Family History Mystery Series
I’ll be at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Ridgewood Shopping Center, Raleigh on Thursday night, March 13 at 7:30 p.m. to talk about my new book in the Family History Mystery series, DEATH IN REEL TIME. Join me if you can!
Had a great interview with Cathy over at her Kittling:Books blog. Thanks, Cathy.
I’ve started a new website over at FiveMinuteFamilyHistory.com to encourage us all to work on family history for a few minutes each day (or maybe four times a week, let’s be realistic). Come on over for frequent prompts and organizational tips to help you write your family’s story–one little chunk at a time
Writing the history of a family isn’t all about visiting graveyards, or sneezing your way through hours of research in dusty archives. For most of us family history is around us everyday, but few of us think to get out our butterfly nets and capture it for those who’ll come along after. It needn’t be an overwhelming task if you break it down into small chunks. I’ll be posting prompts from time to time here to get you going. So get out a new fresh notebook and let’s begin our 5-minute family-history break. You can do this while you have your morning coffee.
We all live among things. Some of those things become imbued with special meaning. They’re associated with people or events, they engender curiosity, sentimentality or can even become talismans of sorts. This is why a family will sometimes be in perfect harmony about splitting stocks and bonds, but fall into a squabble over a chipped cookie jar.
One of the family artifacts my children fixated on was a card shuffler, an item that came down from my husband’s grandparents. They loved feeding the cards through it and watching it shuffle. This provided an opportunity for hubby to share something about their great-grandmother who played bridge with her friends every week and to tell them what that activity (and those friends) had meant to her life.
So for today’s assignment, pick an artifact (either one that has come down to you from your family or one that you’ve procured in HOPES of making it a family heirloom for future generations). Write everything you know about that object: what it is, how it came into the family, what it was used for, any memories of events or routines that involved the object, if it has monetarily value, etc. Write for 5 or 10 minutes.
There, in a short time you’ve captured a bit of family history. You can put the butterfly net away until next time.
Just sent in the copy edits for DEATH IN REEL TIME, featuring my genealogist duo, Sophreena and Esme. It’s due for publication in March 2014.
Chances are if you have an old box of family photos there are a few cards de visite and/or cabinet cards in there. These paper prints started to appear in the U. S. right around the beginning of the Civil war and quickly became popular, pushing aside the Dagguerotype.
Cards de visite were small and meant to be used as calling cards and exchanged with friends. They were the equivalent of our modern day school-picture wallets.
Shortly after the Civil War larger sized prints became popular, the most common being the cabinet card, so named because the stiff backing and larger size (4 ½ x 6 ½) made it possible to display the photographs in a cabinet.
These were first used in the horizontal or landscape mode and featured family groups and were later adapted for portraits. The cabinet card passed out of fashion in the early days of the 1900s as personal cameras became more readily available and candid photographs were favored.
Judging by the clothing (more on this in subsequent posts) and the embossing on the cabinet card’s backing this photograph was probably produced in 1895-1905, toward the end of the cabinet card era.
Most early cabinet cards were albumen prints made with egg white and they will display a sepia tone or a greenish cast. True black and white cabinet cards were produced using other photographic methods. These are likely to have been produced toward the end of the century.
Some VERY general guidelines for dating cabinet cards:
Characteristics of the card-stock backing:
- 1866-1890-Likely to be plain cut
- 1890-1900-Rounded corners or beveled edges
- 1885-1900s-Scalloped edges
- 1866-1900-There may be none
- 1866-1880-single or double line
- 1870-1880s-Thick gilt border line
- 1895-1900s-Embossed patterns
- 1886-onward-Graphic ornamentation lines, perhaps separating the photographer’s name/locating from the image
The back side:
First of all always check the back carefully for anything that might be written there, perhaps in pencil, or faded ink. Use a jeweler’s loupe to check as your naked eye may miss it.
Generally speaking, if the backside contains an advertisement for the photographic studio, the larger and more ornate it is, the later it was produced. Up until about 1890s this ad would only have taken up about half the card. Thereafter it might have covered the entire back.
To continue the ponderings of the last post….
There’s a Gwyneth Paltrow movie from the late 90s called SLIDING DOORS that rides on the theme of the fraught nexus. Paltrow’s character is running to catch a train and the door is about to slide shut. From that point the viewer sees two paths for her life, shown in parallel. In one she catches the train and gets home earlier than expected. There she finds an unwelcome surprise that puts her life on a different path. In the other storyline she misses the train and her life plods along on the same (unsatisfactory) trajectory it was on before. Everything about her life hinges on what happens in that one fleeting moment.
Maybe becoming aware of what came before makes us more appreciative, or maybe it informs us about ourselves in new ways—maybe we suddenly realize that we came to be stubborn (undaunted? It’s all in your perspective) as a birthright when we find out an ancestor tried–and failed–a dozen times before he finally hit upon a successful business. Or maybe we can trace a sunny disposition back to the great-grandmother who smiled for her portraits even in the days when a more somber expression was in vogue.
The mystery writer in me is also drawn to the things left hidden, the family secrets hinted about, but never told. The ghost of a whisper that comes down through the generations, lingering within the family, but never fully acknowledged. These are the kinds of secrets my genealogy protagonist, Sophreena McClure, uncovers in PAGING THE DEAD, the first in my Family History Mystery series from Gallery. And since not all family secrets can be dug out of the family archives, I’ve given her a partner with the gift of being able to SOMETIMES hear the dead (it’s a cantankerous and sporadic gift). It was a fun book to write and I hope it will inspire some people to begin researching their own family histories. In the meantime, I’m feeling really lucky to be here.
If you’d like to play what-if with your own family history, start with your parents and think about all the decisions, plans, disruptions and kismet that had to happen in precise order for you to have come into the world.
It’s a question hard-wired into a fiction writer’s brain. And it’s one of the reasons I got hooked on family history research. What if my four times great grandfather had decided he liked England just fine, thank you very much. and decided to stay put. He would never have met my four times great-grandmother who was already across the vast sea. There would be no me. What if my three times great-grandmother had perished in the difficult birth of her first son, and suppose she’d listened to the advise of her doctor and had no more children. I wouldn’t be here. Suppose my twice great-grandfather had left his place of work five minutes later? He wouldn’t have picked up the package that lovely young lady dropped and she would not eventually have become his wife and–I wouldn’t be here.
There are thousands of moments of intersection in each person’s ancestry, some created from intentional decisions, some by happenstance, some literally accidental and others by matters of timing. When contemplating this cavalcade of juncture-moments most people have one of two reactions. Some take it as proof positive they were meant to be and that the universe conspired to bring them to right where they are. It’s confirmation, affirmation. Others tend toward the HOLY SCHNIKIES, BATMAN! school of thought, perhaps punctuated with a bit of hyperventilation, as they realize how truly tenuous their coming to selfhood was for every inch of the way down the long corridors of their family descent.
For lots of folks the hardest part about delving into a family history is trying to figure out how to begin. It’s daunting. Do you go backward or forward? Start with yourself or your most distant known progenitor (biological ancestor)? Maybe with a family group or a direct line? Or maybe take a nap and think some more on it tomorrow.
Here’s where the power of the individual really comes into play. If you concentrate on one ancestor at a time things are much more manageable. And if we borrow from Frank Capra and imagine how that person’s life has affected those around him/her it really can turn into an interesting exercise. Just as George in A Wonderful Life was allowed to see how his life contributed to his family and his community you may discover how your ancestor has contributed in small/great, good/bad ways to the fabric of life around him/her. Not to mention providing a critical link in the chain leading to your very existence!
So here are three concrete steps to begin an individual record:
- Take a fresh piece of archival paper (if you’re going to do the work, you want it to last). But do keep in mind that this is intended as a “working document” and not a scrapbook page. Don’t get overly concerned about the asthetics.
- Mount a photo of the person you’ve chosen at the top, or along the side–whatever layout suits you. If you don’t have a photo then mount a contrasting piece of archival paper as a placeholder in case you find a photo later.
- Start to list everything you know about that person (or everything you hope to find out as you’re researching).
If all you have is anecdotal evidence (what other family members say or remember, family lore or the repetition of casual personal records that have not been verified by a more “official” source, make careful note of this. (“Aunt Eva told me he was named for a friend of his father’s,” etc.)
If the information comes from an official source, make note of that as well. At this stage don’t worry about how (precisely) to cite the source, just make note of it in your own words, “found this on his birth certificate,” or “in the family Bible Aunt Ruth has,” for examples. You can supply the official citations later.
You may want to include your own speculations about things in this record as well, which may be valuable to you or to other family researchers in the future. Just makes sure you always state that these are your guesses or conclusions.
Also, I should mention that there are plenty of pre-printed individual records forms available in genealogy books and on the Internet, but I have discovered that they sometimes stifle questions that don’t fit neatly into the boxes so I prefer this more free-form approach. However, you may find they work well for you so do have a look.
Here are a dozen questions to get you started:
- What is this person’s full name? Include any alternate spellings you’ve run across, nicknames and, for females, birth and married names. Who the person was named for or anything else you might have learned about why the name was chosen.
- Where and when was this person born?
- Where did this person go to school?
- Is this person known to have had a special talent or pastime?
- Where did this person live? List all the places that are known.
- When and where did this person marry?
- What is the name of the person’s spouse (list as much information as is known. You may choose to make an additional “box” on the page for information about the spouse.)
- Did this couple have children? If so list all names/dates of birth & death/and other information (again, you may choose to do this in a separate box, or in the box with the spouse)
- What was this person’s occupation?
- 10. List anything you know about the physical description of this person. Tall/short, dark/fair, any distinctive characteristics?
11. Where and when did the person die? How did he/she die? Where is he/she buried? Make a note of the age at the time of death so that you and others don’t have to do the math again.
12. Is there anything you’ve ever wondered about concerning this relative? If so make a note of the question and a list of family members you might ask about it, or of sources you might check to find the answers.
Of course, there are many more questions you can pose: military service, sports participation, personal interests, personal possessions/heiirlooms, ethnic ancestry and lineage, friends, activist for a cause? etc.
Some questions will never get an answer in return. Some family history is lost to the vagaries of time since no one thinks to record the happenings of everyday life or ask questions while relatives are still alive to answer. And with that in mind, don’t neglect to make a page for yourself!