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Creating a Family Saga - FS5 - Themes and Family Sagas

Updated on November 25, 2017
Homeplace Series profile image

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

Where it all began...

Cover of first novel
Cover of first novel | Source


I am not an expert on story arches or on themes, but some experience is teaching me some of the fundamentals. It also seems to me that the idea of ‘theme’ has multiple implications for a family saga, and these may change over time as the saga grows. I’m open to suggestions on any of the following, of course, but I want to share my thinking with you. You may notice (I hope, I suppose) this playing out as I continue to build the stories of “The Homeplace Saga.”

This all began with “Back to the Homeplace,” of course. The theme of that first novel was the desire of the deceased parents to keep the Century (and more) Farm all together and to keep the farmland in the family, intact, and, the implications of this desire for their children.

The original name of the Homeplace blog (my author home website) was: “The Homeplace Series.” This reflected my intent to write a three-book series, a trilogy, about this family, on the Homeplace. I wanted it to take place over time, so I initially planned to space the books at ten-year intervals. I actually had ‘written’ the second book by the time I realized that was, for more than one reason, a mistake. My biggest mistake, of course, was hurrying up and actually publishing that book, as it stood, “The Homeplace Revisited,” set 9 years after the end of the first. I’m still working to correct that decision. But, enough of that problem, probably fuel for another whole article. I really feel for my friend, author Bill Holland, who is currently facing “finishing” his major novel. When is it really done? I wish I had had the benefit of his experience, and sharing about it, when I “finished.” [I should have stopped, and taken a fresh start… oh, sorry, that is to be that other article…]

For our purposes here, it was also about this time that I began to realize that I had become totally involved in this family, and this community, in my mind, and that there was going to be much more than just “a trilogy” that I wanted to write about this family. I had become deeply interested in the founding of the community, the first settlement that had created this situation of a Century Farm and family. In fact, I had begun to write that story in (what I believed to be) a stand-alone short story. I even published that short story in a regional anthology. It was at about this time, also, that I realized I had a “family saga” on my hands, and that I wanted to continue to work on it as that, not as just stand-alone stories.

Now I was beginning to realize that I was working with stories starting in 1833 (that first settlement) and running into the 21st century, in this one community. How do you define one theme, one story arch, for that time period? You don’t, of course. Let’s make that “the rest of the story” here.

Refreshing as Springtime

Spring is in the air
Spring is in the air | Source

Recognizing shorter timelines within the extended time period

The general overall theme of the saga is: keeping the farm in the family - in simplest terms, so let’s start with that. The next aspect is to examine shorter sub-time periods, that self-define themselves based on the overall family story within the community history. At the “end” we have 1987 (setting of the first novel) forward… to the present, essentially. That is one period to be dealt with. The story arch here, of course, is the maturation of the families of the four siblings in the original novel.

Now, let’s look back to 1833.

I eventually defined that Founding period as 1833 to 1876 (the American Centennial). This period, of course, had three significant sub-periods: First settlement and growth; devastation of the Civil War; rebirth and initial growth following the Civil War. I had followed up the first founding short story with a second, and then a third, each published in subsequent years in the regional anthology. [Perhaps another story unto itself!]

The third anthology publication was actually the story of Oak Springs DURING THE CIVIL WAR. I am very proud of this work, and, it is the centerpiece of the collection of short stories of this 1833-1876 period that was most recently published as “American Centennial at the Homeplace: The Founding (1833-1876).” These many short stories filling in the entire period were actually written over a period of three years or so, in and around other stories and projects. By the fall of 2014, they were all finished and compiled. Many were shared on the website, as well. The book, however, has them all.

The theme for this period became how those first four to six families coalesced into the community Oak Springs became; then, surviving the complete devastation of the population of the valley during the Civil War; and the rebuilding process. Maintaining integrity with later years while going through this process was a fascinating process.

The biggest challenge has been the gap from 1876 to 1987, of course.

Life renews

Yellow spray of spring
Yellow spray of spring | Source

The challenge to identify theme in the gap

The gap is 111 years, I see. My ‘guiding star’ for this gap always has been the relationships of William McDonald, born in January 1864, his son, Joseph, born in 1888, and his daughter, Mildred, born in 1917 (the deceased matriarch of the first novel). How William was able to consolidate the land of the first four founding settlers and preserve it through a son to a granddaughter is the story to be told for this period. How to do that is the challenge. There is so much of the story that is in my head that has still never been put on paper that I am almost overwhelmed with the ‘responsibility.’ Perhaps that is one reason I’ve been drawn to write this very piece… and a couple of more to follow. Time will tell, I suppose. Major chunks of this storyline come from personal family history research relationships I want to tell, in this fictional setting. I mix and match actual events with the fictional characters to tell the stories in meaningful ways, I believe. These stories need to be shared.

I’ll share a brief summary of two approaches I’ve considered, and save the details for another article. As I’ve mentioned, from time to time, William kept a journal from sometime in high school throughout his long life (like my mother did, in real life). Sharing from that journal would be one way to tell the story. I thought it would be the next book after “3 Threats” - but with that laid aside, the Journal book concept has also been put on the shelf. A key part of William’s story is the ‘influence’ of his mother, through the years. Jane Truesdale McDonald has already been described as “a very strong, smart woman.” Her complete story would have paralleled William’s, of course. Is it the stronger story? I have done a draft synopsis, working title, “In the Shadow.” I’ll share that, one of these days, as well.

I’ll conclude this theme article, at this point. It is obvious there is more to discuss. Thanks for your interest and support. Remember, comments are very welcome.

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    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Lots of notes, lots of re-reading, total immersion in the story of the community and the key families. Family history and genealogy research probably helps. I have a complete family history database on the core family members, and each related to by blood or marriage. Typical of small rural community in which I grew up. Lots related to lots of others. They are all "close friends" of mine... sometimes almost more real than my "real life." ;-)

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      What an extensive time span to fill the details with. How do you keep everything straight -- the relationships, personality characteristics, plot twists, etc.?

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO


      I've just begun some background on William's parents, Daniel and Jane, that will lead up to his William's journals. There is also reference to letters Daniel and Jane wrote while she was at the Davis Academy for Girls in Jefferson City, 1851-1854, that might make interesting 20th and 21st Century reading by descendants, as well... Thank you, again! ;-)

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 2 years ago from Central Florida

      Awesome! You're welcome!!

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

      MsDora, thank you, so much. The answers are, Yes and Yes, for sure. I've even missed a turn or two, driving by myself, sometimes, because my mind was in their world. I was paying attention to the road, but not the turn to be made. Many of my best stories come from those immersion periods, I have no doubt.

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Thank you, Bill. At my stage of life, and writing life, it just feels right. As you have said, I'm really a teacher, as heart - for good or whatever! ;-)

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO


      Wonderful suggestions. Had thought about it for the book, I'll admit, but, for telling it now... that would really work. Thank you, so much! ;-)

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 2 years ago from The Caribbean

      Bill, mine is a question, maybe two. Do you ever find yourself "living" among your characters? Are your thoughts about daily activities influenced by your thoughts about them?

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      It really is interesting to follow the thought processes of other writers. Thanks for sharing yours with us.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 2 years ago from Central Florida

      You really put a lot of thought into your work. I like the idea of using William's journal to tell the story. Perhaps it could be told by the grandchildren as they discover and read the journal. Sort of the way The Bridges of Madison County was presented both in the book and on film.

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Mary, thank you for being the first to comment. Best wishes with your novel. I seem to need that sense of time and place for my stories. I'm working at cutting loose, on some, but enjoying churning them out... so you'll probably see more. Comment much appreciated!! ;-)

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 2 years ago from New York

      I enjoy reading about how your mind works and how you lay out your works. You certainly cover many years but each one I've read is interesting and draws the reader in.

      I am working on a totally fictitious novel set in no particular place at the moment. I have a long way to go so it will be interesting to see where I wind up.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.