Friday, February 4, 2011


The cottage was of ancient stone, with thick lichen on its roof slates. Nobody answered our knock, so we wandered around the back by the stream taking notes of the plants, the smells, and the sound of birds. "You there!" a man's voice boomed. "What are you up to?"

I jumped, but Dee responded with dignity. "We're searching for ghosts."

There was more to it. "We're actually tracing the history of a unique mill stone that sat at this mill until it was taken to Utah over a hundred years ago. And we're using your mill for a setting in a book."

"I've heard of that stone," he said. "It came with William Penn's settlers to the Brandywine region centuries past. From England, I understand."

These were all clues for a client named Miller, anxious to find how many generations their family had been millers. Now we had them back to Pennsylvania and possibly to somewhere in England. Stepping into the setting opens doors.

Visiting a homeland with some props and dates catches the attention of local folks.
Here in Trzesniow, Poland, just asking how to pronounce a name at the cemetery brought people with that name out of the woodwork, anxious to join in and share their own ancestry.

We were invited to the mayor's home (the one in the middle) and he tore pages out of his own records to give to us. They were of major importance to the family we were researching, and we would never have found them otherwise. Plus, being in a home, seeing the furnishings, observing the food being cooked for dinner, added an authenticity to the setting in a way a book never could.

Writing history has taught me a lot about writing fiction. Setting is a major clue to character. In a history there are actual places to visit to soak in the ambiance. In fiction it's helpful to do a real-life tour anyway of the places you'll include, and use genuine elements in your writing.

Use the facts you already know. Your ghost grew up on a farm? When?

The style of farm makes a difference.

There are clues to a person's personality in the town where he grew up, in the places his parents worked, and the surroundings he explored as a child. Farms and businesses tell stories about the economic climate of the town, just observing them. The size and prominence of schools and churches reveal the formal education of a character, and whether that was a major concern in his life.

Were folks married in a tiny church or a cathedral?
Ask around.

Were your ghosts buried on the cliff behind the church? Are the graves in a family plot, with names and dates to follow up on? Is this the poor side of the cemetery or the ritzy part with monuments and benches? Those details become conclusions that add to your story.

Is he buried out in the sticks? Alone or in a family plot?
What did it mean in that community?

Time books or financial records tell more that just cash balances. They show organizational skills, educational background, and what things were important to your ghost (or character.)

These details are often found in a town library or family archive. Phone books are available, as well as local histories and community/church scrapbooks. Pictures and articles are easily photocopied by helpful librarians. (Don't crop the photos when you get home. Make sure the colorful wallpaper and the heavy old draperies are part of the setting.) Get out a notebook and describe in detail the cabbage cooking on the stove, and the boiled tongue they offered you for lunch—even the dog hairs on the chairs. It will add veracity to your story.

Ask the librarian—"Where was this home? In the middle of town, on the outskirts?" Find out how that indicated social standing. Drive out to see the property to get a feel. This is all part of the setting that helps fill in the blanks about your character. Ask to see the birth and death records, even if you already know the dates. The handwriting, the signatures of godparents, all the little details add to the feel and tone you'll be able to portray.

A town library will have archives of newspaper clippings. Were our ghosts at the fancy weddings? It will be listed. It might even say Mr. Robson and Miss Freeman became engaged at the reception afterward. They will be married June 3, 1846. Suddenly the story has new details!

It's important in non-fiction to describe the scenes accurately. Real people knew the humidity or the bone-chilling cold, the dry wind, or the lonely walk down to the sea. Pop into the local museum and see what they wore to go to the mines or the fishing boats. It shows respect to portray them in a setting they actually experienced. Fictional characters will come alive when they're placed in a realistic setting, too.

Dee loves to get a feel for the place he's describing. It brings his characters to life and he can relate to them knowing how and where they lived.

If this is a research trip, you'll have plenty to do without the usual tourist diversions. Some city tours might add to your understanding, but concentrate on what you're trying to accomplish. Mr. Miller had Dee draw up an itinerary and planned a trip to uncover details of their ancestors on a trip to England.

"Shrewsbury was so difficult to get to," he said after they got home. "We decided to visit Bath and tour the Cotswolds, see Stratford on Avon. I couldn't face sitting in a library for days! We'll send you over for the work part of the trip!"

We're totally game! We love detecting.

Read more of our ghost hunting adventures here.


Kay Dennison said...

Beautiful and helpful!

Grammy T. said...

I love it my friend. ;)

Heather P said...

Great post!

Raejean said...

I often feel frustrated with how little I know about my ancestors. Thanks for helping me to see how to get more out of what I do have.

Christie said...

Your research trips are awesome. You really do get much more in-depth information when you go. So inspiring...

mama jo said...

my favorite picture is the one of you climbing under the fence....that's dedication!

kenju said...

You must get so excited when you learn a key piece of information.