chance to catch up on the progress we’re making with our family genealogies. Each of us has made surprising discoveries—a grandfather who, as a baby, was left at the doorstep of a foundling hospital; Tennessee Civil War veterans who lived the agonizing struggle of “brother against brother”; the ancestor who lived next door to the real-life House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts, and was a member of the Salem Grand Jury two decades before the witch trials; the family grave markers revealing sons who died within days of each other in the 1918 influenza outbreak. I even know the names and a bit of the history of the ships that brought some of my ancestors to America in 1633 and the early 1900’s (Griffin, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Amerika).
All writers can find inspiration in history, says a recent blog on the Writer magazine website by Hillary Casavant. From my own experience, looking at lives reduced to a few lines transcribed from some 180-year-old deed book, or the estate inventory that includes not only “a cowe and hoggs,” but also salt, pepper, and a coffee pot makes you think about what was valuable in a person’s life generations ago. (As a measure of changing living standards, my household has four coffee-pots and three tea-pots. No cowe or hoggs, though.)
These shards of insight prompt the thought, “I’d like to know the story behind that.” Just such an impulse set a writing colleague on a path to research one of her ancestors, born in the late 1800’s—the first woman to serve as a probation officer in the London criminal courts. Information is scattered, and she has the challenge of writing a fictionalized history. Another writer friend is compiling a set of essays on her family’s history that is closer to a conventional memoir, but viewed through a psychological lens—a thoughtful analysis of how a father’s treatment of his sons echoes through the family generations later.
Writers use history in many different ways to “make it real.” From my recent reading, additional examples are Robert Harris’s An Officer and A Spy, a novelization of the infamous Dreyfus case, in which all the players are known, and the mystery The Cold, Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty, which uses the hunger strikes in Northern Ireland’s HM Prison Maze not only as a backdrop but weaves it into the actions and motivations of the fictional characters. Movies plow this ground endlessly. I really enjoyed The Monuments Men, which, although it prompted inevitable historical quibbles, stayed closer to real experience than the more highly fictionalized The Train, the 1964 Burt Lancaster/Paul Scofield movie on the same theme, which I saw again on TV last night. (Illustrating how far from real life Hollywood must sometimes stray, Wikipedia reports that Lancaster injured his knee playing golf, and to explain his limp, the movie added a scene in which he is shot while crossing a pedestrian bridge. Also, the executions of a couple of characters occurred because the actors had other “contractual obligations.”)
Casavant provides links to websites that can provide historical inspiration, including the
lists of history facts in Mental Floss, a blog of noteworthy letters, and the Library of Congress’s 14.5 million photo and graphic archive. To her suggestions, I’d add that one’s own family history, the unique combinations of external events and internal dynamics that made them who they were, can also be a rich resource. In a sense, it’s a recasting of the much-abused advice to writers to “write what you know.” Or, as George Packer has said (his ancestors lived adjacent to mine on Hurricane Creek in Wilson County, Tennessee, BTW), “History, any history, confers meaning on a life.”