Category Archives: Genealogy

‘A tree is a bush that made it.’

Oak_tree;_Live_Oak_picnic_areaI don’t know for sure who made that botanical assertion (Johnny Hart, maybe, and it was at least 40 years ago), but it’s apropos to today’s topic: Characters’ family backgrounds. (Another blogger also has made some observations on this subject.)

In Irish Firebrands, main female character Lana Pedersen is “over 50.” She’s been divorced; her children are Beth, Drew and Nick, aged 28, 25 and 22, and her daughter gets married during the story; she knew at least one of her grandfathers; and she’s familiar with journal entries about how her grandfather’s grandparents met.

Main male character Micheál Dillon Carroll, son of Micheál Carroll and Nora Donovan, was born on May 8, 1945; his father had died during Operation Market-Garden; he was orphaned at birth; his grandparents Séamas and Lucy Carroll raised him; he has no children; and Lana estimates that he’s at least 10 years older than she is. Dillon was married for 15 years; his wife, Mairéad, daughter of Alan Regan and Alice O’Connor, died in 1995; she had no siblings, but she had cousins; her mother predeceased her, and her father died about a year after she did.

Among secondary and supporting characters, Frank Halligan’s birthday is September 1, and Lana estimates that he may be about five years younger than Dillon. Frank is single; his father is dead; he had an elder brother named Stephen (who died when he was 16 and Frank was 14); and his younger siblings are Annie, Patsy, Paula (who’s 10 years younger than Frank), Kate, Jimmy and Trevor (one brother is aged 49). All of Frank’s siblings are married, with kids, four of whom are named: Conn, Aengus, Saoirse and Ian Francis, who is Paula’s eldest of five children (her husband is Declan Barron). John and Anne Sweeney have a son named Colm, and a daughter who has a baby. Lana’s friend Eilish McManus is divorced, and her only daughter, Medb, has her 18th birthday during the story.

Dillon’s family tradition is that he is descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, the first Irishman who claimed to be the High King of Ireland. Irish families may have better reasons to hold such beliefs, than do many others, because most indigenous Irish surnames are patronymic (passed down by men), and DNA and blood-type studies provide supporting evidence for some Irish family histories, although matronymic names and the practice of fosterage could have had a confounding effect.

Lana was accustomed to hearing family traditions that claimed an illustrious ancestor – usually European royalty or nobility. These apocryphal accounts generally involved an undocumented disinherited son cast off in disgrace – or an illicit love affair – or an encounter with a lord of the manor demanding the mythical ‘right of first night’. She knew that these traditions were just wishful thinking, and that if a family shared the name of a famous feudal aristocrat, it was probably because their contemporaneous ancestor was a serf of the fiefdom, who simply adopted the big man’s name when surnames became required by law. ~ Irish Firebrands, Chapter 7. ©2012-2014 by Christine Plouvier. All Rights Reserved.

Early European royalty and nobility were notorious for manufacturing pedigrees that claimed to go back to Adam and Eve, as a way of justifying their divine right to rule, but what they didn’t know was that Biblical genealogies were incomplete and unverifiable (considering the known history of the Bible, this is just common sense: the “begats” have no bearing on its revelatory value). Having famous ancestors, or even just “respectability” have nothing to do with the worth of a family’s history.

As with writing at Camp NaNoWriMo, anybody who has an interest in genealogy can do it, and can do it their own way. For example, if, like Dillon, you were raised by your grandparents, you can start with them. But although a genetically reliable family history can be medically desirable, genealogy doesn’t have to be biological: Adoptees can justifiably document as their own the families that they joined.

Like real trees, family trees can be missing branches. Some have branches that don’t fork much. Others have lots of shoots from the trunk, or suckers arising from the roots. Now and then they’ve been pruned badly, leaving short limbs sprouting sparse, small branches from the stubs. Many were grafted onto a different variety of strong, compatible rootstock.

Trees can have a twisted grain that is almost impossible to split, or weak wood that breaks easily. They can be damaged, have defects like knots, or develop deforming diseases like burls. But it’s worth remembering that weaker wood can be strengthened with the addition of plies, or it can be shaved into a veneer that beautifies another surface; wounded trees always try to heal themselves with scar tissue; “knotty pine” is a popular decorative wood; and burls can be turned into sturdy, handsome bowls.

In life, trees give us breath, feed us, protect us with their cooling shade, and they’re pleasant to look at. In death, they keep on serving us, as shelter and furniture, dishes and spoons, bibelots and books; they help us communicate; warm us with fires of their wood, or when they’re fossilized into coal; their petrochemical derivatives fuel our transportation, and take many shapes as synthetic products; and often they accompany our bodies to the grave.

Families play similar roles in the lives of their members. That’s why I think it’s important to document family trees.

An ancient genealogy?

Perhaps an ancient genealogy?

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All in a Day’s Work.

How are your fictional characters employed? A hardscrabble dystopian wanderer can live off the land for a short time, but in other genres it’s not realistic for people to have no visible means of support: even Edward Fairfax Rochester of Jane Eyre had to manage his farmland and investments, so he could hire a governess and pay other servants – especially Grace Poole, who minded the madwoman locked in the attic suite.

Characters’ jobs may have little to do with the plot, but what they do for a living is a part of their background that can influence back-story. At the very least, work is a competing demand on a character’s time that will dictate when the story can plausibly take place, such as over a weekend, or during a vacation.

In Irish Firebrands, leading man Dillon is a journalist who also does television reporting, and he rents out his ancestral farm. His rival, Frank, is an organic dairy farmer. Among supporting characters, Paula is her brother Frank’s partner in the dairy, and she makes artisan cheese (her husband is a schoolteacher); Eilish is a librarian; and the Sweeney family operates a hardware shop and a garden center with a greenhouse.

Leading lady Lana is a professional genealogist. Her purpose in going to Ireland is to conduct family history research for a client back home, but during her stay she gets involved with Dillon’s search for his roots. In Chapter 7, she shows him how to record his research, using these two forms (click to enlarge):

pedigree chartfam grp rec

Lana took some papers from beneath the box of documents. “Like everything else in life, in genealogy you’ve got paperwork. But there are really only two important forms, and they’re not too complicated. This one’s a pedigree chart. It’s used to record vital statistics for yourself and three generations of direct line ancestors.”

Dillon pulled a pen from the inside breast pocket of his jacket, but Lana proffered a pencil. “This one’s a working copy. We might have to make corrections.” She cleared space on the table.

“Good idea.” He looked at her with pencil poised, as if ready to take dictation. Suppressing a smile, she pointed to a blank line at the top of the paper.

“This is chart number one.” She indicated a line halfway down on the left side. “And you are person number one.”

Dillon muttered while he wrote. “Born … place … married … place died – not yet – in spite of the gobshites who’ve tried to change that … and … spouse….” He looked up from the paper. “There’s a place for Mo’s name, but not her dates.”

“That’s because she gets her own chart, for her side of the family. But if you’re not going to do one for her family, you can add her information below her name.”

“Okay…. What’s next?”

“You see the fine print that says, ‘Father of no. 1’, ‘Mother of no. 1’, and so forth? This means that except for number one, who can be either sex, males are always listed on the even numbered lines – the top ones – and females on the bottom ones. Using this convention avoids confusion if you draw your own charts or use some that don’t have those reminders. Then, when you get to the fourth generation, you start a new chart, where number one will be the same as number eight on chart one, and so on.”

“Got it.” Dillon watched Lana pick up another paper. “Now what?”

“Each couple on the pedigree chart is a family, and we document it on a family group record. Parents are at the top, children are listed below, and you use as many continuation pages as needed, to record all the kids. This one’s for you and Mo.”

“But Mo and I didn’t have – a family.” He looked troubled.

She spoke as gently as she could. “Even a childless couple is a family.”

Then she drew the box of documents closer, and demonstrated as she spoke. “All the family group records go behind the pedigree chart they belong to, and documentation that belongs to each family member goes with that family’s group record. If a document was created during a person’s childhood, it goes with the family group record where that person appears as a child. Records for unmarried adults stay with their parents, but documents created after a person married go with the form that shows him as a spouse.”

She took a manila envelope from the document box. “This is the file for your family with Mo. I put in your marriage certificate and her death certificate. If you don’t start a file for Mo’s parents, you can put in her birth certificate. But your birth certificate will go into the file for your parents.” She handed the packet to Dillon.

“I see.” He put the forms he’d completed into the envelope. He pushed the pile of papers in the document box to one side, and he stood the envelope on edge in one end. “So, what about my photos?”

“If you don’t store them in albums, you can use the same filing system. Some may seem hard to file because of their subjects – like a photo showing two or more families. You could make copies to file with each family, or file it with one family and make a cross-reference page for the others.”

Lana placed blank forms and empty envelopes into the box of documents. “To get you started, I’ve provided forms and envelopes for each family on your first pedigree chart, plus a couple of extras.”

©2012-2014 by Christine Plouvier. All Rights Reserved

To help you get started on your own genealogy – or, if you write massive family sagas with several generations of characters you need to keep track of – Lana has provided PDF copies of the forms she and Dillon used. To download, just click on the Genealogy Forms icons in the sidebar.

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