My father is the family genealogist. He did extensive research into both his family and my mother’s family. Dad’s family is rather straightforward—all arriving in Texas in the 1870s and 1880s from what is now the Czech Republic. My mother’s mother was Irish American. Her parents arrived in the US just before 1900, so she had aunts, uncles, and cousins in Cork. While some of my Czech and Irish relatives had life-threatening adventures in settling in the US, they didn’t inspire the characters in my short story, “Danger at Death’s Door.” That honor goes to my Danish relatives.
One ancestor whose history I researched to create a character was one of my great-great-grandfathers on my mother’s father’s side, a man named Lars Peter. Lars Peter’s mother was unmarried when she gave birth to him in 1842 in Denmark. Family oral history says that she was employed at the court in Copenhagen, left to give birth, and was later ‘recalled’ to court. Her child, Lars Peter, was sent away to boarding school where he excelled scholastically. Among other things, he learned to speak, read, and write in both English and Danish. (We have proof of his lovely penmanship because later in life he was a US census-taker, and the names and addresses of his neighbors are recorded in his beautiful handwriting.) After leaving school, Lars Peter joined the military. He was a big man for his time, reaching over six feet tall and 190 pounds as a teenager.
In 1864, sick of Danish-German wars, Lars Peter left the military and signed on to crew a ship bound for the US from Denmark. He arrived in the midst of the US Civil War. Lars Peter jumped ship, ran for his life to avoid being forced into the Union Army by men seeking to draft newly arrive immigrants, made his way to the Great Lakes region, married, and settled on Washington Island. After presenting him with five children, three of whom survived, Lars Peter’s first wife died in childbirth along with a sixth child. The women on the island advised Lars Peter to remarry because he needed someone to care for his young children while he worked. So he crossed to the mainland on his sailboat and walked to farms, looking for an unattached female of marriageable age. He found a woman named Christine (apparently tripping and falling through her family’s front door).
Christine also features in my story, although very briefly and under a different name. She was an immigrant from Denmark of the serf class, uneducated in anything but sewing and farm/household work. She also had one eye that wandered because she was born with it fused closed, and it didn’t open until she was three years old. Christine emigrated to escape near slavery, her life controlled by the Count who owned the estate where she was born, and to escape the scandal that attached to a woman if a man jilted her, refusing to marry her after a marriage had been arranged by their families. She was visiting relatives while recovering from an extended illness, when Lars Peter asked her to come care for his children, and if she liked the situation, get married. She agreed to go with him. Christine fell for his children, and possibly him, and they were married. They went on to have seven children, the last of whom was my great-grandfather, Robert, born in 1897.
Family history states that Lars Peter admitted knowing who his father was, but he refused to name the man. That line of the family tree remains a mystery. Lars Peter died in 1924, a highly regarded citizen of Washington Island, having served as census taker, postmaster, town clerk, town chairman, assessor, and roadmaster at various points in his life.
Lars Peter’s history provides much of the background for the character named Lars Pedersen in my short mystery story “Danger at Death’s Door.” My Lars Pedersen character is also an “educated bastard” from Denmark and a widower in need of a mother for his young children. I named one of the children in the story Robbie, after my great-grandfather Robert, even though he wouldn’t have been born yet. Robert died in 1990 in Texas and lives in my memory as Great-Gampie, a tall man, several inches over six feet, with broad shoulders and a penchant for storytelling.
In my story, my character Lars takes a voyage across the Great Lakes. During the voyage, the ship’s captain hands Lars “one more thing to worry about” when he asks him to investigate a crime aboard ship. As far as I know, the real Lars Peter never encountered a mystery aboard a ship that required him to act as a detective. That portion of the story is entirely fictional.
“Danger at Death’s Door” is scheduled for publication in March 2023 in the mystery anthology Crimeucopia: One More Thing to Worry About, from editor John Connor at Murderous Ink Press.
N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter and is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find out more at nmcedeno.com
8 thoughts on “Mining Family History for Characters”
Fascinating family history! You’re fortunate it was passed on to you.
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Thank you! I am very fortunate to have access to a large amount of family history.
Genealogy offers a wealth of grist for the fictional mill. I’m the librarian for my county historical society and I’ve used my own family history and tidbits from other families I’ve researched in my stories. I enjoyed reading how Lars became a character in your tale.
Thanks. The little details in family history are incredibly helpful in making a story set in a particular era come to life.
Really great that you know so much about your family history, not just names and dates but personal detail as well. I look forward to reading your story. One of my maternal aunts and a second cousin have researched my mom’s family, but I don’t know many details. I did recently learn that I’m descended from a Dutch privateer who was captured by Barbary pirates, quickly converted to Islam and became a Barbary pirate, and married the daughter of a sultan, thus giving needed pizzazz to my majority Anglo-Scots-Irish heritage.
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Thank you. That is some pizzazz in your family tree!
Hello Noreen, I finally got a chance to download your last 2 stories and enjoyed them both very much. One More Thing to Worry About was truly interesting as I could picture Lars in all his stature confronting the situations before him in life and on ship. Nice how the mind works when reading about people you can imagine from old photos and places you have actually traveled. The Disappearance of a Serial Spouse was also interesting. Great how you followed through on all of the families. Keep up the good work and look forward to the next. Take care Denise
Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the stories. I’ll let you know when the next story is coming.