Writing about your family history (v) … where were they? And what did they do there?

Another aspect of telling a story is place and location. Maybe you know the places where your ancestors lived – maybe you still live in the same location. If they came from far away, even if you haven’t ever visited, with the internet it’s easy to find pictures and maps, and old pictures and maps too of what it was like when Great-Aunt Jane or a red-headed blacksmith ancestor lived there.  You can go on street view and follow their footsteps from home to where they worked, from their little village to the local town where your farming ancestor might have taken his animals to market.

As for the plot or narrative of your story, you have the outline of someone’s life, fill in the gaps – find pictures or visit the church where they were baptised or married, look up contemporary newspapers and directories to see what happened in those years and who the neighbours and tradespeople were your family might have had dealing with.

Use what you know, and what you can find out, but use your imagination to! Your story can start with a maybe… ‘maybe one bright spring morning Jane looked in the mirror and saw herself as a beautiful bride… today was the day she was to marry her beloved Arthur…’

Another way of making your stories accessible to others is to write the story of your investigation. What were the stories you heard as a child of great-aunt Jane? How did you find her in the records, did she go missing and you couldn’t trace her? Did she travel to somewhere you weren’t expecting? Did she have a first husband you didn’t know about, or children who lived with someone else… how did you track them down, what was the paper-trail? What were the stumbling blocks – how many Jane’s with the same name and birth date did you come across? How did you identify which one was yours? How many and what blind alleys did you go down? Which other interesting ancestors did you unexpectedly come across? The story of your journey through the records can be fascinating.

I have written a series of novels about someone searching for his family history; his non-literal journey follows their actual travels, from the Ukraine to Harwich, to Surrey, to my imaginary town of Easthope. His genealogical research gives him the tools to investigate other things, and people begin to commission him to solve their little mysteries, the woman who vanished from her car at the traffic lights, the mysterious but influential Moroccan an old lady brought back from a Mediterranean cruise, the death of a little girl in 1932… I have written five novels about my character Thomas Radwinter, the sixth should be available in May this year!!

Here is a link to my Radwinter novels:


My featured image shows the Portland Arms Hotel in Cambridge, where my granddad held the license from the mid 1920’s until 1950.

Writing about your family history (iv) … telling the truth? Or not?

Telling real stories as fiction…. You might have a fantastic story to tell about your family, but for various reasons (not just risking being cut out of the will!) you may have held back. If you want to write it, however, three are ways of disguising the actual people involved so no-one will guess or recognise them, and yet the bones of the story are there.

I shared this a while ago when thinking of things to write about when inspiration for total fiction deserts you… but thinking about writing family stories, there maybe some you are desperate to write but for personal reasons you can’t write them… but maybe you can!

  • Decide what part of the real story you want to use
    • is it the skeleton of the plot?
    • is it the characters?
    • is it a real setting?
    • is it a situation or event or series of events…
  • Decide on the disguise
    • if it’s just the bones of something real, there are all sorts of ways you can disguise what inspired you, changing characters, locations, sequence of events
    • if it’s the story of a person, change their details
      1. name (obviously!)
      2. gender
      3. age
      4. character (unless the story is dependent on the character – in which case you can change other aspects of them)
      5. appearance (of course! But think about ethnicity, religion etc. as well)
      6. their situation, class, family, background, work, fashion/clothes and so on
  • if it’s a personal story decide whether you are featuring in it – this might make it more difficult to change personal details of other ‘characters’; if you are you! You can, however, change yourself – as in the point above
  • change the time/date/era – bring a Victorian story into the present, change the swinging 60’s to the glam-rock 80’s, change the war in a war story, put the present back into the 90’s; summer to winter, spring and beginnings change to autumn and endings; a CND protest can be an anti-something else demonstration
  • change the location from anywhere to anywhere – even the effects climate and temperature might have on events can be changed, danger from flooding could change to danger from avalanches, trapped by flood water could be trapped by snow
  • decide on the tone or ‘voice’ of what you are writing; is it patently a disguised memoir, is it autobiographical and you just want to be discrete about other ‘characters’; is it seemingly a piece of fiction, is it a ‘maybe true, maybe not you decide’ piece of writing; is it just an episode in something else – a character/incident in a novel you are writing?

You might find your family story told in disguise takes on a life of its own, then you will have to decide whether to maintain the hidden truth, or continue in a completely fictional way.


Writing about your family history (iii) … the journeys they made…

It’s a bit of a fallacy that people in the past never travelled further than the nearest market; in fact, as you probably know from your own research, people moved about almost as much as we do, if not more – and probably for the same reasons, work, family, opportunities, marriage, business… Writing a family story from the point of a journey is a way to create a contained narrative, with a beginning – in one homestead/village/town/city and after staying temporarily in other places, the settling in what became the family home.

On my dad’s side of the family, the Elsdens were all ag labs, agricultural labours, working in Suffolk on farms for generations. They may have come from Norfolk, and before that from Scandinavia, but they stayed in the Suffolk area throughout the eighteenth and first part of the nineteenth century, moving from village to village, no doubt finding work on different farms. When the railways came they moved from the land to work initially on the tracks in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, but later into the engine sheds and driving the big steam engines. The sons of the family moved out of labour and into commerce, opening a fruit and vegetable shop in Cambridge, then holding the license of a pub… and so we became a Cambridge family.

On my maternal side, my Jewish forebears left their commercial business in the hands of their brothers and cousins in London, and travelled round the other side of the world to Tasmania where they started an import export agency – they had ships travelling across the Pacific and all round the South China Sea. Eventually they returned to London and settled in a house on Regent’s Park, they were extraordinarily rich… this was an actual journey, but there followed a journey of a different kind… a journey from riches to a more modest way of life.

My character Thomas in my Radwinter stories follows his ancestors lives, tracing his family back to war-torn eastern Europe, and following their journey from their arrival in England in the 1830’s, across southern England to Easthope, where the family still lives… “I followed the story of the Radwinters, and discovered where we came from… and what an interesting journey that was. I mean journey for me in a non-literal way, but it was an interesting journey for the Radwinters, literally”.

Here is a link to the first  book in the series:


Writing about your family history (ii) … the people you knew…

When you are writing about your family history,  you want to make it accessible – and more than that, enjoyable! You want to engage and intrigue your grandchildren, or their children – you want them to feel part of the story, which of course they are!

With any novel you might read it probably belongs to a genre and has a theme, and that shapes the narrative… you can do the same with your story. Instead of telling your story via the family tree you could pick out a theme which you might follow.

Here in the UK, people of my age grew up in the aftermath of a global, civilisation and culture changing event, the war – and we will have known people who lived through it. Some might have grandparents who experienced the war, and even the war before that, the 1st world war; there are other conflicts which might have touched our families – the troubles in Palestine, the Korean war, Kenya, Cyprus as well as more recent war zones. This could be a theme for your story; instead of trying to tell the whole story of your father, grandfather, uncle’s life – why not write about his war… in fact you may not know very much about his service life (although there are now plenty of ways you can find out about his record) You may not know the details of his service, but you might know the affect it had on him; my father  was in the parachute regiment and served in France, Italy, North Africa and Greece but he told us very little… except the funny things which happened to him. I have written a series of short stories about his comical escapades  imagining the details I don’t know.

The war did not only affect the men,  it affected the whole country, the women, the children, the old and inform who could not serve on a battle front. There are tales to be told about the home guard, about families digging for victory, cooking with a ration book, remaking old clothes – stories from the women who did their bit for the country – fertile ground for creative writing!

… and the children; my mum grew up during the war and she and her sisters kept a diary of life – I could just copy her diary, but using photos of the three girls, I could imagine their stories more fully. Their father and brother were away, Father in the army brother in the RAF, so the four women managed as best they could and offered a friendly welcome to young army boys stationed nearby, far from their own homes.

Maybe you only know scraps of their stories, things you half-remember; use your imagination to weave these stories together to give a glimpse into your family’s past. You can add the bald facts at the end, but by being creative, you can save their stories and hand them on – if only you remember them now, you are the only one who can do it!

In these photos my grandpa is in uniform because he served in both wars.

Audrey, Alan, Monica, Ida, Reg, Beryl Matthews


I wrote a fictional account of one man’s search for his family through genealogy, his research led him to discover as much about himself as about his family from several hundred years ago –


Writing about your family history (i) … the people you never knew…

So many people I’ve talked to about writing their family stories say ‘I just don’t know where to begin’… It really is a dilemma but I think the best answer to ‘how do I start’ is – just start! You may then say ’but where do I begin? Do I begin with Great Aunt-Jane because she had such an interesting life, or do I begin with Sir Hougo de Frogface our distant medieval forebear?’ Well think about Great-aunt –Jane and Sir Hougo – do you know any stories about either of them? If you do then you can tell them! If you don’t, maybe you can imagine from the facts you do know.

Whoever you start with, think of how you would tell someone in a conversation about them – you wouldn’t say ‘Jane Smith was born in 1888, she had three brothers, John, Paul and George who were born in…’. You might, however, say ‘oh, Great Aunt Jane! What a character, she was born in the middle of a thunderstorm and the barn was set on fire by lightning  so the story goes…’ That’s how you would tell an interested friend or relative if you were talking to them… try writing it down as f you were speaking to someone – or write is as a letter!

You will probably wonder whether you should begin at the beginning (wherever that is) and work through the years towards your own immediate family and yourself, or whether you should start with yourself and work back in time. That’s something you have to decide  – and you might start in the middle with great-aunt Jane!  You might have photos of your family, your ‘characters’ in your story so you have an idea of what they look like – if you don’t have any images, use your imagination!

So  supposing someone was a blacksmith, you have his birth record and he appears in censuses – he will be beefy and strong with great shoulders and arms – if many of his descendants have red hair, then maybe he had red hair too. If there’s a family trait of having a wonderful singing voice, maybe he could sing – maybe he was in the church choir, in the church where he was baptised and married. In a later census you know he became a whitesmith – so you can tell he was a person ready to adapt and to embrace new technologies. His first three children died before they were two, so he may have been marked by that sadness… his eldest surviving son became a sailor, how did your red-headed blacksmith feel about that? His second and third sons, twins, joined him in the smithy – you know one later became a stove and oven manufacturer in Manchester, that tells you something about him and his character. His brother and twin stayed with his dad in their village which was growing into a town, working as a silver smith but then went into plumbing as people began to have water in their homes rather than from a pump in the yard… With only the most basic information, using your imagination you can tell your red-headed smith’s story without just a spread sheet of names dates and references…

And what about the smith’s wife? His first wife died after the death of her third child… was she weakened by her pregnancies or was she a sickly person and her poor health meant she struggled to have children?  You have no pictures of her but you might be able to imagine her, slim, pale, not very strong, and saddened, depressed by her struggles to have children (she may have suffered miscarriages as well) She would have struggled physically and mentally, and the life of a housewife in those days was hard and labour intensive.

His second wife (bringing him joy after his sadness and bereavements) lived to be ninety-seven, and bore him eleven children, all of whom survived, including the sailor, the stove manufacturer and the plumber who became an electrician at the turn of the century… And you do have pictures of her as an old woman – can you work out what she may have looked like as a strong young woman? Use your imagination!!

You have the facts, apply the imagination! You may think you have no imagination, but I am sure you do – otherwise you wouldn’t be so interested in the lives of people you never knew!


In my Radwinter stories I have written about someone exploring his family tree and his family’s history… in the next in the series he is looking at the complicated ancestry of his wife… Huguenots, one-armed heroes, tragedies and love! If you haven’t read any of my stories yet, here is a link:


The facts, a story…

I set my writing group the task of trying to write one story from several points of view, thinking about the narrative voice:


  • 1853 – Lois Penney born, Water Newton Northamptonshire, to Charles and Martha Penney
  • 1861 – Lois appears on the census
  • 1871 – Lois may be living in Cambridge
  • 1881 – housekeeper in London to Louis Walford and his son George
  • 1891 – visitor to Louis Walford’s family (now five children)
  • 1895 – Louis Walford dies aged forty-nine
  • 1901 – Lois has changed her name to Walford and lives with her five children
  • 1911 – Lois lives with two of her children ‘on independent means’
  • 1930 – Lois dies and is buried in Hendon


Lois Penney (spelt Lowes on her birth certificate, gender unknown) was born in 1853 to Martha Ann Penney (née Quenby) and Charles Penney a basket maker. Lois was born in Water Newton in Northamptonshire, the seventh of ten children. Her mother died in 1878 and her father married again and had two more children.

Lois appears in the census returns for 1861, and then the records become confused; the family may have lived in Cambridge in the 1870’s. In 1881 she appears as a housekeeper in a property in London and on the same record is George Walford; George is her son, her son by Louis Frederick Walford from Hobart Tasmania. In the 1891 she is ‘a visitor’ to the same household and now there are five children – these are her children.

In 1895 Louis dies; the records do not show but his family continued to support Lois and the children. When Louis’s own mother died in 1900, Lois changed her name to Walford and on the 1891 census she at last is shown as mother to her own five children.


From the shelter of the old yew tree Lois stared across at the happy bridal couple emerging from the little church… the church of St Regimus, Water Newton… who was St Regimus after whom the church was named? It seemed safer to think of such things than to watch her father laughing down at his bride, Mrs Penney, formerly Miss Livesidge…

Maybe she couldn’t blame him, marrying again… Lois knew what it was like to be alone and lonely… although Charles Penney was not alone! He had his sons and daughters, he had his nine other children, and their children too… children… Lois thought of her own little boy, Georgie… he was with his grandmother, his other grandmother, taken there by his father and into a world Lois could not imagine. She had seen the house, the big white house on Regent’s Park, she had walked past it with her sister Sarah.

She was looking forward to seeing Sarah later; they had arranged to meet at the railway station before Lois took the train home… home… the house she lived in with George and her beloved Louis, where to everyone around she was the housekeeper and nurse to her own son.

Her father was kissing the bride again as their guests threw grains of wheat and barley, showering them in grain for good luck. Lois would never experience this… she would never leave a church on the arm of her new husband, climb into a carriage and depart with the company throwing old shoes after them as the horses pranced and drew them to their new home… Louis would never marry her,; he had promised he would never marry, never go into a synagogue and perform whatever rituals were necessary…

Lois thought of the stories of Jewish weddings that she had read in the Bible…  No, that would be something she would never see…

© Lois Elsden 2017

Who was Ida Frost

When we were children we never called grown-ups by their first name, they were always Miss, Mrs, Mr or ‘aunty’ and ‘uncle’. I was clear who my real aunties and uncles were, my parents’ brothers and sisters, and more distant relatives who were aunty or uncle and yet technically a cousin. However with my parents’ families, especially my mum’s, there were people who now I think may not have been relatives at all, although I’d assumed they were.

My grandma’s name was Ida, and there was someone connected with her family called ‘Aunty Ida’ which we thought was funny, having two Idas. I must admit, despite all my genealogical research, I didn’t really think very much of it. Yesterday I started a massive sort out of all my bits of paper – it really is time to get things sorted and catch my actual family tree up to date, and I came across a little handwritten note from my aunty, my mum’s eldest sister. It was a about a tea-set ‘given by great-grandmother Lois Walford to “Auntie” Ida Frost, probably some time after 1920‘. It was a note to me, as Lois Walford is my great-grandmother.

So who was Ida Frost… I have no idea, but I remember her often being talked about, and talked about fondly and affectionately. I may even have some photos of her… I must check… There was one auntie we went to visit when I was a child. We went by train and passed through fields of cabbages and cauliflowers – we could smell them! – and we went and had tea with ‘auntie’. I sat on the floor playing with something while mum chatted, but I have no idea who our hostess was… Maybe Ida? Or maybe Auntie Lottie? Another name I remember from my childhood…

So I began to search for Ida Frost. Frost is not a name which occurs in any branch of our family as far as I know, and I can’t find a related Ida anyone who might have married a Mr Frost. So how old would she have been… I guessed she might have been a similar age to great-grandma Lois, so I began to trawl through Ida’s born around the 1850’s… then had a thought that when Lois was living in London in the 1890’s, she may well have become friendly with a woman who was younger, so I looked at possible Ida’s born in the 1860’s or 70’s… I looked at census material, I looked at marriage data – Ida anyone marrying a Mr Frost… I did find one, but she didn’t seem right somehow… so I finished my research for the moment, and went back to writing.

Coming to the puzzle this morning I had a sudden thought… how popular was Ida as a name? To have two people who knew each other both with the same name… If Ida Frost was a similar age to Lois would she be easier to find, and would that explain why grandma Ida got her name, did her mother name her only daughter after a close friend? Ida was someone Lois was close too after her split with her family when she moved to London – the only connection Lois had to her past (as far as I know) was her sister Sarah. I looked up the name Ida, it seems to peak in popularity when my grandma Ida was born – maybe Ida Frost was grandma’s friend, not great-grandma’s?

This is an impossible puzzle, isn’t it? I will persevere and ask my cousins… but I think I’ve asked them before and had no luck Giving a gift of a tea-set, even not an expensive one, and one which was manufactured after 1910 is generous… why such a gift? Most likely a wedding… was it a wedding gift when Ida Frost married? Or a gift when Ida married Mr Frost? If it was sometime after 1920 that does give a clue when the marriage might have taken place (I don’t know why the date is significant) – Ida Frost stayed in touch with our family, and when she was very old, she gave the service back to my Aunty – maybe she had no children to pass it on to – and now it has come to me…

I don’t think I will find the answer… but I will keep looking

My featured image is of grandma Ida’s marriage to Reg Matthews, her nephews Eric and Howard Walford are page boys, along with another young man whose name I can’t remember!