“Someday I’m going to write a book!” How often have you said that, or heard a friend or relative make a similar statement? You probably didn’t hold your breath until it appeared.
So it comes as a surprise to the nine members of Genealogy Ensemble, the family history writing group of which I am a member, that we are actually doing it. In November, we will launch Beads in a Necklace, a book of collected short stories based on our family research.
These real-life stories include a young Scot who immigrated to Canada and became a famous gospel singer, memories of queueing up for food rations in post-war England, and a young girl who was kidnapped from her home in southern Maine by the Abenaki Indians in 1692 and spent the rest of her life in Quebec.
Now that it’s about to be published, I thought it would be worthwhile to look back at some of the lessons we learned that might help potential authors.
The genesis of Beads in a Necklace goes back to 2012 or so when we decided to write about our families and share our stories. Since then, we have met once a month to critique each other’s work, improve our story-telling skills and gain confidence.
After a while, our stories were so good, we wanted to share them more widely. We began taking turns posting them on our blog, Genealogy Ensemble. The book authors among us kept talking about the possibility of publishing something, but the idea always seemed far away.
Last year, we got serious about the idea. With 2017 being the 375th anniversary of the City of Montreal, where we all live, and Canada’s 150th birthday, we decided it was time to publish a collection our stories: a 250-page book, with a proper binding and a beautiful cover, that we will be able to give to friends and relatives for Christmas.
Start with Structure
We started discussing the project last September. The first step was to each choose our five favourite stories. Each article had to be about 500 words long and include endnotes citing the sources of our facts. Apart from that, there were no rules.
After considerable debate, we agreed on the title Beads in a Necklace, and we came up with a logical way of organizing the stories into sections.
We all pitched in to help at various stages of the process, depending on our areas of expertise. I did most of the editing, with help from Tracey. I had worked as a journalist, and Tracey and Dorothy are also professional writers. That helped a lot: we know how to tighten a longwinded sentence, spot a good first paragraph and structure a story so it flows smoothly. Several members of our group have natural writing talent that they never knew they had, but they are still learning the skills that come from writing on a daily basis. And sometimes writers have to let go of their egos and allow changes. Of course, everyone could say yes or no to editing suggestions, and we always managed to find compromise solutions.
Sandra, who has experience preparing annual reports in the corporate world, did most of the layout, with Claire’s assistance. Claire also knows her way around digital photography and she cleaned up the often scratched or faded photos we wanted to use.
Ask for Help
We even got friends involved: one friend who is a proof reader is making sure there are no typos or missing punctuation marks, while another friend who is a graphic designer has agreed to do the cover.
There have been many details to consider. The people responsible for the layout had to decide on the size of the book and the fonts to use and get quotes from a local printer. Someone has to look after making a digital version available, and we have to crank up our marketing strategy. Last but not least, we had to find a place that is big enough but not too expensive for our celebratory book launch. We found a church hall that is perfect!
Persevere through glitches
Most of the glitches we have encountered have been computer-related. For example, we tried both Google Drive and Dropbox so we could upload files that everyone could edit. Both did the job, but we found Google Drive to be a bit unstable, while for a reason I still don’t understand, I can’t see many of the changes that Sandra and Claire have made to the layout in Dropbox.
This has been a long process. We were editing in January and the book will be launched in November. But we are all thrilled about it. Furthermore, I hope to apply the lessons I have learned from this experience when I write a book about my own family’s history. Just don’t hold your breath until it appears.
This article is also posted on writinguptheancestors.blogspot.ca
Amidst the many tombstones in a shady corner of Edgewood Cemetery in Ashtabula, Ohio is a very simple thick slab of granite, about the size of one of those washboards our mothers and grandmothers used to hand wash items before washing machines were invented. Inscribed on this granite in very large letters, as simple as the stone itself is the word “AITI”. which means mother in Finnish. It is the resting place of my great grandmother1, Susanna Karhu (Klemola) who had immigrated to the United States in 1896.
Susanna was born in Waara, Finland in 1854. In their home country in 1876 at the age of twenty-two Sanna married Johan Karhu. Over time they raised a family of eight children.
In 1893 Johan seized the opportunity to immigrate to the United States. He left his family in Finland and made his way to Ashtabula, Ohio, a port city on Lake Erie, where he worked on the docks and lived in the area of Ashtabula Harbor. At that time the port was thriving with constant activity. Large flat boats and barges loaded with coal and iron ore were sailing up and down the Great Lakes. These were prosperous times. New immigrants were eager to earn a decent wage.
Once settled, Johan sent for his family. In 1896 Susanna ( Sanna), at the age of forty-two along with her three youngest children, Ida, Jaako, and Lisa set sail by way of Hanko, Finland.2. They boarded the S.S. Cunard ship ‘Lucania’ in Liverpool, England en route to America. Ellis Island was their port of destination in America arriving there on the 30th of May 1896, and continuing on to Ohio.
Very little is known about Sanna. We do know that her two oldest children chose to remain in Finland. It must have been heart wrenching to know that she would be leaving behind these children and two of her babies’ graves.
She was a housewife and at the time of her death August 18th 1929. She was 75 years old and among the oldest of the Finnish residents of Ashtabula Harbor having lived there over 30 years. Johan died in 1948. Where he is buried is still a mystery?
Sanna, Ida Susanna, Johan, Jaako and Lisa. Photograph taken several years
after arriving in the United States. Ida, my grandmother appears to be about fifteen or sixteen.
In a photograph taken during a family gathering in 1919 Sanna and Johan
are surrounded by their children, grandchildren and great-grand children.
- 1. “Ohio Deaths, 1908-1953,” database with images,FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:X8PB-TC9 : 8 December 2014), Sanna Karhu, 18 Aug 1929; citing Ashtabula, Ashtabula, Ohio, reference fn 50528; FHL microfilm 1,991,908.
- 2. Finnish Institute of Migration
Portrait of a Scandal: the Abortion Trial of Robert Notman, by Elaine Kalman Naves, is many things: a non-fiction courtroom page-turner, a story about illicit love, a tale of Scottish immigrant families in mid-19th century Montreal, and an exploration of some of the social customs and beliefs of the times. The fact that the book describes abortion practices and life in Kingston Penitentiary makes it all the grittier, while the high-profile identity of the main individual — the younger brother of society photographer William Notman — makes the details all the juicier.
I wanted to learn more about life in 19th century Montreal, home to several of my ancestors. But this real-life story hooked me within a few pages, with the mysterious death of a young physician, Dr. Patton. I won’t be spoiling the book by revealing that Patton committed suicide because he mistakenly believed his patient, a student named Margaret Galbraith, had died as a result of the abortion he performed on her. Her lover, Robert Notman, was charged with procuring the abortion.
The book is full of strong individuals, from the young woman whose hopes of becoming a teacher were doomed the minute she fell for Robert, to the lawyers who argued the case with dramatic flourishes. Their story is in excellent hands. Author Elaine Kalman Naves is an award-winning author, having already written a memoir about her own family, a book about Montreal writers and numerous articles for The Gazette.
Many family historians would relate to Naves’ research process, from her frustration with the red tape she encountered at the McGill University archives to her pleasure following Margaret’s footsteps back to the shores of Loch Lomond in Scotland. Much of the material has been culled from sources familiar to genealogists, including newspaper articles, family papers and city directories. Naves has brought these 150-year-old sources together in a way that makes sense to modern readers. And despite only having fragments of information about Robert’s and Margaret’s lives, she has succeeded in bringing these people back to life.
The bibliographic essay at the end of the book is also worth a look. Two of Naves’ favourite sources, Call Back Yesterdays by Edgar Andrew Collard, and Montreal: Island City of the St. Lawrence by Kathleen Jenkins, are probably on many Montrealers’ bookshelves, while the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online is only a Google search away.
Elaine Kalman Naves. Portrait of a Scandal: the Abortion Trial of Robert Notman. Montreal: Vehicule Press, 2013.
You may approach genealogical research like you would fishing — and just to bring it back to French-Canadians — ICE-fishing (OK I wrote the ICE word, but it’s going to warm up today!). Instead of fishing with one rod, you set up as many lines as you can. The limit is how many you can check at a time… and how many holes you can dig before you are so hot you strip down to your t-shirt.
This is just what a cousin did:
2001, Welland, Ontario: she sends on RootsWeb * a querry about my great-aunt Simone Viau-McDuff. And waits.
2011, Laval, Québec: I’m poking around the web, put in Simone’s name into Google and find her message. Wow! For sure it’s the same person, but… the message is 10 years old! No one keeps their e-mail address for that long. Too bad!
Still, I send my line to the water and reply. Next day, I get a reply.
Geraldine, daughter of my grandfather’s cousin, was jumping up and down in her living room when she got my message (just like I was when I got hers).
Like many Quebecers during the 20th century, her grandfather Philias Viau , had moved from Lachine to work in the Niagara region around 1904. He was my great-grandfather J. Francis Viau’s brother. They lost their French, but there are still some Wellanders that don’t speak English. The Welland canal was of great importance as a link between Lakes Erie and Ontario. Many industries flourished along the canal, like The Electro Metallurgical Company unit of Union Carbide where Philias worked.
I went to visit Geraldine by train, learned about the region, met some great people. Among them, Renée Tetrault, a founding member of the Welland Branch of the Franco Ontarien Society of History and Genealogy now known as the Réseau du patrimoine franco-ontarien. Renée has served for more than thirty years as the expert who assists researchers at their Centre for Research in the Welland Public Library. She will describe the extensive holdings of their library in and offer suggestions for researching in Quebec.
Which leads me to introduce this French-Canadian resource: there are six regional centers in Ontario. Three times a year they publish Le Chainon (paper or digital). They have quite a few online resources (Ontario and other provinces including Quebec, and even American parishes) available to members, among which transcribed notarial records, BMS, cemetaries, family histories, cities and towns, census, archive guides, and a lot more.
Two things to remember:
When part of a family moves away, news and pictures are exchanged to keep in touch. Geraldine had pictures of my Montreal family that I had never seen and letters writen by my direct ancestors. The jewel: a cash book kept when Philias’ father Onesime Viau died in Lachine, where all spendings (lots of prayers in church) and income (rents) were described along with after-death inventory and each child’s share of inheritance. The two of us were able to piece together family stories that individually we couldn’t figure out and dentify people on each other’s pictures. Finding cousins will help you go up your tree in surprising ways.
The other, send a lot of lines out, keep a log, follow up, but be patient. Be courteous, some will never bite, some are not interested. But dream big, don’t be stopped by logic and expect anything…fish come in many shapes and sizes, and even as messages in bottles.
* Rootsweb was one of the first online free cooperative genealogical resources. Ancestry has picked it up, but we can still go into archives or free.
A sense of dread enveloped me on hearing David’s words: “Paige is the first of our generation with Alzheimer’s.” David and Paige are my cousins, the sons of my mother’s eldest sister Madge. Alzheimer’s has long held a dark grip on my family.
Madge died young as did her brother Clark. The remaining five siblings lived to seventy and beyond and all died with Alzheimer’s. Family clusters like this are unusual, my doctor assures me, and likely linked to something in the environment. The Willetts were born and raised on a farm in the Gaspe. Perhaps the trigger was something like drinking unpasteurized milk, my doctor suggested. Good, I’m a city girl and have always consumed pasteurized milk. But wasn’t that also true of Paige?
I was witness to the slow progression of the disease in my two aunts and my mother. Violet was the first to be moved to a nursing home when her sister Kathleen could no longer care for her. Eventually she appeared to have forgotten everything, even how to eat. She died when a feeding tube perforated her throat.
Kathleen was next. Frequently she tried to escape her home. Once she was found wandering miles away in a seedy section of the city. Someone drove her to the address on a letter in her purse, her old apartment. The new tenant invited her in to wait while the police searched their missing people’s files. Evidently the two women had a lovely afternoon chatting about their world travels, the tenant seemingly unaware of my aunt’s dementia. Social skills are said to be the last to disappear. Kathleen died of pneumonia, “the old people’s friend” my mother called it. Years later it was difficult for me to give my consent for mum to have a pneumonia vaccine.
My mother’s Alzheimer’s accelerated rapidly following my father’s death. For a while she was aware of her confusion struggled to regain control. She railed against going to a home and accused me of kicking her out of her house. “Take me home” she would cry again and again. “That’s where my umbrella is. And my memory.” In the end, she forgot who I was and that she was ever angry with me. Time and memory became short circuited. She searched for her own mother in the rooms of the home asking constantly why she hadn’t come to visit her.
My mother died peacefully at the age of ninety-four. By that time she too would not eat or drink and her words made no sense. But Alzheimer’s treatment had advanced. There was no force feeding, just gentle care and comfort from family and staff in her own room and in her own bed with soft music in the background. We no longer prolong the dying of Alzheimer’s patients but travel with our loved ones on their final journal. I held my mother’s hand as she took her last breath.
A few years earlier my husband and I had emptied mum’s house and put it on the market. I’m still haunted by the image of the empty boxes we found stored in the basement: big boxes and small boxes, cardboard boxes and boxes covered in velvet, blue Birks boxes and boxes from the St. Hubert Barbeque. The boxes were the remainders of a lifetime of experiences. But the boxes were empty, a very powerful metaphor for the effects of Alzheimer’s. Today I am healthy and my memory boxes are full. So I write of memories, my own memories and the stories of my family that I have researched. If one day my memories are lost, my boxes will hold the record.
Madge Alexandra Willett Whitney 1902-1941 (39 years)
Clarke Stanford Willett 1912-1960 (48 years)
Violet Gwendolyn Willett 1903-1983 (80 years)
Kathleen MacDonald Willett 1907-1991 (84 years)
Marion Geraldine Willett Angus 1917 -2011 (94 years)
George Ralph Willett 1905-1983 (78 years)
Keith Arthur Willett 1910-1980 (70 years)
My good friend Joel Bergeron’s grand-father moved to Temiscamingue early in the 20th century.
Their descendants still meet annually at their cousin’s farm. The most beautiful tree grows on this farm.
It’s painted on the side of the barn; its trunk has their grand-parents’ names at the base.
Wooden apples sit at the base of the main branches: each pair of apples represents a couple and another branch on the tree. Along each branch sits an apple for each child and his or her spouse. From each of these grows a smaller stem that in turn holds apples for each of their kids.
Every year, the entire family comes to the farm from Ontario, Quebec, where-ever they live… to feed that tree with joy.
Un arbre généalogique pleine grandeur! C’est celui des Bergeron qu’on retrouve sur la grange d’un cousin. Les grand-parents se sont installés au Témiscamingue au début du 20e siècle. Leurs noms sont à la base du tronc. A chaque embranchement, deux pomme pour un de leurs enfants avec son conjoint. La branche qui y pousse, contient les pommes des enfants de ceux-ci, et les petites branches, de leurs petits enfants. Et toute cette famille se réuni chez ce cousin, quelques jours, chaque année, parce que la famille, ça se cultive!
Welcome to a new collaboration between family history researchers who are keen to share ideas with other genealogists. We are a group of friends in Montreal, Quebec who meet on a regular basis to discuss our genealogy research and brick walls. Together, we tell stories and talk about everything from new websites, books, local archival centres, genealogy societies, and conferences to new technology and genealogical proof standards.
We are members of several genealogy societies and believe in the importance of good governance. To that end, we will also share societies’ best practices and discuss initiatives that can help a society play a role in the future of genealogy and grow its membership.
We hope you will join us on a regular basis and share your thoughts and viewpoint.