We’re ending September with a bang – Hurricane Joaquin on our doorstep and another guest post on this month’s topic “Harvesting Ideas” from one of our area members, Mike Crowl. We may need to show Joaquin the door, but Mike is totally welcome here!
Mike Crowl is a member of the SCBWI MD/DE/WV Region. He has a completed YA Speculative Fiction novel that he’s shopping around, and he had a poem and short story published in the Carroll County (Maryland) Short Story and Critique Group’s anthology, CHRISTMAS CARROLL. He also did the anthology’s formatting and cover design. He enjoys other creative stuff, like playing guitar, drawing, painting, and woodworking.
Research Lessons from My Fifth-Great-Grandfather
I’ll say this right from the start—My fifth-great-grandfather (or Ol’ Five-Double-G, as I called him when I was a kid) was an elusive bugger. Jacob Crowl was born in 1778, and he lived in Harpers Ferry, Virginia from about 1801. Jacob was an armorer at the National Armory in Harpers Ferry. I know this, because I am a genealogist, and these little facts took me years to figure out. Okay, so maybe I’m a slow genealogist.
*NOTE: For the editors, there is no apostrophe in Harpers Ferry. There once was one, when the town was called “Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harper’s Ferry.” But the mayor at the time realized what a silly name that was, and shortened it. Also, ‘West’ Virginia didn’t exist until 1861, just so you know I’m not completely baffled by geography.
To find old Jacob, I had to dig through a variety of resources for the facts that would enable my inner Sherlock. Genealogy is not simply poring over census records, although admittedly, it does look kinda simple on television. For non-celebrities, we have to dig up newspapers, land documents, military enlistment papers, and all sorts of other things that provide the clues that enable you to make your big conclusions—like, that a man born in 1778 is almost certainly dead by 2015. But while I was looking for him, he planted this story in my head that turned into a middle-grade, historical fiction novel.
5-GG had some stories he was dying to tell, but he forgot to leave me his notes. So I did what any writer would do—I made them up. Don’t freak out. . . My family research is all intact and is as accurate as I can make it. But this is where Jacob Crowl became Jacob Brauner, a thirteen-year-old boy who worked as an armorer’s apprentice in 1803.
Why 1803? Glad you asked! That’s when Meriwether Lewis (Of Lewis and Clark fame) visited the National Armory to stock up on supplies for his big trip out west where he discovered the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and invented the canoe. (Just making sure you’re still with me.) The details surrounding Lewis’s visit to the armory were certainly more interesting when seen through the eyes of a fictional apprentice.
But there was a lot of other stuff I needed for the manuscript. First of all, I needed good characters. As a genealogist, I thought, What better place to get names than the actual census records? Many of the armorers my protagonist, Jacob worked with were actually armorers from the time, or slightly later (I took some liberties). I found a book that detailed the processes the armorers used to make the guns. (Oh yeah, armorers make, among other things, guns. I should’ve told you that earlier.) That’s useful when you want your thirteen-year-old protagonist to do actual stuff that he should be doing.
I also wanted Jacob to do kid stuff, so for that, I turned to newspaper articles from the time. Those papers talked about the businesses in town, and current events. So, Jacob had to walk by the local ale house, or go to the confectioner’s shop (which didn’t really exist until 1830 or so, but I took another liberty), or visit with the local blacksmith to see what he was working on.
Of course, the Internet had a lot of information on Meriwether, and even a little bit on his demeanor and personality. There are portraits of Lewis, too. I stuck to the more authoritative sites, like those from the National Park Service or the Lewis and Clark historical sites. There were records of where Meriwether stayed while he was in town, how long he was there, what he did, and most importantly, what he purchased from the armory. There were even letters that Lewis wrote to inform President Jefferson of his progress. That was incredibly useful for Jacob, since he was going to help make some of that stuff.
I also don’t live far from Harpers Ferry (75 minutes or so), so a visit was extremely helpful in setting the scene for Jacob’s travels. There’s a very steep hill in town (you can’t miss it) that leads up to a street where a lot of folks lived in the 19th century, and where fictional Jacob lived. The somewhat famous stone steps are there now (they didn’t get cut in until about 25 years later), and even those are difficult to go up or down. I couldn’t imagine using dirt paths to go up and down like Jacob would have done. You can’t get that from Wikipedia. You have to go there and trip on the steps for yourself.
And since Harpers Ferry is a National Park Service town, there are displays everywhere, including some stores and businesses (okay, they’re from 1850, but just try to breathe it in!) and a display of all the stuff Lewis bought from the armory. This was great for describing all those objects.
So, genealogical research isn’t really all that different from researching a historical fiction novel. In both, you have to work really hard to keep the facts straight, especially dates. In both, you will learn about relationships, marriages, divorces, births, deaths, occupations, and general information about the towns where people lived. The census records and newspapers can provide characters, settings, and sometimes plot, and tension, and drama, and all the things you need to at least help inspire your book.
There you have it. This was the inspiration for my middle-grade historical fiction novel. Now when I get too tired from genealogical research, I can switch over to fiction. Or, if I get a little bit of writer’s block, I can shift back to family research. Either way, it’s a lot of fun and a lot of hard work!