Keeping it in the Family (Cecilia Peartree)
During the pandemic I’ve been ‘inspired’ to write some odd, random things as well as trying to keep up with my output of mystery novels. One month - it may have been June but all the months have run together so it was possibly May, or July – I aimed to write the songs that would turn an old short story of mine into a musical as well as shortening a sort of novella-length story so that it would fit into an anthology. There was a month when I managed to finish two novels and start a third one unexpectedly. I don’t think my efforts are getting any less random as the situation goes on. The other week I found myself signing up for a screenwriting project whereby you are supposed to write a screenplay every day for 14 days. Watch this space! I predict that the results will not be coming to your local cinema any time soon.
Then there was the project to write up my family history. The writing up part is now more or less finished, with a little more light editing still to do, but I now have to decide what images and charts to add, and what to do about publishing it, which will quite likely take me a while.
I’ve been researching my family history ever since the arrival of the world wide web made it feasible to get started without too much effort. At first my brother and I used Family Search, which is run by the LDS (Mormons) and derives from their wish to baptise everyone into their church retrospectively. I apologise to anyone who knows more about it if this is a gross over-simplification. Although more advanced technology is now available for family history research, I don’t know that we would have made so much progress so quickly if it hadn’t been for Family Search, not least because we discovered fairly early on that some of our own relatives had already been researched quite thoroughly. This is not, I hasten to add, because we are related to royalty or the nobility, but because some of my great-grandmother’s cousins actually became Mormons after some missionary efforts in Fife, of all places, and were subsidised by them to emigrate to America and then trek to Utah by wagon train.
Anyway, I didn’t intend this post to be about my family specifically, but about the general process of writing up this kind of thing, as opposed to the fiction I usually specialise in.
There has to be some kind of story even in non-fiction, and it’s partly because of this that it has taken me years to get round to writing down any of the family history, although I have at least two drawers full of my research findings and a database both on my own computer and on the Ancestry website. Another reason for delay was that of course research is never-ending, so there is always the temptation to hang on until that last little piece of the puzzle can be put in place. It never is, of course.
I had a vague idea that I might write a chapter for each generation or so, but for a long time I couldn’t make up my mind whether to write in chronological order, starting with a planned section called ‘Lost in the Mists of Time’ or something similarly vague, or whether to deal with one branch at a time or arrange the book by themes or in some other way.
Eventually I settled on writing in reverse chronological order and started with a chapter called ‘Baby Boomers’ (myself and my brother). The following chapter was about my parents and was entitled ‘The Wartime Generation’. After that, it became impossible to write by generation because, perhaps unusually, the people in my family had life experiences that differed from one family to the next, to a far greater extent than I had expected, and the further I went back in time, the more diverse their experiences became. This seems counter-intuitive since people may imagine all their ancestors in the 19th century were either agricultural labourers or worked in coal mines or factories. I think quite a few of mine were in these categories, but not all by any means. Similarly, some episodes of ‘Who do you think you are?’ might lead people to believe every impoverished family ended up in the workhouse, but I haven’t found this to be true of mine. In many cases older family members went to live with their children and grandchildren, and in some areas the local church helped people financially. Something else that has surprised me is the ripe old ages some people, particularly men, lived to in Victorian Scotland.
The next few chapters were divided up, more or less, by people’s occupations. There was ‘The Soldier and the Quaker’, ‘Textiles and Friendly Societies’, ‘Rooted in the Land’, ‘All at Sea’ and ‘Crystals among the Coal’. Towards the end of that part of the book, I realised that in many cases I had traced the family back to their roots, or at least to the place where their family name originated. The next couple of chapters mostly deal with these localities and with vague theories about which of various families with the same names might be the right one, and the final chapter mentions DNA testing and how it complements research in the records. I’ve also added lists of various resources I’ve used, both online and in the real world, with comments about how to use them. I think this part of the book might be of some use to other researchers, particularly if they suddenly find they have Scottish ancestry and don’t know where to start. This has recently happened to someone I know.
Although this account may not be of much interest to many people, I’m planning to go ahead and publish it anyway, just to make sure it’s available to others in some form. According to Ancestry I have 359 DNA relatives for a start! At the time of writing I’m thinking in terms of publishing just the text as an ebook, and adding images and charts to a print edition, but there may be yet another delay while I decide on whether it’s worth the effort of trying to put images into an ebook.