We’ve come to the final part of this short series looking at how writers can use family history resources to inspire them and to enhance their work.
This week I want to give you a list of other resources that could help with your research or give you some plot ideas. I also wanted to just add in a little bit about legal stuff. But first, I didn’t want to end this series without saying a wee bit about censuses.
The problem with censuses is, although they are fascinating, they are not free (except for the 1881 census, but that might not be any good if you want to know about the 1850s, for example.) So I’m not going to give a lot of space here to this resource. If you are a member of a family history society with its own publications, or if you are a member of a family tree research site, you probably already know about the censuses and their uses. For those who don’t, here’s what a census can tell you: you can find out who spent a particular night in a particular house – or hospital, prison or workhouse – in England or Wales. (Scotland and Ireland are not included, but have their own separate censuses, as do other countries, however, I don’t know much about those although I have used censuses from the USA and Canada – great info there!)
It went more or less, with exceptions, like this: the enumerator (person with the clipboard) rolled up and questioned everybody on his (occasionally her) patch. They made notes. they wrote down the address etc, obviously, then they wrote down the name and gender of the Head of Household, (usually the man of the house), their age, marital status, occupation and where they were born. Later, into the 1900s, more questions were added, for example, whether self-employed, deaf, blind or ‘imbecile’, if married, how long they had been married, whether there were any children, how many survived to adulthood and how many died in childhood, and how many children born altogether within (or without) the marriage. next, they are asked for the details of the other people there that night, starting with their name, age, gender, marital status. Usually you would get the wife next. Then you would get children in order of age, and then any others, such as lodgers, visitors, extended family.
You can go onto findmypast.com; ancestry.co.uk; or familysearch.org etc and look up ‘someone’ on the 1881 census for nothing. If you don’t know anything about your ancestors, maybe just do a search on anyone with your surname in your town and see what comes up. It is fascinating and rather addictive, so be warned! You can come across oddities, because wherever people are asked questions by a man with a clipboard, there are always going to be those who weave a little fairy tale. They might simply knock off five years from their age, or forget where they were born, or pretend they are married when they aren’t (for the sake of decency). You might find an ancestor who was a prostitute. You might find an Earl in your family. Names get mixed up and first names become surnames and vice versa, and old-fashioned writing can be terribly difficult to discern, leading to mis-transcription of vital statistics. Thus we discovered a Lawyer from one town turned out to be our Sawyer ancestor from somewhere completely different. County borders change too, leaving a Londoner born in Middlesex or Surrey, or elsewhere, and Rutland ancestors might be born in Leicestershire. And remember too, people didn’t always know where they were born, or how old they were – not exactly. So youneed to try to think outside the box if your ancestors are not where they should be! Names can be spelled differently, and an Anne could be Annie, Hannah, Agnes, Annes or Ana. Ellen could turn out to be Helen or even Eleanor, Nellie or Ellie, Mary might become Maria, John could be Jho, William is Wm, James is Js or Jas, and so on. But amongst all this, you can find out about real people who lived in a real place – maybe your own house – many years ago. And what you discover could lead to more discoveries: it could be that the old lady living next door to them on the census is their mother, their aunt or sister, and that they were surrounded by relations. So you can build up a picture of a whole village in terms of the groups who make up its numbers.
You can find out a great deal about your locality from neighbours, and from local studies libraries, news offices, and again, the census. Our first house together was a tiny two up, two down 1900s terraced house in Aldershot. We were astonished to meet an elderly lady born in that house in the 1920s, one of 6 children, who together with a lodger, shared the house with her parents, and the front room was a shop! Where on earth they put everyone was beyond me. There was no kitchen to speak of until we put one in, the bathroom had been built on the back as an extension a year before we bought the house, and we made the kitchen larger by taking out a wall – how did they manage? Our next house was a 1890s terrace again, still in Aldershot, but this time three up and three down – very roomy! When we pulled off the wallpaper in what became my daughter’s bedroom, we found some writing: the name of a builder and a date in 1937. It was a ‘wow’ moment. We added our names and the date in 1989, then stuck the paper on.
Coming now to other resources: obviously the Internet is a wonderful boon to anyone doing any kind of research. Whether you are looking stuff up on a search engine, or on a site such as Wikipedia, you can find a lot of information very quickly. Try searching on your own name and see what comes up. Are any of those many, many people you? Even those with unusual names will find they are not alone! (Usually, though I’m not promising…) Remember with sites such as Wikipedia, information is not always supported by evidence and may not be 100% accurate.
Using what you’ve found
We often hear that adage that I personally detest, “write what you know’. I think it should be ‘write what you can find out’. There is so much information ‘out there’, it would be so easy to forget to do any actual writing. Don’t become one of those people who spends twenty years conducting research and never writes a single word in earnest. Similarly, don’t try to crowbar all your information into one chapter of your new book! Just because you’ve found things out, you don’t need to use them. Don’t subject your readers to ‘background overload’. Just the odd subtle hint is enough to tell your readers they are, for example, reading something set in the 1960s, with a mention of the wireless, and shillings. But you don’t need to go too mad with the details. Keep things simple and decide what is essential to provide support for your plot. Don’t let the research dictate your story, it’s only supposed to be a jumping-off point.
Other useful sites for UK writers:
neighbourhoodstatistics.gov.uk – fascinating insight into your local area – or any you are researching;
Genuki.co.uk is a good genealogy site which provides lots of info on where to find things in your area of choice.
theweald.org provides loads of information about the Weald of Kent/Surrey/Sussex, including some census stuff
timeanddate.com – you can see a calendar for any year, including bank holidays and phases of the moon – great for if you need to know what day of the week it was on 1st November, 1928 (Thursday) or for example that Easter Sunday was on 8th April.
Recently I found it necessary for my character in a book set in 1967 to send a postcard. There was a brief kerfuffle over some change. At gbstamps.com I found out how much it had cost to send postcard in 1967.
Any special interest group will have its own website these days, with oodles of information for you to glean:
thepoisongarden.co.uk will tell you what plants are poisonous and lots of interesting and fun facts about your favourite methods of bumping people off.
And I’ve already extolled the virtues of newspapers. I have found britishnewspaperarchive.co,uk really good.
And for serious research buffs, try my.alltop.com for news, views and reviews, articles and trends
Some of the best books I’ve come across for this kind of information about ‘the old days’ are Robert Opie’s Scrapbooks. They are organised into books covering a decade, and come in a very large format so you get great images of old fashions and garments, foods, pastimes etc. Really useful!
This bit is a kind of crossover between how-to and legal. We writers often need images – for book covers, for blog interest, for reference. Images are copyrighted these days, just like our writing! It is essential – and I’m pretty sure you all know this anyway – that you use only royalty free images unless you are prepared to pay the royalties to the owner of the image or risk being taken to court. So if you can’t provide your own images, always use sites that state that their images are royalty free, that you can use them in the way that you want to, or that you can purchase the right to use the image.
Here are a couple of royalty-free sites I have used frequently and without any problems:
morguefile.com – has loads of images that are not only royalty-free but also free-free! But, if you’re using these for a book cover, bear in mind you might see the same picture elsewhere!
shutterstock.com – these charge for photos, but it is nice to know you have got the right to use the picture however you choose, there are a lot of them, and they do special rates for more than one pic. Also, some of their images contain separate elements that can be used independently of each other, so you can use some and not others, as I did for my cat and bird logo on my Posh Hits novels.
And lastly, just a quick word about legal stuff.
If you are self-publishing, it may seem obvious, but you must cover yourself with a copyright clause. I recently worked for a client on a formatting job, and he didn’t have a copyright clause in his manuscript. I pointed this out and the chap said, ‘it’s okay, I don’t need that, I’m giving the book away free.’ I explained that if he did that, someone else could take his work and use it to make themselves a fortune. We added in a copyright clause.
It doesn’t need to be elaborate, just a few simple lines. I always date my copyright from the year before I published the book. Because I worked and planned and wrote a first draft, then a second, and all way before I published the final copy. So I cover myself. All I put is this:
Copyright (you could also do a c in a circle, for copyright, some people do both; include the year and your name)
( if publishing on Kindle I put this, and change it sligthly for other platforms) Kindle edition – license to readers
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
All rights reserved. This eBook is licensed for your personal use only. This eBook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you are reading this book but did not purchase it, you are requested to buy your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Or you could put:
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or by any informational storage retrieval system without advanced prior permission in writing from the author.
Simple stuff. But essential.
Also, remember not to libel anyone, even if they’ve been dead for years – they may still have descendants out there somewhere, and they might be willing to take you to court. So if you’re not certain of your facts, with evidence to back it up, don’t say it. Remember the golden rule: ‘This work is fiction. Any similarity to real events or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.” When all else fails, change the name to protect the innocent, unless you are writing biography or true crime.
Remember too, to cite all your sources if you quote directly from them. Don’t borrow extensively from other works without permission or you could find yourself accused of plagiarism.
There is so much more I could have said about resources and family tree stuff and the writer of fiction, the list is as good as endless. But I’m going to leave it there. You will easily find what you’re looking for, I’m sure. But if you’re stuck, do ask me, I may know someone who can answer your questions. Thanks for all your comments and the great support.