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.

A Message from the Other Side?

Do you believe in ghosts? In “A Message from the Other Side?” Shelley Sturgeon tells how her attempt at communication with the dead might just have been heard on the other side!

In the spirit of Halloween and because I’ve decided that on Fridays I will blog about whatever topic I want to, today I thought I’d talk about things that go bump in the night. Well, I mean ghosts and I suppose it would be more accurate to say things that go bump at any time of the day because my experiences, if that’s what they indeed have been, with the other side, if that indeed exists, have happened at various times of the day.

Intrigued yet?

I am very intrigued by the subject and have been for as long as I can remember. Do I conclusively believe in ghosts. No. But I believe in the possibility of their existence. I believe that there’s a possibility that there are more things to be known about what happens when someone dies, about what happens to their soul or their spirit or whatever you want to call it depending on your religious beliefs.

I also believe that it’s easy to dismiss things we don’t understand or can’t see. I mean, come on, they used to think the world was flat, right, and that you could fall off the edge? At that time there was no way to see the world as a whole so that conclusion was based on the information that was available at the time. So, is it so impossible to believe that maybe, just maybe, there is more to understand about what happens to a person after death?

Okay, okay, I suspect some of you are snickering by now and shaking your heads at my ridiculous theory.That’s okay. I’ve been laughed at before! And, in fairness I should also say that I’ve had a couple of glasses of wine tonight as I write this!

So let me tell you about one of my experiences. This happened this past summer and I swear this is absolutely true – no exaggeration or embellishment – cross my heart and hope to… well, you know how the rest of that goes!


But first a bit of background. My husband and I have done a lot of genealogy research over the years. And as anyone who has ever done any genealogy research knows, you often need to go to cemeteries as part of your research. Our poor kids were dragged to cemeteries regularly during their childhoods – even before they could walk! And, when I served as president of our local genealogy society, I was actually interviewed on television–in a cemetery! It was my 15 minutes of fame, edited down to about 90 seconds, broadcast to the nation!

We’ve come across some great stories about people in our families and made some fascinating discoveries. About twenty five years ago, while doing some work in a local cemetery here in town, we discovered the graves of my husband’s great grandmother and her daughter. Elizabeth (the mother) and Susanna (the daughter) had died on the same weekend in October 1918 so that in itself was suspicious and warranted more investigation. Was it an accident, a fire perhaps, or maybe a contagious illness? Continue reading “A Message from the Other Side?”