Creating a Family Saga - FS10 - Where was the intent, the motivation, of the will?
The novel that began the saga search
In the beginning…
The concept of the ‘video will’ at the heart of an interesting family story came to me in 1987, after reading a magazine article, following the death of my father 10 years earlier. The idea of creating an entire eight-generation family saga including four novels, a short story collection and five or six ebooks was the farthest thing from my mind. So, when did I realize I was creating a family saga?
That first novel, “Back to the Homeplace,” (see Video Book Trailer from YouTube at the end of this hub) was published in 2010. I was interviewed on a local television station shortly after it came out and had a number of book signings at clubs and libraries. At each event someone asked where the inspiration for the story came from - where did the idea of the matriarch to push her surviving children to return to the Homeplace for two years in order to share in the inheritance come from?
During this time, of course, I was also well into the draft of the second novel, “The Homeplace Revisited,” set nine years after the first one, with the central young folks in high school in the first novel returning to their rural hometown in the sequel as young, college-educated professionals (a lawyer and a veterinarian). The question about the motivation of the matriarch sort of haunted me, as well, as I struggled with a key theme for that second novel, as the story of the family developed. It soon became clear to me that the answer to this question was in the past of the family, not in the future, or course. This led to the next very interesting adventure, for me.
The second novel to be written about the family
Family history and genealogy research
By 1995, my wife and I had each developed a strong interest in our family histories, based largely on what our parents and other older family members had done over the years. I had just finished five years of serious scientific research of my own, completing my Ph.D. studies at the University of Arizona, and was then in my new occupation as a college professor. I felt a strong need to apply the research techniques I had learned to fill in some gaps in the family history stories we had heard, and ‘knock down some brick walls’ in the research that we faced. In the summer of 1995, for the first time in my life, I had the summer off from work. I didn’t yet have a summer school teaching assignment, so my wife and I spent much of the summer travelling to where our ancestors had been. This took us to libraries, cemeteries, and genealogy and historical societies across the mid-west from Kansas to Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, and then to Maryland and North Carolina, among other locales.
Back to 2010 and 2011, pondering the motivation of the matriarch of my novel, I realized that I needed to ‘research her family history’ much as I had done my own (along with my wife doing hers). We had read, heard, learned and shared many family stories. Many of them related to intergenerational transfers of farmland just as did the story in my novel. Creating timelines of our families’ generations had been a very useful took in our own family research. Perhaps creating a timeline of the ancestors of my fiction ‘matriarch’ would be one step in the direction of understanding her true motivations. The fact that the farm in question was a Century Farm, that is, owned by the same family for over 100 years, had already been recorded in the first novel. As I studied the history of the area, I realized the story would be even more powerful if the first settlement of that land took place back near the beginning of statehood, in Missouri, in 1823. Further research disclosed that population movements in this part of the Missouri Ozark Mountains suggested migration from the Piney Woods lumber camps in 1833.
Working births, marriages and deaths backwards, then, created the following timeline, after some trial and error, of course. Mildred McDonald Bevins, our matriarch was born in 1917. Her father, Joseph, was therefore, born in 1888 (these dates are very close to my mother and her parents…). Joseph’s father, William, was born in 1864, during the Civil War, which provided some interesting thought stimulates. The father of William, Daniel McDonald, then was born in 1838, shortly after this parents settled on their new land in 1833. In the process of creating a realistic timeline, I continued to study county history books of the surrounding territory to get a ‘feel’ for life in those times. I studied census reports as well, picking up actual surnames and given names to use as I reconstructed (created) the families to fill out the timeline. There were five founding family surnames in the original settlement party in 1833, to make it realistic.
The Short Story Collection including the Civil War stories
Short Stories flowed from this research and timeline
The first three short stories that I wrote about those founding families in the settlement were not only each published in a regional anthology (in successive years) but laid the groundwork for a whole short story collection, “American Centennial at the Homeplace: The Founding (1833-1876). These included the Civil War stories and the early years of recovery in Oak Springs. It was at about this time that I found and joined the HubPages writing site. A half dozen ‘experimental’ stories for the series showed that this writing form was perfect for my purposes. This led to the creation of the “The Kings of Oak Springs” series to continue the Oak Springs story for the next ten years.
It was during this period, at long last, that I really came to the realization that Mildred’s motivation had come from her grandfather, William McDonald, and his mother, Jane Truesdale McDonald. As each of these characters was created, in the context of their families, I identify several distinguishing characteristics for each. Among her siblings, Jane was motivated by land acquisition (contrasted to money, business or political power for others). Well educated for her time, Jane was a strong woman, an early women’s suffrage supporter, and what we would now call a feminist. She was supported positively by her husband, also unusual but with precedent for the times. Jane passed on her love of the land, the homeplace, and further land accumulation to her son William. He, in turn, was most influential with his granddaughter, Mildred, in wanting to keep the land in the family, by whatever means that took. The will and trust, created on behalf of Mildered, and her husband, Frank Bevins, was the result. Please read the 40K+ word novel, “Back to the Homeplace,” to enjoy the details of how that all came about and worked out in 1987.
For the most recent happenings of the family, of course, you will want to read "Christmas at the Homeplace" which although set in 1997 is very contemporary in tone, perhaps more than historical. It chronicles several homecomings including a member of the military from the community.