Learning Your Family's Stories with Guest Blogger Amanda Wen
Erica here: I am delighted to welcome today's guest-blogger, Amanda Wen. Amanda is a debut author, and her new book is called Roots of Wood and Stone, a split time set in Sedgwick County, Kansas. As a native Kansan, I was so excited when I read the synopsis for this book. Amanda is published by Kregel, my publisher, so we're not only Kansans at heart, we're pub-mates! If you get a chance, I recommend following/friending Amanda on social media. Her posts about her kids, affectionately dubbed "The Wenlets" are hysterical!
If you’ve been a writer for any length of time, you’ve probably been asked—or perhaps wondered yourself—where to get story ideas. For my debut, Roots of Wood and Stone, the answer centers around a century-old farmhouse, an ancestor’s memoir, and my mom’s hobby of genealogy.
Mom’s been tracing our ancestry longer than I’ve been alive, so my childhood is peppered with vacations to places like Bean Blossom, Indiana (really!). While my mother combed through census records and property deeds, my brother and I would spend hours in small town libraries and courthouses devouring Dave Barry and Calvin and Hobbes, watching the clock, and trying to ignore our snack-deprived stomachs. As a kid, this resulted in decidedly lukewarm enthusiasm for my mom’s hobby, but now as an adult and a writer, I’m immensely grateful for all the stories she learned over the years, some of which have found their way into fiction.
But if you didn’t spend your formative years vacationing to Middle-Of-Nowhere, West Virginia, all is not lost. I’m here with a few easy pointers to help you start learning your family’s stories, and possibly even sowing seeds for your own.
If you’re fortunate enough to still have your parents or grandparents around, take time to listen to—and maybe even record!—their stories. You might be surprised what they already know about who you are and where you came from. In addition—and historical writers can attest to this—such conversations are invaluable when it comes to details like food, slang terms, and trends of bygone eras. But even if you’re a contemporary writer, story ideas can still surface. Maybe your grandparents’ meet-cute can find its way into your next contemporary romance!
|From Amanda's Family Archives|
The Internet is also chock-full of resources for genealogists. Ancestry.com, a site my mom has used for years, contains a wealth of birth, marriage, and death certificates, passenger registries, military records, census indices, and more. If someone else has already looked into your family, that information will be there, so you might find a photo of an ancestor you never even knew existed! You may learn that one of your forbears was killed by a falling icicle (as one of mine was) or that your great-great-grandmother was carried across the Isthmus of Panama on the back of a native guide (also a true family story). Ancestry has a monthly subscription fee for those who really get into it, but if all you’re needing is ideas, their free 14-day trial should suffice.
Another amazing—and free!—online resource is Find A Grave. Tombstone inscriptions frequently include valuable genealogical information like birth and death dates as well as names of parents, children, or spouses. Before the Interwebz, the only way to find this information was to physically visit the cemetery. This meant that, yes, our family vacations also involved trudging through cemeteries in indescribably remote places, scraping away lichen to reveal worn inscriptions, and very often picking thorns out of our socks for hours afterward (“What’d you do on your vacation?” “I went to Disney World! What about you?” “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you…”). But now with Find A Grave, you can pay a virtual visit to any cemetery with just a few clicks of your fingers.
As with Ancestry, Find A Grave often contains a wealth of information submitted by other users. This information can and often does include obituaries, photos, and links to other family members, all of which can easily spark story ideas. Through Find A Grave, I learned the story of my great-great-great grandmother, Sarah Stevens, who, along with her infant son, George, died shortly after she and her husband, William, arrived as early settlers of Sedgwick County, Kansas. Included in her online memorial is a quote from a biography of her husband: “[William] was visited with a sore affliction in the death of his wife, which occurred the following year, 13 May 1871, while she was still a young woman, being but thirty-eight years of age.”
This quote really sparked my imagination. What would a recently-arrived pioneer do when gutted by such a “sore affliction?” How would he cope with the tasks of running a farm and raising his other children and emerge with his faith intact (as was the case with William Stevens)? These questions, and the resulting rumination, eventually found their way into the pages of Roots of Wood and Stone in the character arc of my historical-timeline hero, Jack Brennan.
I won’t spoil Jack’s story for you, but I will give you a post-script to the story of William and Sarah Stevens. One of their older children, Mattie, was my great-great-grandmother. She went on to marry another pioneer, an Irish immigrant named Francis Little. That memoir I mentioned at the beginning of this post was Francis’s memoir, and that farmhouse? That was Francis and Mattie’s house. While researching the book, I learned that a distant cousin still has access to the (now-abandoned) home and offered to give me a personal tour.
Of course I invited my mom.
I hope I’ve helped spark a new way to get inspiration for all you Seekers, and I can’t wait to see what stories emerge as you all mine your heritage for ideas. Have you ever put any of your family history in a story? Any memorable ancestor stories you’d like to share? I’d love to know! Leave me a comment below, and one lucky commenter will win a signed paperback copy of Roots of Wood and Stone!
Get your copy today!
Amanda Wen is an award-winning writer of inspirational romance and split-time women’s fiction. She has placed first in multiple contests, including the 2017 Indiana Golden Opportunity Contest, the 2017 Phoenix Rattler Contest, and the 2016 ACFW First Impressions Contest, among others. She was also a 2018 ACFW Genesis Contest finalist.
In addition to her writing, Amanda is an accomplished professional cellist and pianist who frequently performs with orchestras, chamber groups, and worship teams, as well as serving as a choral accompanist. A lifelong denizen of the flatlands, Amanda currently lives in Kansas with her husband, their three adorable and hilarious Wenlets, and a snuggly Siamese cat. Roots of Wood and Stone is her debut novel.
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