Friday, March 28, 2008

Introducing Marlene Austin

Today I'd like to introduce guest blogger Marlene Austin. She's the author of Grave Secrets. a Mormon family history mystery (how's that for a new literary genre?) which was a Whitney Award finalist this year. Congratulations on that honor, Marlene!

Marlene says that living in historic New England and spending a good deal of time visiting cemeteries for her own family history were what prompted her to add features of genealogical research to her fiction. Grave Secrets is not only a romance/mystery, but family history research is as essential to the plot as the mysterious woman Bethany, the main character, seeks to identify.

Marlene is currently finishing up the sequel as well as doing more research on her own ancestors. However, she took the time to write the following for our Familywriters Blog.

Leafing Out My Family Tree
by Marlene Austin

According to the blogs I’ve been reading, a lot of writers are spending a lot of time watching people rather than their computers. Writers are looking for characters to build their plots around and plots to showcase the characters they’ve spotted. I’ve never needed to sit and watched people for characters. I have a world full of people and experiences just waiting to be told. I do family history.

In my current project I needed an experience where a mother feared that her child was lost but finally found her safe. I remembered the story of my mother scaring her aunt into a panic when she, as a small girl visiting the woman, climbed into the large bed and cuddled in for a mid afternoon nap. When I needed an endearing recitation to help my heroine fall in “like” with a guy, I simply recounted one of those incidents my own sweetheart had told me about himself. He’s now won my heart twice. My brother teases me about a scene where my heroine does some remodeling—moments recaptured from one of the many times our father remodeled one of our four family homes. When it is time to name a new character in a piece, many writers pull out a book for naming babies and scan the list of names. I pull out my family history book, choose the time period I want the name to represent, and find a name—a name that not only represents a character but that automatically brings an age and a time period to my readers mind. Sometimes I barely need to give additional historical background because the name says it all.

Recently I’ve found that the more writing I do, the more I lean upon my family’s historical experiences, and likewise, the more family history I do, the more I find myself seeing my ancestors through the eyes of a writer and longing to write about them.

Here’s an example:

On January 9, 1831, several months after the organization of the Mormon Church, a hole was cut through a foot of ice on a pond near the home of John and Sarah Graham Coltrin so their son, Zebedee Coltrin, could be baptized. Other family members, including my great, great grandfather Graham Coltrin, Zebedee’s brother, joined the church within a few months. It is easy to follow the movement of the family by the places and years of their births. John Coltrin, the patriarch of the family, died near Winter Quarters. Zebedee and Graham both lost their wives and a number of children before they crossed the plains to Utah. Once in Utah, Graham’s second wife bore him twins but she, along with the babies, then Graham himself, all died within a month of each other.

Zebedee who had served as one of the first presidents of the seventies under Joseph Smith, did the temple work for several of his ancestors in 1885 but the only information left about his mother, Sarah Graham, was that she was born in 1775 in Petersburg, Ohio to John and Hannah Wallace Graham, and she died in Peterborough, New Hampshire. This information was questionable at best.

It was not an easy task to sort out the truth and find the location of the cellar hole John Graham dug for the cabin he and Hannah moved to in 1765. It was not easy, but when I stood by the hole and realized that not only John had been there but Hannah, his wife, Sarah, their daughter, and the rest of the family including Hannah’s parents, even her grandmother, it was quite amazing.

I walked the short distance from the cellar hole, now a depression of three or four feet edged by thin-trunked, spindly trees, to the small lake. They would have fished here, gotten water here, swam, bathed and played here. My steps were undoubtedly touching soil their shoes—or feet—had touched. I was looking at rocks they dug and piled, trees they climbed, paths they followed, walking and skipping. I could nearly hear Hannah call Sarah to finish up her chores, to come in the house—supper was ready, it was time to get to bed.

It was the thoughts of those voices that taught me the most about them. Hannah, her tones soft and warm as she talked to John in the stillness of sunrise; Hannah, her voice hushed and tired, strained with exhaustion as she called the children home from the lake while John served at Bunker Hill; Hannah cold and lonely as she pulled her quilt closer to her in the bed John would never share with her again. Yet Hannah, widow, would have been strong even after the day when the descriptive noun had been added to her name. Would Sarah, among the youngest of their children, have been a bright spot in Hannah’s life or a nearly forgotten child as her mother grieved for John?

I am planning to write a book including the story of Hannah with John and Sarah. I will place them in the forest where they settled; the tall pines, the rocky terrain covered in autumn leaves will be the background to their plight. I will be writing about people I know in a place that I love. Identifying the Graham and Wallace families has become one of my most cherished family history experiences. As I begin thinking about the book, focusing on a worthy plot and slowly gathering accurate information, the process forwards me into a new understanding of these ancestors. As I create relationships and arrange these people into history, their reality settles into my knowledge of them. I will not know their characteristics enough to paint them in their true colors or give them the words or thoughts they truly pondered, but seeing where they lived and what they lived like cannot help but bring my thoughts closer to theirs.

This experience is fulfilling an incredible dream for me both as a family historian and as a writer. I believe the two pursuits work together adding a new overall dimension not only to my writing but to my relationship with my ancestors.

3 comments:

Cecily Markland said...

Thank you, Marlene! Your beautiful writing makes me want to visit a cemetery or two! Truly, it makes me want to read more. Can't wait to get my hands on your Whitney Award book and to see the next one too! Sounds like you've got a great start. Thanks again!

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Dorothy Coltrin said...

As a Coltrin genealogist, I find that the LDS site may not be accurate as no documentation is included. (I assume that is where you found your info on Sarah Graham Coltrin.) I have not documented her birth in Peterborough, NH, but according to revolutionary war records her family did live there during that time. And if you want to look at her grave site, you will find her buried in Strongsville, Ohio. (Check the website: Find a Grave.)