Last week I spent some time talking about how using a census could help a writer get some ideas for names and relationships as well as life-style details for their fiction. I am going to be spending four weeks talking very briefly about genealogical sources for writers because I will be teaching a workshop starting on February 6 that will go into a lot more detail. If these brief tastes of sources ignites your interest, please consider signing up for my class. I will be talking about all sorts of genealogical information that will really help all fiction writers, no matter what time period or setting you are working in. Okay, enough of the ad, onto the content!
Censuses are really great sources and anything set in the last 200 years could definitely be enhanced by judicious use of census records. However, if you go back much further than that, you will find that something like a census was not taken regularly. Of course, there are notable exceptions. The Book of Kells, for example, was basically a census of the Irish people taken way back when!
But if you need information from further back in time to help enrich your setting, what other options are there? Today, I will talk about church records which go back much further. First of all, you have to realize that before the establishment of the United States, which guaranteed through the Constitution that the government would not force citizens into an official religion, most countries did have a religion that most of the citizens belonged to. Some examples would be the Catholic Church, then the Anglican, in England; the Catholic Church in Italy; the Lutheran Church in Germany, etc. This is actually advantageous to a genealogist and anyone else looking through the records because the church records usually served as the official country records for births, marriages, and deaths. Rather than a birth certificate in 1464, your ancestor would likely have had a christening record filled out by his local priest. These were kept for centuries and entire family genealogies can be traced through church records as people tended to stay near where they were born before the advent of easy transportation.
Of course, the availability of these records ON COMPUTER will vary depending on your locale and time. Many are available easily with a few clicks of your mouse and that is really the only way these will be productive for you as a writer, since you aren’t really looking for any specific ancestor, but just trying to get an idea of how your particular character was likely to have lived. Just like a census, you could peruse at your leisure the records of a parish or other religious unit and see how families grew, what caused the death of children or parents, their ages when they died, when they married, who they married, etc. Names will crop up again and again through generations. Wives will die in childbirth and the widower will marry again. Children will be born and live briefly and then die and be buried in little cemeteries that have long ago been reabsorbed into the earth. You can get a definite feeling for a place and the rhythm of its life by studying its parish records. To access these, one quick way is to simply Google “Church records, village, county, country,” and see what comes up. Maybe nothing. But you might be surprised at what you can find.
Next week, we’ll talk about another genealogical source to help you with your writing and I hope you’ll come back.