Tuesday, August 26, 2008


I've often wondered how other bloggers handle disparate interests on their blogs. They talk about 'writing from the intersection of. . . " which is actually a good idea, if I could indeed figure out where it is my particular interests intersect and, what's more important, enlighten each other.

Mine, of course, fall primarily into two main categories -- fiction and family history -- though some in my family seem to believe the two are essentially the same thing.

Not me.

I like to think I can tell the difference. And when I can't, I try to figure it out.

For instance, this past week I spent days trying to sort of a who's who of men named John Ralph who were born in Cornwall between 1785 and 1787. I've been working on them on and off for the past three or four years. And getting not quite anywhere.

But this past week I threw myself into it -- and I think I got somewhere.

The problem was John and John and John weren't simply born in Cornwall. Cornwall is a big enough place that if one had been born in Penzance and one at Bodmin and one in Polperro, it wouldn't be that hard to tell them apart.

It happens that they were born in an area of Cornwall just slightly larger than my bathroom. And I'm not exaggerating much.

Two of them had fathers named William; one of them had a father named John. All of them had brothers named William. Two of them married women named Ann. One married a woman named Mary. All of them were miners. Occasionally they were also farmers. All of them had children. Each of them had a son John. One of the elder Johns died in 1833. One died in 1840. One died in 1841.

But which?

The process of figuring it out -- and believe me, I'm not given to enjoying those nifty logic puzzles that many people find endlessly fascinating -- has kept me awake night.

The quest took me to records on 3 continents (one of the Johns had two sons who emigrated and went to Wisconsin and two more who went to Australia). It also took me into land records, church records, civil records across several parishes in Cornwall.

It was trickier, in fact, than plotting a book (and plotting a book is, for me, about as hard as it gets). But I'm thinking -- and this is the intersection -- maybe it helps me plot.

At the very least it makes me see how threads that began years (or in this case generations ago) are still playing out and leaving clues to the past a hundred years or more later.

Backstory matters.

If there's one thing that the trio of John Ralphs taught me this week it is how much "backstory" effects what comes later. So I'm thinking again about backstory for Christo.

But I've learned something else, too, standing at this intersection. I'm not going to dump all the backstory in the first few chapters. It might help readers know who the characters are. But just telling them isn't as important as showing them.

And ultimately the way I figured out the Ralph boys was to look at how they behaved, who they hung out with, who they married and what those people also did.

What I learned?
  • Dead relatives didn't live in a vacuum.
  • Nor do live ones.
  • Nor, it seems, do characters in books.
  • Causes create effects and there are no effects without them.
  • Everything is inter-connected.
  • Don't stand in the middle of intersections -- you could get squashed.

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Blogger Madeline said...

Hi Anne, I'm sorry I've been away from your blog for so long. I sure have missed it. I've been researching and writing articles for the Ballroom Dance Channel Social, and that doesn't leave me much time to play on the internet anymore.

It seems like you had quite an experience researching all those Johns. What you learned has given me some incite as to how character building should work in a book.
Even though I am not here as often as I used to be, I always seem to learn from what you blog about.

In between writing my articles, I promise I'll visit you more often. I really do miss your blogs, and I'm looking forward to reading your new book. It should be on sale just in time for Christmas. Sadie doesn't know it yet but, it's going to be her Christmas present to me.

Hugs, from Mads and Sadie

27 August, 2008  
Blogger Anne McAllister said...

Hi Mads,

Glad to see you here! Wonderful news that you're writing articles for the Ballroom Dance Channel Social. That's cool. There's some serious dancing in the book I'm working on now. Or there will be when I get that far. Wish you were writing it for me as you'd no doubt do it better!

I'm glad Sadie will be out Christmas shopping for you. I hope she finds my book come December!


27 August, 2008  

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