Writing about your family history… 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:


Keeping track

People write in different ways, I don’t just mean handwriting, but writing novels and stories, other books, poetry… I am sometimes asked about writing my novels, an whether I plan them, and whether I make notes… well actually no… my mind just doesn’t seem to work like that. I know other people have wall-charts and files, and post-its, and all sorts of things. I just get on and write although I do often use a calendar or diary to keep track of the time scale, and to make sure I don’t have it snowing in July or that Easter comes before Christmas. I do often make family trees for my characters, with birth dates and when they got married and who their children are… but this is mostly just jotting in an old exercise book or note pad.

When I came to write Radwinter however, because it was concerned with genealogy, I did have to make a lot more effort, and I had huge pieces of paper with the different trees of the different people, I had a folder of different census records, print-offs of articles I had found useful or interesting, and lists of information about workhouses, brick factories and Polish war memorials. However, what the characters did and how their lives progressed and the different events which happened to them, that all stayed in my head.

I am now embarking on Magick, the sequel to Radwinter; I have written about 60,000 words and got to a stage now where I need to construct some family trees, and collate my ‘evidence’ from census returns, birth and marriage and death records, and collateral information about Victorian England. I have my big pieces of paper, I have my felt tip pens, and I have a drawing board on my knee! Ready to record!

Things are progressing nicely

Day six of the national Novel Writing in a Month challenge; I’m tackling a story about a family in search of its past,and I’m using real information from census returns, but just inserting my characters into empty lines on the census returns; so my characters are imaginary but their neighbours really existed. I have taken some names from the census which is the first time I’ve used real people, albeit ones who were born nearly two hundred years ago.

Sometimes we have the idea that people didn’t move around very much, they were born, lived, married, had families and then died in their own little area without having travelled further than the next town. That maybe true, but no more true than it is today. people moved around all over the place and this was at a time (1840’s when part of my story is set) when unless you were rich and horses, or carriages, or could afford to go on the new trains, you walked. On of my husband’s relatives was born in Suffolk and ended up in Surrey, via London. My main character appears on the 1841 census in Essex and in the ten intervening years makes his way to Surrey, just as my husband’s ancestor did.

In those ten years between 1841 and 1845, the character acquires a wife and three children, and when they are recorded in the census, very sadly the wife and two younger children are in the Workhouse. There was a terrible stigma attached to the Workhouse… when I was born a neighbour had her child at a private nursing home because she didn’t want him born in a building which had once been a Workhouse but was now the maternity hospital. The Workhouse as such had closed twenty years before, but the stigma of the very building still remained.

There is an interesting site about Cambridge Workhouses here:


My main character comes across the census information about the Radwinter family:

Robert Radwinter… I find little Robert and Thirza and Lamy all on the same page, living in the same place, in Blechingely… the Union Workhouse… I sit literally shivering…

  • Robert Radwinter, inmate, 3, son of pauper, born Chigwell, Essex
  • Thirza Radwinter, inmate, 1, daughter of pauper, born Lambeth London
  • Lamy Radwinter, inmate, 23, pauper general servant, born Radwinter Essex

Keeping up the words

It’s very early days in the NaNo challenge, to write 50,000 words of a novel in a month, but so far (and fingers crossed for the next twenty-six days) I’m on target. I’m writing about a family’s search for their genealogical roots, but just having lists of names and family trees would be pretty uninteresting so I’m also exploring the lives of the family, and the skeletons they might find when they undertake this research.

As usual with my stories characters expand or deflate as I write, people who were major fade away, and walk-on parts grab the centre stage. So a brother’s fiancée, rather than being an attachment  to him, has become a major player, and an annoying wife, has become kinder, and more gentle, and more nuanced.

I suppose I am so familiar with looking at census material and other documents to do with my exploration of my family tree, (and I’m not a real expert) that I don’t always remember what it was like when I first started and how baffling the whole search was… and how frustrating. So I’m trying to put some of that into the story,, as well as things like characters’ name changes over the census returns of the nineteenth century as the enumerator struggles with unfamiliar names and foreign  accents. In 1841 when there was the first census, many people would have been illiterate, and not all the enumerators were that able to interpret a strong country or foreign accent. When I was teaching, there were quite a number of students whose  parents came from other countries, and had their names registered incorrectly when they were born (in Britain) their parents lack of English led to errors.

So the words flowed well yesterday, I wonder what today will bring!  I think maybe the characters will find evidence of their ancestor’s marriage in the 1840’s and a few children arriving before the 1851 census!

Day 2… writing my novel in a month!

Day 2 went well in my effort to write a novel in a month as part of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and I’m well on target with my words – it’s hoped we’ll do 50,000 in November… so far so good, but we’ll see!

My novel is about a family in search of its roots, a sort off genealogical thriller, I guess. I’ve been introducing various characters; s it’s about a family there are lots of them but i want to make it clear to the reader who they are and how they are related… I’ve just been reading ‘Case Histories’ by the popular and respected author, Kate Atkinson, and I have to say that yet again I’ve read a book I didn’t like. There are several stories of missing girls in her novel, and although they are all introduced individually with separate chapters I got in such a muddle over them all… maybe I really am a rubbish reader (I just hope I’m not a rubbish writer) so with that thought and having lots of characters I’ve taken care that I try to establish them clearly.

Unusually for me I’m writing in the first person, and more unusually the narrator is a man, Thomas Radwinter. He has three brothers, Marcus, Paul and John (People who criticise my choice of names can’t complain, can they?) In the first few paragraphs he talks about his wife, Rebecca, another straight forward name. He goes to be introduced to his brother Paul’s fiancée; Paul has four sons so having introduced them, the narrator talks about them as ‘my nephew Tom’ or Paul’s eldest boy, so I hope the reader won’t feel muddled. To make it clearer, really early on I put a little family tree, father, mother, four brothers, offspring.

I think what might become difficult with names is when Thomas starts going through census records, where obviously there will be lots of names… not sure how to manage that, but in a way they are only names of ancestors, and apart from a few key people it won’t matter whether the reader remembers them or not.

As usual with my stories, although I have a general idea of where I’m going, I know, I just know that there will be unexpected things happening along the way, unexpected for me as well as my characters and my readers!


Mr Moonlight

On my trail to find more about my family tree I came across the delightful name of Moonlight! Yes, it is an actual name. John and William Moonlight appear in the 1851 census, both born in Scotland, one living in Withyham, East Grinstead, the other was visiting  Portsea Island where my husband’s family came from. John was an agricultural labourer born in 1829, and William was a tailor born in 1827.

By 1861, William is recorded s lodging in Harlow, still a tailor, and no mention on the census of being married. In this census there is a John Moonlight recorded, probably the same man as his birth is recorded as 1830 – and some people were very hazy over their age in those days. John is a dock worker now, has a wife, Alice who is nine years younger than him, and a baby boy Thomas, not even a year old. Also lodging in the same house is a young woman who I guess is his sister, Elizabeth, who was also born in Scotland.

There are another family of Moonlights, all born in Ainsworth, Lancashire, and all cotton weavers;  Henry 44, his wife Martha 45, and children John, 24, Levi, 19, and Henry junior, 15. (What a great name Levi Moonlight – and people complain I have extraordinary names in my novels!) Another family, this time in Chorlton-upon-Medlock in Manchester, have children Sarah, 4, and baby Edward, but the parents surname is written as Mannios… now they are born in Ireland and I’m guessing that the enumerator couldn’t understand their accent. The father is William aged 29 and a leather worker, his wife’s name is difficult to read but maybe Helen or it maybe an Irish name that the enumerator couldn’t work out. It doesn’t say where in Ireland they come from… maybe I can find out more on the 1871 census, if they are still in England!

Well… 1871 census… the only Moonlights are the Liverpool family, John, Alice, Thomas and now little Agnes aged 6. Where have the others gone? Back to Ireland or Scotland? Who knows?! By 1881 only young Thomas, still living in the Mount Pleasant area of Liverpool, now a butcher with a young wife Catherine, only Thomas appears on the census.

Until I look at death records I won’t know for sure, but looking at the 1891 census, Catherine Moonlight, wife of Thomas the butcher is alone as a lodger… where is Thomas? Gone to Ireland to see his family? Joined the navy? Died? Meanwhile, up in Sunderland a new family of Moonlights have appeared: Isabella born in 1856 in Scotland, and her children George, 23,  William, 21,  Isabella, 19,  and Jane, 14, also born in Scotland, and their young brother, Charles aged 12 and born in Durhamshire. The oder boys are tailors, Isabella is a milliner and the younger two are at school. I wonder if Alexander H.S. Moonlight, also a tailor and living not far away in Durham is another brother? he has a wife, Mary, who at 20 is five years younger than he is.

I was worrying about the absence of Thomas, husband of Catherine when I looked up the 1891 census. Well here he is, bold as brass in 1901, still a butcher… but now with a different wife, Mary! There is a Catherine Moonlight, a laundress and lodge living somewhere else, but her date of birth is different from Thomas’s original wife… however that doesn’t necessarily mean anything as people, especially poorly educated people were not always sure of their dates of birth. This is a mystery that needs exploring!

Up in Sunderland Isabella and her family are flourishing. She is living alone with her son Charles who, like his brothers is a tailor. Alexander, who may or may not be Isabella’ son, because now his place of birth is noted as Ireland  is married to Mary. Thee is a new piece of information on the record, infirmity… and both Alexander and Mary are deaf and dumb and have been from childhood. They have two little children, Ernest,8,  and Elizabeth, 3, neither of whom has a mention of any infirmity…. however, in another family, Elizabeth Crozier and her grown up children, Frederick, Stanley and Sally, who are all mentioned as being deaf and dumb, there is a little granddaughter Violet Moonlight, aged 3…  Frederick is a plater, Stanley is a ship’s joiner, Sally is a laundress,

Isabella’s other son, William is now married to Annie and they have children too, Elizabeth and Norman Lyndsay,  aged 1 and 5.

The last census I can access, 1911 and here are 17 Moonlights recorded. Isabella is still alive up in the north-east, now aged 76; she is living with her daughter Jane and two grandchildren Linda aged 6 and little 5 month-old Sheila. Isabella’s son and daughter-in-law William and Annie have experienced some sadness; two of their five children died, however Norman is now working as an office boy for a ship brokers and coal exporter, Elizabeth is at school and Isabella named after her grandmother and aunty is aged 5.

Alexander, who might be Isabella’s son, has his full name revealed in this census, Alexander Horatio Smart Moonlight! Another grand name! They have also lost a child, but Ernest Horatio is an apprentice electrician and Elizabeth Violet is at school. Isabella’s son George is now living in Bolton, Lancashire, still a tailor and married to a Scots girl, Janet; they have two children, George and Marion.

I could write so much more about the family with the beautiful name, maybe another time, but what is interesting is the way the occupations and names have changed over the years. Agricultural and dock labourers, cotton spinners, platers, ships’ joiners, coal exporters’ apprentice electrician,… it reflects nearly a century of change. The names too, from William and John and George, Mary and Martha to Ernest, Sally, Norman, Marian, Sheila and Linda; however if you look at birth announcements today it has gone full circle, now we have George and William Thomas, and Mary and Martha and Isabella! Plus ça change!