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short story writing

Turning family stories into fictional stories.

My short story collection manuscript about a cursed family on Long Island has been shelved for awhile. Before editing the final stories I want to distance myself from it. The time away from the original collection has been spent researching the stories for another compendium, one inspired by true stories from my family history.

About a year ago fellow poet Bartholomew Barker offered to do some preliminary genealogy research for me. I had always been told all my great-grandparents had come over from Europe via Ellis Island, and I didn’t have an interest in searching international records for them. (In fact, I got my first C in school on a family tree project because my family didn’t have any records. This was pre-Google.) Bart quickly learned not all of my great-grandparents were immigrants, some have lineages that trace back further domestically before an immigration record surfaces. Knowing there were records in my own language and not at a foreign distance, I felt more inclined to research more.

family grave

Found a relative’s grave only an hour from our home.

A few months ago I saw a note on our county’s listserv announcing genealogy volunteers at our local library. I promptly reserved a spot that week. The volunteer assigned to me, Glenn, was patient and fun and had a few interesting dramatic stories that came out of his own family history work, and one in particular gave me goosebumps: He was contacted by his mother’s daughter (his half-sister) he had never known about! From my short time with Glenn I learned more about one branch of my family tree, and as I’ve been searching independently I’ve found even more. My family and I didn’t know we had any relatives in North Carolina, but my search showed otherwise. Last weekend my love and I drove an hour south and visited my grandfather’s sister’s grave – and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren might still be in this area.

The circumstances my ancestors faced and the choices they made–or in some cases, those that were made for them against their will–intrigue me and serve as inspiration for my next project of interconnected short stories.

My predecessors were connected to places and situations that are ripe for storytelling:

  • Asylums. Psychiatric centers, asylums, and vagrancy surfaces on one branch of the tree, including the Hudson River State Mental Hospital, Blackwell’s Island (New York City’s first mental aslyum, today known as Roosevelt Island), and the New York Juvenile Asylum.

    NY juvenile asylum census records

    My great-great-grandfather was in the New York Juvenile Asylum in Washington Heights.

  • Drama galore. One relative left his wife and two young children to start a new life with his mistress. Another relative had children no one knew about. A great-grandfather had told everyone he lost his hand in an accident, but it turns out he was born with only one hand. Family was told my great-grandmother had run away, but she was really put in an asylum.

    genealogy draft records

    My great-grandfather’s draft card shows he was born with one hand.

  • Variety of settings. From Manhattan, upstate New York, North Carolina and Maine, to out west in California, Arizona, and potentially more. A great-great-grandparent owned a candy shop in lower Manhattan, and my great-grandmother and great-aunt worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. (Yes, at the time of the infamous fire.) So far I’ve tracked family back to Scotland, England, Russia, and two towns in Germany. Fortunately, my love is fluent in Russian so when I get to those records he will need to help me!

I’m thinking of telling these stories chronologically in fictional form, which will lean toward the historical fiction genre. At writing conferences I’ve learned that cross-genre books are easier to market and more attractive to literary agents!

With my previous short story collection I had written a handful of stories before I decided to make a series of interconnected stories. In planning the arcs of some of the main characters’ journeys, I had written out timelines and made sure little details were planted throughout the collection–but that each story could stand on its own independently. With this next collection I’m following a similar practice, but I’m also leaning on a few crutches:

  1. History is a weakness for me. I am not one for remembering battles, dates, names, etc. and that handicap will cause a lot of extra work in researching eras and social and political undercurrents of those times.
  2. Dead-ends. I’ve found myself at the tips of my family tree branches with no more resources other than to visit in person. I’ll be in New York City and upstate New York this summer researching more!
  3. Choice paralysis. There’s a great TED Talk by Barry Schwartz on the Paradox of Choice. I’m having a grand time researching right now and a bit paralyzed with choosing which idea to turn into a story first.

Have you found family stories inspire your fiction work?

Register for my first-ever 6-week Short Stuff (Short Fiction) Online Class. Class runs 2/20-3/31 and is entirely online through a forum and limited to 8 writers. Classes will be posted every other week. Students will receive a personal one-on-one critique of a new story and polished ideas for future work. Weeks 1-2: Nuts and Bolts of Short Fiction. Weeks 3-4: Ideas to Stories. Weeks 5-6: Prepare for publication. SHORT FICTION CLASS REGISTRATION HERE $99