Starting with Genealogy

             Many writers I know, who work in historical fiction and non-fiction, got their start as genealogical researchers. It is a good beginning. You learn the importance of original documents. You discover that not everything written or told about a person is true. You dig deeper and become more resourceful. You network. One contact leads to another and you find photos and diaries and treasures in unexpected places. Research is addictive.

            I credit James Schwengel, a teacher at Harrison High School in Evansville, Indiana, for starting me on the research path that supports my writing today. He taught biology. We were studying genetics and Mendel’s experiments with inherited traits in peas. The assignment: document five genetic traits (eye and hair color, hair texture, skin tone, and body type) for yourself, brothers and sisters, parents, and grandparents.

With no brothers and sisters to record, I expanded to aunts and uncles. Asking questions about my grandparents and their brothers and sisters opened a floodgate of stories I had never heard. Mother pulled old letters from a trunk. My aunt produced photos I had never seen. I was hooked. For more the 40 years I have pursued family ties and worked my way back into the Netherlands of the 1500s to find the origin of my family name–Simmelink.

            I applied those genealogical research skills when I first decided to write about Chipeta.  I pursued original sources – census records, newspaper accounts, Indian agent reports, oral histories. After thirteen years and two biographies of the woman, I still discover new bits of information about her in unexpected places.

Published in: on January 12, 2009 at 8:49 am  Leave a Comment  
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