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Creating a Family Saga - FS4 - Authentic Populations

Updated on November 25, 2017
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Dr. Bill's first passion is family history. His second is a passion for creating family saga, historical fiction stories that share it.

Is the sun rising or setting?

Sun on the horizon
Sun on the horizon | Source


From time to time as I continue to add to my “The Homeplace Saga” stories, here, on the home blog, and elsewhere, I like to sit back and share some of the background information that I use to create these stories of family saga, historical fiction. Today I want to share with you one of the ways I use actual census date for the region of the homeplace to add authenticity to my stories. I did this back in 1870, and now, as my stories approach 1880, I am in the process of updating this background information.

As shared in the stories, the national Panic of 1873 did slow down economic growth across the United States, even in rural Missouri, during the mid-1870s. As we approach 1880 in our stories, you will have noted that even in the isolated Oak Creek valley of the Southern Missouri Ozarks, growth is picking up. New folks are coming to the region, either as farmers or into occupations in the town of Oak Springs. The effects of the Industrial Revolution, spurred on by wartime technology improvements during the Civil War, are dispersing into the hinterlands, including southern Missouri.

To get a handle on what this would mean to a rural community in this region, I decided to look at the U.S. Census details on for the town of Salem, in Dent County, a few miles to the north of our fictional Oak Springs (in northwest Shannon County). By looking at the occupations listed on the 1880 census for the people enumerated in Salem, I feel I can get a good feel for what my fictional folks in Oak Springs would be doing, as well. There would be some differences, of course, and I’ll discuss those as we work our way through the occupations listed. Wives are normally listed as Keeping House, and children of school age are listed as At School. Some older folks, and others, are listed as No Occupation. So, where readable, I went through the nearly 40 pages of the Town of Salem, and listed not only the occupations listed, but how many times each were listed.

Searching occupations

An auctioneer at work
An auctioneer at work | Source

Occupations in Salem, Missouri, in 1880

I listed 73 “occupations” as I scanned those 40 pages of data online. Precision was not my intent, of course, but completeness was a goal I strived for. Also, of course, a primary interest was in identifying occupations that occurred in Salem in 1880 that I had not yet included in my Oak Springs stories… and, there were a few, so I achieved some success; right from the start.

First, let me discuss some of the notable differences between the two locations I mentioned above. Salem is a County Seat town, while Oak Springs is located in a far corner of the county to the south. Therefore, the listings of various county officers and support staff were not useful too me, except as reminders of the offices used at that time.

Second, Salem had a railroad going through where Oak Springs did not. 20-30 persons listed various railroad occupations, so those were not needed for my analysis. Likewise, there were iron mines there. About 100 persons listed “work in iron mines” as their occupations. Another 20-30 listed railroad-related or mine-related occupations that, again, were not useful to me. However, I needed to keep these numbers in mind when looking at the numbers in other occupations, such as more than 25 carpenters, nearly 20 merchants, and 20 clerks in stores.

Some entries were simply fascinating: 4 listed Attending Law School, 1 Medical Student, 1 Civil Engineer, 1 son listed as Midshipman in U.S. Navy, and 1 Census Enumerator - of course. Surely, that wasn’t a full time job! There were 11 physicians, 6 butchers, 6 lawyers, 2 shoemakers, 1 brick mason, 6 druggists, 2 music teachers, 6 school teachers, 2 dressmakers, 4 stone masons, 2 barbers, 2 printers, 7 ministers, 2 barbers, 2 house painters and 2 house carpenters.

Some were occupations I had recently added in Oak Springs, which was gratifying: A wagon maker and 8 work in wagon works, plus 2 manufacturers of wagons, for example. There was a harness maker and 3 work in harness shop. There were several persons affiliated with Hotels and Boarding Houses, indicating several of these establishments. There was 1 Keeps Livery Stable and 5 works in Livery Stable. There were 2 Gunsmiths and 2 Draymen. There were 11 Blacksmiths and 2 as work in blacksmith shop.

There were over 65 listed as Laborer and more than 35 listed as Servant. I was surprised to see 3 listed as Editor of Newspaper. Some new ones were Machinist, Grocer, Gardner, Photographer, Saddler/Maker, Keeps Billiard Hall, Stock Scales, City Expressman, Stock Dealer, Mail Agent, 3 Jewelers, Keeps Confection Shop, 3 Works in Bake Shop, Bookkeeper, Lumber Dealer, and Marshall of Salem. These give me some new ideas to work with, in Oak Springs, over the next couple of years.

I seek out names and people for stories

Pondering the stream and rocks
Pondering the stream and rocks | Source

New people need new names

Earlier, I had used the 1880 U.S. Census on for another purpose. I like to use new surnames for new people in the valley, and I want them to be representative of real names that existed in the region at that time. I also dislike reusing given names for people that may interact. So, I went to Texas County, the town of Houston, just to the west of Oak Springs, and pulled off 23 new surnames, 22 male given names, and 20 female given names for use in my stories as new families and individuals are introduced.

A challenge I do face, now that the Oak Creek Valley population exceeds 200: do I really try to incorporate names for everyone. I was reminded of this as I saw the number of laborers and servants, as well as clerks in stores listed in the 1880 census. In a recent story, where the new high school was being built, I mentioned that several workers came to town to work on the project, without naming them. I suppose I must continue to do this; imply they are there, but only introduce them by name when they individually become part of the stories. Change is the only constant, of course!

It has become interesting, to me at least, that as the story of town and valley progress, how difficult it becomes to incorporate my “base families” while moving the full story ahead. As a writer, I must balance these efforts - another major challenge. Also, while I’m generally telling a chronological story, I’m beginning to realize I may have (have!) missed some good ‘human interest’ stories involving individual developments. I need to find a way to incorporate these, without losing my ‘train of thought’ on the development of the town… a story I do want to tell. I even want to close that 120 years gap from 1877 to 1997 in my “The Homeplace Saga” - yes, I still want to do that! What fun! What challenges! Thanks for coming along on the ride! ;-)

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    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Thank you for your comment, Ruby. I've enjoyed researching Missouri, a lot... especially being a native of Iowa. I'm a life-long learner, for sure, so just a part of my DNA, it seems! ;-)

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 2 years ago from Southern Illinois

      I found you article interesting. I am particularly interested in Missouri, having lived there for nineteen years. Thank you for sharing your zeal for research.

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Thank you, so much, Mary. That means a lot to me. Your "delight" is certainly one of my aims!! ;-)

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 2 years ago from New York

      No wonder your Saga is so real! You certainly do lots of research and apply your findings, much to our delight!

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Thank you, Bill. I do hope these thoughts are worthy to share! ;-)

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

      With my family history research background, Sha, it pretty much comes naturally. I'm pleased to hear you used the same technique. As you say, it certainly brings these folks to life, for me... and, hopefully, my readers! ;-)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I do love your approach to writing these sagas, Bill. Well done. This should be required reading for many writers.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 2 years ago from Central Florida

      You certainly are doing your homework! This is a wonderful way to bring a fictional story to life. By tracing history and the social aspects of each era, the story is believable. I did much the same thing when I was developing characters for a book I'm working on. I consulted a census from the early 1900s to come up with common given names and surnames, then mixed and matched.