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Family History, or Historical Fiction-Write it!

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“It is Ordered, That if any man shall commit Fornication with any single woman, they shall be punished, either by enjoyning marriage, or fine, or corporall punishment, any, or all these, as the Court Magistrates, or Plantation Court duly considering the case with the circumstances, shall judge most agreeable to the word of God.” From New Haven Code of 1656

It happens. You immerse yourself in discovering the history of your family, their names, their homes, their births, deaths, marriages, their children. You collect source information to verify your discoveries. Every genealogy how-to book and blog emphasizes the importance of sourcing, evidence, and documentation. There are “bibles” written to the task, certification you can acquire, and a Genealogical Proof Standard, a GPS. Trust me, I get it. Look to my family blog and you will see my effort (imperfect) at documentation and my struggle for balance.

But still it happens. You dig deeper. A single piece of information begs a question, makes you wonder. So now you spend time reading old county histories from the before the Civil War or tracing the movement of a single company from battle to battle during the Civil War. You fill a folder with old maps, bookmark sites that trace the history of changing state and county lines, and fly around on GoogleEarth, marking the exact coordinates of a particular homestead. All this, designated good practice by the gurus of genealogy, doesn’t quite still your itch.

“A good story is always more dazzling than a broken piece of truth.” Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale

It cannot be ignored. Other questions beat away at the facts. How did it feel to lose every child but one and name the next born Comfort? How did he die, and why, after twenty years and another marriage, did her gravestone name him as her husband? How do you try to protect a new born child named after a son killed in the Revolutionary War, while your husband and brother continue to serve?

It happens. The emotions, the mysteries, their stories call you. You long to toss down the anchor of fact and dive into the world of fiction.

“They weren’t true stories; they were better than that.”Alice Hoffman, The Story Sisters

I say, “Go for it!” And as long as you label it fiction, indulge yourself, enter into your imaginings, and build a world. I drifted off into the felt lives of the characters I met right from the beginning as I researched and then wrote my first family history. (You can find links to my efforts on each page of this blog with the fiction always in italics.) I reimagined the life of one Bedford County, Pennsylvania family that expanded into a short book now in the final (?) editing stages. The process of writing it actually reveled holes in my research and clarified where I should look next.

Allow yourself you imagine, find your own stories to infuse with emotion. In later posts, I will offer a few thoughts on the topic of fictionalizing family history. But for now…

I found two amazing volumes of New Haven, Connecticut history, actual transcriptions from early New Haven records. They informed my research on the Payne family, and, while I found no new information beyond that found on the “New Haven” page above, I have to mention those volumes here-for the amazing stories!

Peruse these kernels. They provide excellent jumping off places for an historical story based on my own family. Which mystery-ridden facts from your family history might spark a bit of your own historical fiction?

First, in the Records of the Colony and Plantation of New-Haven, from 1638 to 1649, Volume 1 edited by Charles Jeremy Hoadly, Hartford: Case, Tiffany and Co. 1857

  • 173 “Bamfeild Bell being reproved by Wm Paine for singing profane songs, answered and said, you are one of the holy bretheren that will lye for advantage.
  • Pg 188 “Forasmuch as much damadge hath come to the quarters adjoyninge to the Oystershelfeild by some mens lots being unfenced, as namely Wm Payne and Wm Blayden, the courts call upon them to get their lotts fenced and gave them leave to take some of the trees on the common wth the tanners have felled for barke, but in the meane time they are to pay for all damadge wth comes by their default.”
  • 310 “Further Wm Payne was complained off for not comminge time enough one Lords day morning and evening, but seing it appeared he was very neare before the drume had don beating, and considering the distance at wch he lives & he saith he could not heare the first drum, the court saw cause to moderate the fine, & was fined for both but 1 pence.”
  • 371 “William Paine was called to make goode the charge wch he laide upon Seriant Munson last courte, wch was that he presented some for comeing late on the Lords daye wth their armes but not others, thoughe they offended equaly alike.”
  • 501“William Paine propounded to ye court that he might be freed from bringing his armes one ye Lords day and lecture dayes, because he lives farr of and hath three small children, and his wife is lame and cannot help to bring ye children.
  • And this important note to be played out in the next volume: 169-171 An extended account of servant John Frost lighting fire to his master’s barn and burning it down. When asked for his reason, he stated that, “he…did it by way of revenge, because his master had aboute six weekes before whipped him…” His punishment, “that considering he was young, (aboute fourteen yeares of age,) and also somewhat childish in his way, agreed to spare his life,…should be a servant for one and twenty yeares from this time…weare a halter about his necke and a small light lock upon his legg,…that he stand in the pillory such a space of time as the magistrats shall thinke fit…”

Finally, from Records of the colony of jurisdiction of New Haven: from May, 1653 to the union: together with the New Haven code of 1656. Harford Conn.: Case, Lockwood and Co., 1858

  • “Willm Payne appeared to make complaint against John Frost for some sinfull miscarriages towards his children & some others. …That John Frost be corporally punished by whipping, &for his inveiglements by gift, as shee saith, & he makes no proof to ye contrary, but graunts yt he made love to her without the knowledge and consent of her parents, that he pay forty shillings as a fine ye jurisdiction, according to law. And for Mercy Payne, that shee alsoe be corporally punished by whipping, for her sinfull compliance with him in such wickedness, as herself confesseth.”

The New Haven code included in this volume also speaks, well, volumes. Facts, maybe, but these facts are infused with insights into character, worldview, and crisis that would make a great story, maybe MY next great story. What have you discovered?

About croywright

The author, a writer of history and historical fiction, always yearned to go back in time.

2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Researching New Haven—and a few general hints, as well | Donna Croy Wright Writing Family History

  2. Donna, thank you for your inspiring words!


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