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History vs. Genealogy vs. Historical Fiction

“History and genealogy…are two radically divergent views on the past.  The first says ‘This matters.’ The second says, ‘This matters to me.'”  John Sedgwick in the New York Times

History, Genealogy, Historical Fiction

Historians such as John Sedgwick tend to scoff at genealogists’ efforts to track down their ancestors by pouring over demographic records and old newspapers, using on-line services to trace family connections or spitting into DNA collection tubes. Historians have a “so what?” attitude. Until, as Sedgwick reports, he learned that an ancestor of his, was involved in a historic event for the Cherokee Nation. Then the civil war which erupted over the issue of the Cherokee Nation’s removal to the Oklahoma Territory became not just something that mattered historically but something that mattered to Sedgwick personally.

Writers of historical fiction see an obligation to present their stories in an accurate historical context and frequently do extensive research to learn the accurate details, scenes and key events of the historical time. Having done this extensive research, writers become engaged and committed to the historical context of their story. This sometimes tempts them to provide several pages of historical description and background which fascinates them but which tends to bore the reader. Historical fiction writers, then must continuously ask the question, “Does this background matter to my story?”

Here is an example of a slice of history that mattered in the pioneer West, mattered in the search for information about my grandfather and mattered in the development of my story.

Mattered to Me

As a lover of history, an amateur genealogist and a writer of historical fiction, I find these questions of “what matters” intriguing. In my genealogical research looking for information about my shadowy grandfather, I was searching for potential reasons why he might have abandoned his wife and family and where he might have gone. I hoped that information might give me clues about where I might find him in the public records. What mattered to me was finding places to look in public records in Texas; information about the “overland outfit” he worked for in the Dodge City area and how he might have ended up in Wyoming to marry my grandmother.

Historic scene, hand loom

Mattered to the Story

Unfortunately, I did not find my grandfather in the public records during a period of thirteen years. I could not find information to help me understand his disappearance nor how he got to Wyoming to marry my grandmother. I decided to write the story as fiction. I would need to creatively develop the story of my grandfather’s disappearance. I had a hypothesis that he joined a cattle drive and headed north from Texas based on clues in a deposition in which he said he “worked cattle.” Using that hypothesis, I researched the social and economic events of the longhorn cattle drives from Texas to Dodge City. What mattered to my story then were the perils of the cattle drive and the lawless character of Dodge City . Yet neither of these events had mattered to me in my genealogy research.

Mattered in History

In the history of the West, the cowboys leading cattle drives north and the lawlessness of Dodge City were infamous for a short period of time. They mattered in the history of settling the West, but they were soon diminished by the impact of the settlers claiming free land, often called “nesters,” cattle quarantines and the civilizing influence of families and women. These events historically had a much larger impact in the settlement of the west and really didn’t matter to me in my genealogy pursuit or in writing my historical novel.

Sedgwick says that as a historian he couldn’t take the story past the facts but as a genealogist he could imagine the feelings and physical encounters expressed in the conflict he describes. In my own experience, both the events of history and the documented facts of births, deaths and census rolls of genealogy are fact based. I found the facts are without the emotions of fear, sadness, frustration and joy or the insight from learning the motivation for abandoning a wife and family. Imagining emotions, motivations and creating dialogue makes a story more engaging to the reader looking for opportunities to understand history and identify with characters who made a difference in their time. It has been both a way to learn more history and to identify and understand my ancestors.

Exploring an example from my novel, Sarah’s Secret shows how history, genealogy and historical fiction are intertwined. I needed to use ideas from all three.

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So, what do you think?

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