Monday, September 13, 2010

Stranger Than Fiction - writing the truth with a twist

I don’t know about you, but I LOOOOVE a good story. How many of you have wonderful memories of someone telling you a story – a fairytale or maybe reading you a good book. The best kinds of stories are those that make us feel like we’re experiencing the action, like it’s part of our lives.

Well, what if it is? Or at least, what if someone in your past, your family history, is telling a story about their lives and it’s too amazing to imagine.

That’s what happened to me about eight years ago – and sparked the creation of several of my novels.

Family history. Truly – stranger than fiction.

As part of my eclectic family history, there are horse thieves, accused murderers, a possible witch, and at the top of the unseemly characters list, my great, great grandfather, John. He was heralded as the meanest man in the mountains. John did many horrible things in his life, but one story is that he traded his wife for a hunting dog. Since he was said to be the meanest man in the mountains, perhaps we should feel sorry for the dog.

As a product of the unique culture of Appalachia, I benefited from a granny who kept a long oral history. I can tell you stories of my ancestors that go back about seven generations, a few maybe longer. And I’ve taken those tales, those memories, and incorporated them into various novels I’ve written or am writing.

As a matter of fact, my novel Here to Stay (WHICH JUST PLACED FIRST IN THE TARA - check the news out here), takes the idea of a young woman searching for the mystery her ancestry and makes it into a fun adventure of romance, discovery, and second chances.

So, how can you discover the stories of your past?

First of all, I suggest you write down the stories of the present. We get so busy that we forget our stories might be interesting someday, and because we have a tendency to forget various parts of the story, we should jot it down along the way. Keeping a journal is a fantastic way to do this.

For example, just a few years ago I had one of those HILARIOUSLY unbelievable moments happen to me. I’d been kind of depressed about some things for a few weeks and was driving to work and praying (as a mom of 5 that’s about the only time I have to be alone ;-) About five minutes into my drive I felt something on my leg. I reached down to swipe it off and felt…FUR. Then the ‘whatever’ scuttled up my leg to my knee. When I glanced down I saw a MOUSE sitting on my KNEE!!!!!

Long story short – before I crashed the van into the ditch along the road, I found a place to pull over and proceeded to beat my purse around the inside of the van (with all the doors open) until that mouse jumped out and headed for the nearest SANE woman :-) Anyway, that story didn’t just get me out of my funk, but it also inspired a scene in a story which then inspired an entire book.

NEXT, Find old…er….well-seasoned people in your family and spend TIME with them. Stories and culture comes from starting a conversation. I’ve been taking notes on my granny’s stories for fifteen years. The tales of her life in Appalachia, being raised by an unpredictable alcoholic father and strong-spirited mother are the inspiration for my YA WWII historical series – kind of like a cross between Anne of Green Gables and Little Women set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Va.

Daydream! Yes, I'm giving you an assignment. I have my great, great, great grandmother's china salad plates from Ireland. She left her home to move to America when she met my great, great, great grandfather. When I pull out those plates, I let my mind wander through what it must have been like to be her. Did she HAVE to marry him because of the famine in Ireland, or was it a love so great she was willing to leave her homeland for him? What kind of guy would inspire that sort of commitment?

 (The picture to the left is Peveril Castle Keep in Castelton, Derbyshire, UK - my ancestor, William Peveril built it in the 12th century)

Genealogy sites are great, but the REAL stories come from PEOPLE. It’s not just about dates and names, the people become three-dimensional when you have a flesh-and-blood person recounting the tale. The REAL challenge is finding the right people.

Do you have some stories in your family’s past that are stranger than fiction? Ones that would be the start of a great book? Or maybe some that have INSPIRED a novel you've already written?
Share with us.


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Great post Pepper! I don't have details, but I do know that my g/g/great grandmother was a full blooded Indian. That's gotta make for some kind of story. I also have ancestors with a castle in England...that should make for some great research, no doubt. And then I recently heard a story of a woman who met her husband when she was 14. She sneaked off to meet him...he was in his 20's. They were married for a long time too. So strange...that wouldn't be tolerated in today's time.

Mary Vee Writer said...

I'm so glad you found a way to announce your TARA news today!
What an entertaining post! I think I would have crashed the van if I'd discover the mouse. EEK!
It makes me look for a chair just thinking about it.
Great ideas. My great aunt loves to gather family stories. I guess I should meet with her and scribble some of them down.

Casey said...

Oh. My. Goodness. A mouse??? My legs are seriously started to twitch. Totally freaked out here. *shaky inhale* Need I also mention I hate mice?????

Anywho, love the post and pics! Wow, you have really traced your ancestory back a long ways! My relatives don't really like to talk about our history, so I don't know much. I know that I am possibly part Pennslyvania Dutch (Amish or Old World Mennonite) and my great, great grandparents conceived a baby out of wedlock and had to jump the state line to get married since they were too young. Interesting stuff. I would really love to know more about my heritage, but don't really know where to look.

Loved the post!

Anonymous said...

Congrats on winning the TARA!

My family is full of strange but true tales, I love to hear the stories and research the past. Like my Spanish Hugeunot relative who fled to England, fell in love with an English girl, married her at St. Mary's at Crich before going to America. Who'd have thought all these years later I'd be living just down the road from that Church?!

Pepper said...

Sounds like you got the sparks of a good story in there ;-) And a castle too? Woohoo! Royalty :-) I LOVE researching geneaology

Pepper said...

The mouse story is one of my favorites - but I have so many. Partly because I'm so daggone clumsy, and partly because I'm a mom (or have a CRAZY family). that makes for some interesting stories :-)
Visit that aunt, Mary, you won't regret the info you receive

Pepper said...

Amish is all the rage, you know. ;-) Do you have one of those books in you?
As many genres as I like to write - I've NEVER felt called to write one of those.

Some of your oldest family members would be the best place to start your search. That's where I started mine.

Pepper said...

SHARON!!!! Hidee.
I hope all is well in that lovely country of yours ;-)

Was St. Mary's the church we could see from Crich stand? It's such a beautiful area there and to think YOUR ancestors were there - and now YOU are. Wow!!! Is God cool or what?!?
Miss chatting with you. I hope all is well.

Casey said...

I don't think I would write Amish. Not that I am saying I won't, but I don't feel called to that right now. :) Plus it would mean a research trip to Penns., which actually doesn't sound all that bad.... ;)

Anonymous said...

Ya, you can see it from Crich Stand. It's the Norman church with the stone steeple. God is amazing. Maybe we can catch up sometime :)

Casey- I am originally from PA. If you ever do decide to research Amish country, I could certainly suggest some great PA Dutch communities. There are some gorgeous 'off the beaten path' places, though I know most folks go for Lancaster.

God Bless.