Posted by: Kerry Gans | August 2, 2011

Genealogy & the Writer’s Mind: The Idea Tree

This weekend I was at a family reunion, and we got into deep discussions about the family tree. For those who don’t know, I am a genealogy buff who has been researching my family for over a decade. So I had a great time!

Genealogy appeals to me on many levels, but mostly as a storyteller. Uncovering the stories of my ancestors is incredibly addictive, as well as enlightening. Many times finding information is like a puzzle, and you need just the right piece to solve the mystery. Did I mention that I’m an avid puzzler as well?

Genealogy is built-in research for a writer. Digging through old census forms, immigration records, death and birth records, old newspapers, city directories and the like provide a wealth of historical detail that can be used in historical novels or even serve as a spark to create a new world or a new idea stream. And it provides a large canvas on which to view the human condition—and to find out that people are, at base, pretty much the same no matter what the time period.

All these people had such wonderful stories, and when I find them I often want to use them in my own stories. Stories such as the 4 siblings (the oldest barely 20, the youngest 8 ) who left Ireland to come to America. Or the Germans who came to New Amsterdam (now New York) with their 1-year-old son on a ship where a third of the passengers died before they even left England. Or the Queen’s chambermaid who used her own arm to bar the door against intruders when the wood bar was mysteriously missing. Or the Swiss immigrant who fought so valiantly in the Revolutionary War that George Washington gave him a letter of recommendation afterward. Or the woman whose husband was killed by a train in 1852—when she was pregnant with their sixth child. Ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances.

The great thing about the people I learn about in genealogy is that, whether they are from the 1400s or 1900s, the emotional and human elements in their stories are universal. They can be transplanted to any time and any place—modern day, historical, or even a fantasy world. They provide me with endless fodder and endless jumping-off points into larger stories.

So while I find that genealogy is rewarding on a personal level (these people all made me who I am, after all), I also love it on an authorial level, as a source of inspiration and information. For me, genealogy is not just a family tree but an idea tree.

Do you have hobbies or passions that feed your writing?


  1. As bubbie the book lady, my passion is working with children. I’m always astounded by their imagination. I borrow shamelessly from things I see them say or do to get ideas for my children’s books.


    • I agree! I have a toddler, and the things her mind comes up with when she is playing are tremendous. Kids are a huge source of ideas – as well as laughter!



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