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 (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 –


My 2017: August

August was an exciting month – I published a little handbook for writers – this is what I blogged about it:

In my last teaching job I was working with young people aged fifteen and sixteen who, in their last year of statutory education were not in school for various reasons; these students were for the most part totally disengaged – clever, literate, interesting – and yet totally turned off education at the very time it was most important for them to do well. Our tiny team of teachers (three of us and two wonderful LSAs) did all we could to re-engage them so they could pass enough exams to give them post-sixteen opportunities in further education, training or work.

I wrote a series of what ended up as chapters on creative writing, and it’s these which I have polished up (although they did not need much changing) amended and added to, to produce ‘So You Want To Write’. This is not just for children – it’s for anyone!

It’s only short, it’s a handbook really and you can find chapters on:

  • Inspiration
  • Your readers
  • Narrator
  • Introduction, opening or beginning
  • Setting
  • Characters
  • Names
  • Plot
  • Language… and Style
  • Research…  and Observation
  • Endings

Here is a link to it…


… and here is the Amazon blurb…

So you want to write but don’t know how to… Your head is empty, your imagination stalled… Or you have you a story but don’t know where or how to start? How to begin? What to do? ‘So You Want To Write’ takes you from the first page to the last of your own story – beginnings, endings and the bit in between. The 6 P’s are all covered – plot, people, point of view, place, purpose and pace, all taken care of.

The Heath Robinson onion skinning machine

I haven’t kept up to date with my NaNo diary here – I had imagined that as I worked my way through the 50,000 words which make up the National Novel Writing Month challenge, I would be adding a commentary here on my progress. I didn’t necessarily think it would be a daily thing, but I certainly thought I would keep up to date with my progress, my hurdles, my free-flowing runs of hundreds if not thousands of words.

This year, unlike some others, I have been working steadily and well, and with a firm purpose; I don’t necessarily know where the story is going (although I have a good idea) but nearly every day I have written something… however, and here is the big ‘however’, I have just not managed to meet the target of 1667 words a day, and I have been lagging further and further behind.

A few days ago I honestly thought I wasn’t going to make it this year, and I still have doubts… however, I have worked, head down over the last few days, and although I am not on course yet (with only four days to go) it is, I hope manageable…

Here is an extract… my character Milla is thinking back over jobs she had when she was a student… this is actually what I did… worked in a pickle onion factory:

Milla worked on what the boss called his Heath Robinson machine. She sat on a bicycle seat with a treadle beneath one foot and a pedal beneath the other. In front of her was looked like a cog, but with curved teeth; the pedal opened and closed a big hopper beside her containing the onions. The treadle turned the cog and Milla’s job was to put pickling onions one by one onto the teeth as they fed down from the hopper. The onions would enter the rackety machine in front of her and two rotating blades would slice off the ends. Another circular blade sliced the onion skin lengthways as they passed beneath it. The top and tailed sliced onions would pass into an inner region where air was blasted to blow off the skins. The skins fell into a waste bin, the naked onions came out the other end on a conveyor belt.

The three women worked at the other end, checking the onions were properly peeled; they had small sharp knives to complete the job and once properly skinned they would be tossed into a large plastic brine tub.

The noise was phenomenal for a small machine. If the onions jammed in the hopper Milla would slap it or bang it with her shoulder to shift them. When the hopper was empty she got off her bicycle seat and went and got a new sack and emptied it in. The onions came from the Netherlands and once a Dutch onion picker’s knife tumbled out of the hopper onto her tray.

Milla began to use it instead of the knife she had been issued with, imaging the Dutch onion pickle who might be sadly wondering where his favourite knife was. When she left she took the knife wither.

© Lois Elsden 2017

Here’s a link to my published stories, e-books and paperbacks:



25,000 done, 25,000 to go!

You may be a person who looks at the title of this blog and knows exactly what I mean – or you may be baffled!

The 25,000 refers to words – since November 1st I have written twenty-five thousand (and 42) words as part of the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge… it’s an on-line challenge, there are no prizes except knowing you have completed the challenge and achieved the goal!

So I am halfway through, and as you may realise today is the two-thirds mark… so I have ten days to write the remaining 25,000 (well, 24, 958 to be precise) words… Can I do it? I hope so, but it will be head down!

The thing is, as well as writing my story – which is about a woman with a mystery past who arrives in the small coast la town of Easthope – as well as writing about my mystery woman, I am also writing here every day, and writing for the blog I share with two friends, The Moving Dragon Writes… plus other stuff as well, of course! To be truthful though, during this stressful and busy time (I’m also doing an on-line course on submarine archaeology) I have shared some blogs which I wrote several years ago, with introductions and added comments, but some of the things I’ve written have been quite long…

So supposing each thing I have shared here over the last month (sixty of them) and the ones I have shared on the other blog, (say ten of them) was on average 400 words long (a conservative estimate) then that make an approximate total of about 28,000 words… so if I added that to my NaNoWriMo total… wow! I’ve made it, 53,042!!!

Obviously, I am going to try to complete the challenge by writing 50,000 words about my mystery woman, but ti just shows how much i actually do write… No wonder i don’t have tome to do the dusting!!

If you want to read the fruits of my labours, I have published thirteen novels (one in paperback), three reluctant reader stories, one writing guide, an anthology with my Moving Dragon friends, then here is a link – I’m sure you will enjoy them, pleasae let me know what you think!


and a link to the Moving Dragon blog:


Roll the dice!

Here’s an idea if you’re running short of inspiration! Locations, times, characters, items and sins! Take a dice and roll and whatever number that’s what you have to write about. So for me…

The setting is Abbey Tow, it’s autumn, Kit Buxton and Charles Consett are involved, earphones and slippers play a part in the story and the sin is jealousy or sloth. I actually have a dice (or more correctly die) and I have rolled it each time and that is what I have come up with!

You (or your writing group) don’t have to use my list – you can make up your own! The places in my list all have a small village feel from their names, you could create a more varied list of locations. I tried to use ageless names – I know people with these first names of all different ages, young and old. The items on my list are all very ordinary – your list could contain more exotic or unusual things…  and lastly, the sins – I used the old Biblical list, but there are more specific, more contemporary iniquities!

Six places:

  1. Abbey Hulton
  2. Abbey Tow
  3. Abbeydorney
  4. Abbeyfeale
  5. Abbeyshrule
  6. Abbeystead

Six times of year:

  1. spring
  2. early summer morning
  3. autumn
  4. winter
  5. winter’s night
  6. summer

Six characters:

  1. Toby Whitty
  2. Freddie Miles
  3. Grace Gaynor
  4. Emily Mainwaring
  5. Kit Buxton
  6. Albert Borrowdale

Six other characters:

  1. Isobel Hankinson
  2. Alice Oliver
  3. Henry Champness
  4. Lucy Corns
  5. Charles Consett
  6. Clara Graham

Six sets of random items:

  1. black cardigan, cycle helmet
  2. two house keys, brown framed glasses
  3. black infantry watch, sketch pad
  4. gold faced brown strap watch, coat
  5. 2 silver rings, drinks bottle
  6. earphones, slippers

Six sins:

  1. jealousy or gluttony
  2. envy or pride
  3. sloth  or wrath
  4. jealousy or sloth
  5. envy or gluttony
  6. lust or pride

Should I try and write what the dice has rolled? I think I should!

PS From ‘etymonline‘:

Dice (n.) early 14c., des, dys, plural of dy (see die (n.), altered 14th century to dyse, dyce, and 15th century to dice. “As in pence, the plural s retains its original breath sound, probably because these words were not felt as ordinary plurals, but as collective words” (OED). Sometimes used as singular 1400-1700.