How my Family History Inspired my Historical Fiction Novels

I remember the day we went to Rogers Cemetery that January morning. The old gravestones, some shaped like trees, some with stone stacks of books leaning against them, were surrounded by the brown dormant grass. A hiking trail led past the cemetery and crossed a creek, just a trickle now. My husband’s ancestors were buried there, inside the state forest, on land they had settled on over a century before.

Something inspired me that day.

Something about the cemetery, the creek, made me think about those who were buried here, those who had stood here mourning their lost loved ones. I was standing where they stood so long ago. And I wondered, what if…what if I could travel back in time, through that creek. What if I could be where they were, when they were.

The thought stuck in my mind. Later that day we visited another cemetery – one where both my great-grandparents and some of my husband’s ancestors were buried, and a stone caught my eye, a stone with the name “Maddox” on it.

My Characters and My Ancestors

Maddox would become my character, the one who would travel for me, across that creek, back in time, exploring the time and land of her ancestors, meeting her ancestors, eventually living with her ancestors. Maddox would become me living vicariously through her, time-traveling, discovering what I only imagined I could discover in the lives of my ancestors.

Maddox, who I affectionately call Maddie, crossed a creek in a cemetery that was very much like the Rogers Cemetery, traveling from the year 2009 to the year 1839. It was a world I could only imagine, but if I was going to seriously write about it, I had to know as best I could what it was like. An ancestor of mine helped me. An ancestor of mine became my inspiration for Eleanor, Maddie’s great-grandmother, and she helped me with Eleanor’s setting. Almyra, my ancestor, herself from pioneer southern Indiana, told the tale of growing up in a land filled with berries and walnut trees, fields of wheat and corn, streams teeming with fish, log cabins, linsey-woolsey, quilting bees, and barn raisings. Eleanor was Almyra, the gentle, sweet, but feisty woman I imagined her to be through everything I read about her. Almyra became Eleanor.

Going over Home & Going over Jordan

Going over Home
By Katie Andrews Potter

And so my first historical fiction novel, Going over Home, was published in 2012, three and a half years after I first visited that cemetery in Yellowwood State Forest. I spent those three and a half years researching, reading family histories and county histories and Indiana histories and fiction books set in pioneer times, and writing, writing, writing, and imagining and rewriting. In 2015, Going over Jordan, the story of Maddie’s younger sister Ellie, was published. Going over Jordan tells the tale of Ellie’s life, herself also transferred from the 2000s to the 1830s, and her work on the Underground Railroad. While writing it, I visited the Levi Coffin home, the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad in Indiana, I went to the Follow the North Star program at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park to experience as best I could what it was like to be a runaway slave traveling north on the Underground Railroad. I researched, I read, I experienced, and I wrote.

 

A Writer’s Life

A gravestone at the Rogers Cemetery 

A gravestone at the Rogers Cemetery 

But it all started with a visit to an ancestor’s grave, and a memoir of an ancestor, and a glance at a gravestone with a name that beckoned me. These things combined to inspire my writing, which became stories. When you’re inspired as a creative, you run with it, but you also cultivate it. And every part in my experience since that morning in January 2009 has combined to become a tale that will now span seven books of my historical fiction series, The Wayfaring Sisters  – a book for each sister in the family, their mother, and their great-grandmother. These women, these hardy pioneers, span time and history, they stretch me in ways I didn’t know I could stretch. Their stories tell old stories based on those who came before me, woven together with new stories born in my mind. When you’re a writer, your characters become your family, they become real. They are no longer simply “fictional” – they are your reality.

When your characters take on their own life and character and personality, you must devote yourself to them. You are compelled to tell their story. This is especially true when they are based on real people – real people that are a part of you, your ancestors, who made you who you are. You have a responsibility to tell the story, and tell it well. When their stories can inspire new stories, through you, the necessity of writing becomes all the more pressing.

Read about your ancestors’ lives. They have a story to tell. Discover what they are saying, because they can speak to you today. Your ancestors can inspire your writing, whether you tell their story or use their story to write a new story. But just write. There are stories to tell, so write.  

 If you are inspired to write based on the lives of your ancestors, see this post I wrote about ways to turn your family history into creative writing. These tips are for adults and well as young writers. But remember – just write! You can do this. :) 

Katie

P.S. Check out these reviews of Going over Home by Lit Mama Homeschool & Madam Ancestry

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