Do You Know Your Characters’ Backstories and Family Histories?

Do You Know Your Characters’ Backstories and Family Histories? introduces the ideas of using traditional family naming patterns and family tree charts when creating your character’s backstories and family histories.

It’s Family Day here in Ontario, and with that in mind, I thought it might be a good time to ask: Do you know your characters’ backstories and, more specifically, who their families were/are?

Admittedly, knowing this isn’t important necessarily for your secondary characters, and knowing this may not add to your story depending on the genre or your storyline. But, it’s always a good exercise to understand what makes your characters tick, and establishing their backstories and family histories are great ways to do this. After all, who we are as people is due to our “nature and nurture” so why should the same not be true for our characters?

Did you know:

  • English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish typically used a naming pattern when naming children that went like this:

    • The first son was named after the father’s father
    • The second son was named after the mother’s father
    • The third son was named after the father
    • The fourth son was named after the father’s eldest brother
    • The fifth son was named after the mother’s eldest brother
    • The first daughter was named after the mother’s mother
    • The second daughter was named after the father’s mother
    • The third daughter was named after the mother
    • The fourth daughter was named after the mother’s eldest sister
    • The fifth daughter was named after the father’s eldest sister

    Not everyone followed it exactly, but when you’re doing genealogy, if your ancestors did use a naming pattern like this, it can make it easier to trace your ancestors, and knowing this, it might make it easier to write your characters’ family histories. Following a traditional naming pattern might be a good idea if your character’s family is supposed to be conservative and traditional.

    With my Scottish ancestors, when a daughter was named for one of her grandmothers she was given the grandmother’s first and surname. So the first granddaughter of Sarah Whitelaw, for example, was named Sarah Whitelaw McPherson. In this way, the mother’s maiden name was preserved. In Cornwall, the practice was to give all the children the mother’s maiden surname as a middle name.

    I’ve also read that the first daughter born to a second wife was named after the first wife, using her full name. (Presumably, the first wife died to warrant such an honour. Generations ago, divorce wasn’t common and I can’t imagine an ex-wife being held in such esteem in this day and age!)

  • When infant mortality rates were high, names were sometimes recycled. So, for example, if a daughter was born and given the name Sarah Whitelaw, and she died before the next daughter was born, some families would recycle the name, and in the case of our example, this second daughter would also be named Sarah Whitelaw. That probably sounds a bit confusing, but when you’re doing genealogy research, it’s not uncommon to discover multiple children with the same name in the same family. This may have been done in an attempt to continue the naming patterns which honoured grandparents and other relatives.
  • Sometimes surnames were given as first names.

Knowing all of this might also help you when it comes to naming your characters. Please note there are variations on this for different nationalities, religions and cultural groups. You can find lots of information online. This site offers some insight.

Tip: Most genealogists used specialized software to track their family records, but you can also use family tree charts to do this. You can find several options here and these may work well for seeing the big picture when you create your fictional families.

Hope that gives you some ideas for creating your characters’ backstories and family histories.

Mysteries of the English Language: Idioms

Mysteries of the English Language: Idioms explains the origins of a couple of common phrases and suggests where more information on the subject can be found.

I started out today thinking I’d blog about the history of the expression “blow your own horn” because it’s something that we, as writers, need to do to promote our blogs and books.

I think we all know what is implied by the phrase. When I dug into the origin of the phrase, however, I was surprised to learn that in Middle Ages (500 – 1500 AD) you could employ heralds who would blow their trumpets and with great fanfare announce your lineage and deeds to the crowds at tournaments. If you didn’t have a herald, or you didn’t wait for the herald to make this announcement for you, then you would be publicly announcing yourself, and thereby “blowing your own horn.”

Here’s the origin of another phrase that you might find interesting. We always used to say to our kids when we tucked them in at night, “Nighty, night. Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite.” Now, thanks to a resurgence of the little pesky things, we all understand what bedbugs are since they’ve made headlines in recent years, but do you know what “sleep tight” means?

Before box springs, bed frames used to have a mesh of ropes beneath the mattresses to support them. If the ropes were taunt, in other words “tight,” the mattress was more comfortable and you were likely to sleep better.

For More Information

There are many, many phrases like this in the English language that we use without thought of where, why or when they originated. If you’d like to learn more, check out these sites:

Photo credit: Pixabay

Black History Month: The Underground Railroad

Black History Month: The Underground Railroad – Information about the underground railroad and archived sources in recognition of Black History Month.

February is Black History Month, and since I’ve been researching the Underground Railroad for my book over this last week or so, it seemed appropriate to share some of this information with you today.

You may already know (I didn’t!) that the reason this secret network of individuals, safe houses, secret routes, and transportation acquired the name “Underground Railroad” is because they used railroad terminology to communicate, in a sort of code.

For example:

  • Safe houses were “stations.”
  • Safe house owners who hid slaves in their homes were called “station masters.”
  • Fugitive slaves were known as “passengers” or “cargo.”

A candle in a window, or a quilt hung in a certain location, were sometimes used to identify safe houses.

Many escaped slaves escaped to the free states and then went on to Canada and their descendents still live here today. This map shows the various routes taken by the underground railroad to reach Canada.


For more information on the Underground Railroad:

Photo credits: Routes of the Underground Railroad, 1830-1865 and The Underground Railroad by Charles T. Webber, 1893 via Wikimedia Commons