Kay: Narrating Family History

The family tree of Cesky Sternberk Castle, Czech Republic (Library of Congress)

Novelists create characters. We give them names and personalities, families, backgrounds, and histories. We give them motivations and core values, often based on what they learned from their families or what’s important to their heritage, so they have reason to make the choices they do in our narratives.

Imagine my surprise when I learned from Ancestry that individual Americans actually know very little about their heritage.

Ancestry commissioned a survey from OnePoll, which canvassed 2,000 people in the United States. They found that many Americans don’t know or are unclear about their family origins.

  • 25 percent don’t know from what countries their families came to the United States
  • 40 percent of Americans polled are not certain from what country their last name originates

And you don’t have to go back very far to see where people start to lose touch with their histories:

  • 33 percent don’t know where both of their parents grew up
  • 21 percent don’t know in which city any of their grandparents was born
  • 14 percent don’t know what any of their grandparents do (or did) for work
  • 20 percent can’t name a single great-grandparent

Conversely, the survey found that Americans are very interested in their heritage. The pollsters found that 80 percent of respondents reported caring about their heritage, and 84 percent said it was important to know about their heritage.

I grew up in a small town; my father, grandparents, and great-grandparents were born and raised there, and my mother was born and raised in a similar town not far away. I have “small town” baked into my DNA, and when I write about characters who live in villages, I feel like I’m on solid footing. When they live in cities, it’s a different story! Sometimes, in fact, even when my characters live in cities, the feel isn’t urban—the story still feels like it’s set in a small town, with a small group of closely knit characters.

But I’m wondering how—or if—this lack of information about family background and origins affects writers who might have had a more mobile geography growing up, or who, for whatever reason, did not know their grandparents—or even their parent(s)—well or at all. What do you think? When you read (or write) a book, does the author nail a small-town or urban vibe, or a national identity, particularly well?


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