Genealogical sources for writers, part 1

In an effort to share some more meaty writing tips as well as hopefully drum up some interest in my class that starts 4 weeks from today, I thought I would start a short series of blogs about genealogical sources and how they can help writers flesh out their world.  I will be spending four weeks on my Monday blog posts discussing genealogical sources that can be useful to a writer so I will discuss each of these major sources quickly today, on the 16th, the 23rd, and the 30th.   If you want more information on any of these, I would love to have you register through Savvy Authors for the class where a lot more detail and specific helpful tips will be offered.   The cost is reasonable and the class size will be small (really small, I’m begging here people!) so I will have time to give you personalized attention.

Today, we’ll talk briefly about censuses and what sort of information they can give you that would be useful as you write.

Most of us know that the US takes censuses every 10 years and so does Britain and a lot of countries that used to be British such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, etc.   But other countries also take censuses.  On a quick look, I saw a Lithuanian one, German, French, etc.  Of course, each country will have their own schedule as to when and some started later than others.  Also, keep in mind that most countries hold back their genealogical information for a certain number of years because of privacy issues.  For example, in the US, censuses are not released for 72 years after they’re taken.  So the 1940 census is just being released this year.

Great, you might be saying, but what can a census tell me about my made-up characters?  How can I possibly get any information about them that helps me?

Let’s look at just two quick scenarios.  Let’s say you are writing a book set in Scotland in the year 1900 and you have your main character “Colin” and his lady love, “Catrina.”  But now you need to fill out a list of friends and neighbors.  You can hang out on a name site, scouring it for Scottish names, but then you’re not sure whether they are appropriate for your exact time and place.  Or . . . .  you can use a computerized listing of the 1901 Scottish census and type in the age of the characters you need to name, their birthplace, or even where they currently live (or even better all three) and pull up a whole huge list of real people’s names, all ripe for snatching for your own nefarious purposes.   Look at how families live — how many kids are in the home?  What kind of professions are in the town?  How many have been to school?  How much property do they own?  You can find out a lot of information in a census, the names being only the tip of the iceberg.

Another quick scenario.  You’ve got a secondary character you’re writing in 1920 Chicago.  He’s 13, poor, and lives in a workhouse type of situation.  You would like to understand his life so that you can write his despair adequately.  Again, the census to the rescue!  You can skim through the computerized 1920 U.S. census from the Chicago area, find a workhouse (not as hard as you might think) and you’ve got an idea of how many boys live there, their ages, their names, where they were born and where their parents were born, how many adults live there with them, etc., etc.   Adapt to your own purposes and you’re good to go!

But wait, but wait, you say!  What if my characters didn’t live in the last 200 years?  What help can censuses give me then?

Well, censuses have been taken for about 250 years in the US and about as long in Britain and its various offshoots, but if you want to do a historical set in Greece in 1600, then you’re right, a government census probably won’t work, but there are other sources out there, and I’ll be talking about a few more of them next week!  So stay tuned . . . .

About susannahsharp

I'm pursuing a life-long dream of writing now, something I am really enjoying. My first book should be out by Christmas. I want to blog about all things Irish; offering some book reviews for romantic, not smutty, books; and also things pertaining to reading and writing.
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7 Responses to Genealogical sources for writers, part 1

  1. Left-Brained Business for Write-Brained People says:

    What a neat idea! Great post! I have a number of writer friends who use old records for their nonfiction historical books, but using it for fiction is a new twist for me. Thanks for posting this.


    • I’m glad that you don’t think I’m insane, Joan. I really have to give credit for this idea and the idea for my whole class to my husband. He is a professional genealogist and he is the one who suggested I use things from his work to learn about Irish vikings, etc. I wasn’t sure, until I got there and spent many hours poring over books and records that told me all sorts of things I never could have dreamt I would find. Thanks for coming over and commenting.

  2. Oh my, now you’ve let the cat out of the bag! Census records are great to scan for so many things and certainly add authenticity to historical stories whether fiction or non-fiction. For a story, I once counted the number of women and then the number of Tlinget Indians living in Wrangell, Alaska on the 1910 census.

    • Sorry! Hope that won’t spoil anything for you, Carolyn! That sounds like a major project for you, but I am sure it really helped add some great detail to your story. Make sure you come check back in the next 2-3 weeks for other sources. Maybe there’ll be some you haven’t thought to use before.

  3. Pingback: Genealogical Sources for Writers, part 3 | Susannah Sharp

  4. Pingback: Genealogical Sources for Writers, part 4 | Susannah Sharp

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