Monday, October 01, 2012

Writing family history — Children lost and found

Last week brought me two "Aha!" moments in connection to my work-in-progress.

I've been banging my head against this historical novel — about my ancestors, the English family — for several years. The draft moves forward, slowly. I knew something was wrong with it, but not what.

I just devoured two of Elizabeth Peters' novels from her Amelia Peabody series. Every book teaches me something, even though Edwardian Egypt wouldn't seem to have anything to do with Irish Quakers. I enjoyed the story immensely, but this time I noticed all the subplots ("Writers read"). Not only are the Emersons trying to find a murderer, but the professional rivals are also messing up a new tomb, the grown children have an ongoing romance subplot, the daughter is conflicted about women's rights... there's a lot going on! Switching back and forth between these other little story elements adds tension to the main (murder) plot.

My story, at least in the middle, is ... one plot. *yawn* Since it's based on real people, most of the facts I know are about marriages and births, which require me to skip a year or two between certain scenes. (Spoiler Alert!) I made a conscious decision not to focus on certain supporting characters, like my direct ancestor John, because I know he dies young. I didn't want to build up his storyline or make him another POV character and then disappoint my readers.

I've got to fill the gaps. Between main events (conflicts and happy times) for my MCs John Clibborn and Dinah English, I need to throw a bunch of little stuff in. Have their children get into trouble, add another visit from the tithemonger, create drama with the servants (English vs. Irish, maybe), or even add some favourite horses or dogs to the storyline. I need to flesh out the supporting characters.

I started looking at Clibborn's older children for potential storylines: Jane, Sarah and George (William died as an infant). Was somebody courting Jane, Dinah's new stepdaughter? No; I looked her up and she was maybe 10 years old when they married (no recorded birth date). However, she probably played games with her future husband and his siblings.

Looking up the children led to my next revelation. Jane's sister Sarah — didn't exist.

I must have confused things from secondary sources. Liam Cox's history of Moate contains a family tree that shows Sarah between two other children. Looking at it again, there's a little double line there; Sarah was George's wife!
I knew George married Sarah Fuller, but first names were so common, I easily accepted another Sarah. On top of that, two of John Clibborn's sons by his second marriage married Sarahs. That makes three Sarah Clibborns of that generation, and none of them were his daughters!

Unfortunately, none of Clibborn's children by his first wife are in the primary Quaker records — except a small note about George's death, which explains that he was "sprinkled" and therefore his birth not recorded. That makes no sense to me, since his father and all the first generation of Quakers were baptized as children. I couldn't find Sarah in marriage or death records. When I pulled up photos of a large family tree, owned by a Clibborn descendant who still lives in Moate, Ireland, Sarah wasn't there, either.

That's OK. I didn't like her character anyway; I forgot to include her in the last few scenes I wrote.

I had thought I should put research aside and plow through my writing. 'Looks like I need to get back to research again. I never finished going through all the information I brought back from my last trip to Ireland — beaucoudles of it.

Wait, did you notice? There's another daughter on the family tree, Mary. Who is Mary? I happened upon this previous post and there, at the end, was a mysterious Mary. Aha!

Mary is not in Cox's book. I dug around this weekend, and found that George mentioned a sister, Mary Sawyer (from typed extracts), in his will. I had taken that with a grain of salt when I first saw it, because people commonly called their in-laws "sister." The Clibborn family tree above looks to me like she married William Langer; since I don't have an image of George's will and some writers don't read 17th-century writing accurately, I'll leave her married name with a question mark.

With many descendants in at least three countries, several genealogy books have been written about or at least mention the English and Clibborn families. I'm lucky (or blessed) to keep discovering more information. In 2009 I discovered another sibling, Thomas English, whom everybody else had presumed died as a child. This week I lost a child, Sarah. And now it looks like I've gained another one — Mary Clibborn!

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