At a book conference some years ago, I was chatting with a man in the book room, where When a Grandchild Dies and Patchwork & Ornament were on display. He made an interesting observation: “Dead people seem to inspire you.”
He was absolutely right. Both books, one I authored and one I edited, were inspired by the memories of people I loved. Their lives inspired me and helped me transcend my anxiety about sharing my writing with the world.
The problem with this is, I don’t want to depend on family members to die in order to find inspiration (my novels to date, thankfully break this trend). Maybe there’s another way to do this.
In the past year, as some of you know, I started researching the family tree on my mother’s side. One result, so far, is an inspiration for the next novel, so I’m immersing myself in 19th century rural Scotland.
Also, in a curious timing, I took a workshop from author Elizabeth George, who begins work on her novel by creating her characters…a great way for me to approach this new project.
But the hits, as they say, just keep on coming.
There’s a family story about my great-great grandmother chasing after her son-in-law with a broom. Grandma Wood was a tough cookie by all accounts, often married and full of piss and vinegar. “Not a nice person,” people have said.
As a rookie genealogist, though, this is the kind of ancestor that grabs our attention. What happened to her? Why was she so “difficult”?
Born Franziska Pokorney in Bohemia, she immigrated to the United States as a child. Frances, or Frannie as one of the Ancestry.com family trees calls her, married at 17 and, it would appear, was widowed at age 23 with three small children.
She remarried, and with one of her husbands had twins, one of whom died at about six months of age. Curiously, the surviving daughter ended up with the surname of Frannie’s first husband — Cross, an Americanized version of Kriz — though young Cora was born five years after Mr. Kriz’s untimely death. I thought this was a fluke at first, a mistake of the census-taker, but Cross shows up in several other places, and her birth father’s name doesn’t appear anywhere.
Was her father a ne’er do well? I don’t wish to speak ill of the dead, especially when any conjecture would just be gossip. All I know is, Frannie was married to him in 1900 and not married to him by 1910.
It’s hard to keep all of Frannie’s husbands straight. I’ve found four that I know of, with the last one William Wood, but based on family lore, there may be more.
She buried a total of four children in her lifetime, and only one, Cora, lived on after her. Isabell lived to age 19, Viola to 23, and Frances (my great-grandmother) to 35.
What happened to the other husbands? How did she bear all that loss without knuckling under completely? What was this woman made of?
I may not get my questions answered — yet again. As with my Scottish ancestors, information is sketchy. I suspect, though, Franziska wants a novel of her own, too. She may, in fact, demand it.
Apparently I have encountered ancestors as muse.
I respect and admire genealogists for their work, and I do try to get the family history as correct as possible. Yet, above all else I am a fiction writer. Even when facts tell me one thing, my brain goes off into a story tangent. The ancestors are giving me so much delicious fodder for novels, I’m afraid I will need to pick up the pace!