Sunday, September 2, 2007

Genealogy and Writers

I've been doing the FamilySearch indexing for quite some time now. This involves taking records, such as the 1900 census, and putting them into forms that will later be put online free. When I started, the training said each record takes 30-60 minutes to complete. I've yet to complete a census record of 50 names in an hour. I suspect they didn't beta test on writers.

"Wow, look at this. Ten children in the family, all born in different states. I wonder why they moved so much? I'll bet..." and my imagination is off and running, creating a complete bio and plot line for this family. Twenty minutes later, I come to and remember I'm supposed to be extracting, not plotting.

One day I found a family on a 1900 census which listed the woman as head of household and her husband as "husband." This being 1900, there was a story in there somewhere. This being in an area near where my own ancestors lived, where many of the surnames were familiar to me, there was a really good story in there somewhere. I do not come from boring stock. I knew that if the census taker found no one at home, he sometimes got the information from neighbors. I pictured the scene. "That's my cousin. Let me tell you something. She wears the pants in that family. Put her down as head." The census taker, also being a cousin of some sort, would laugh and know it was probably true. (In the hillls of my family, they're all cousins and the women in my family were strong survivors.) Then he'd tell the story all over town as a really good joke to anyone who would listen...until that head of household dumped this week's batch of whiskey over his head.

I start each session by looking over the country of origin, occupations, and educations of my week's list. We don't record some of that information, but I want to know about the neighborhood I'm in. Then I scan the records to see if they might be kin. Only then am I ready to record. I hold my breath as I reach the part of the form that tells me how many children a woman had and how many died. I pause to mourn for the women who have eleven children and only three living. How did they cope with so much death?

I wonder about the homes with grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren, a niece and nephew or two, siblings of the homeowner, all in one home, some of the adults young and widowed. Were they happy? What was such a crowded, busy home like to grow up in, so much family right there in your own home, but so much hardship that made it happen?

There's a story in every seemingly dull record on that list. I am peeking into a moment in the lives of these people and I wish I knew more. I like stories. That is, maybe, why I'm a writer.


Candace Salima (LDS Nora Roberts) said...


Genealogy is one of most favorite things to do. Loved your take on it.

If you have get any connections to the five dark counties of Ireland, please let me know. I've run into a block there, basically because you have to have truckloads of money to hire an Irish genealogist from one of those counties or a personal connections. Although I must have truckloads of familial connections, I have no personal ones. Big huge sigh.

Terrie Lynn Bittner said...

I wish I did. I have long lines of Irish ancestors, and no one in the family knows where they came from--not even the children of the immigrants. Just Ireland. I'd love to get further along.

Janet Jensen said...

Terrie, I laughed at the vivid scenario you proposed at the beginning (census) and was misty-eyed by the end. Thanks for reminding me that those names and dates only hint at rich and compelling stories. I have Irish folk, too, but I don't think our records go back very far, either.