Genealogy Research and the Crime Novelist

Mystery writer Kristen Lepionka shares how her love of solving mysteries led her to researching her family history, and what genealogists and mystery writers have in common.
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Mystery writer Kristen Lepionka shares how her love of solving mysteries led her to researching her family history, and what genealogists and mystery writers have in common.

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You know you’ve read too many mystery novels when your first thought upon beginning genealogy research is, “Maybe I’ll uncover a murder.”

I wasn’t expecting a particular murder, and I certainly didn’t wish an untimely death onto any of my distant ancestors. But as a mystery lover, I couldn’t help but think about it from that angle. What a great story: “Mystery Writer Cracks 140-Year Old Case By Revealing That Her Eighth Cousin Twice Removed, a Haunted-Looking Victorian-Era Schoolteacher, Did Not Really Die of Consumption (Gasp!)”

So far, I haven’t come across anything along these lines. But really, my family tree has always been its own kind of mystery. My mother’s side was always assumed to be mainly Irish and German (actually, mostly English) and my father’s side 100 percent Polish (correct, sort of), but we’d never really known for sure until I fell down an Ancestry.com rabbit hole during a bout of unemployed boredom more than ten years ago. Various members on both sides of the family had dabbled here and there, but no one had devoted the level of (admittedly obsessive) interest to it that I have.

Over time, I’ve added some 500 people to my tree, stretching back as far as the 1400s in some points (thank you, minor British nobility, and your well-preserved lineage records). But of all the things I’ve learned during this process—such as the fact that Poland didn’t formally exist at the time my paternal great-grandparents emigrated, or that I’m very distantly related to Bess of Hardwick (member of the aforementioned nobility, contemporary of Elizabeth I, and portrayed by Gemma Chan in Mary, Queen of Scots), or the sheer number of railroad workers in my family—I think the most interesting discovery has been how nicely genealogy dovetails with being a writer. (Even if I haven’t solved any murders yet.)

Writers are well-suited to genealogy research for a few reasons:

  1. We like research—the less interesting it could possibly seem to anyone else, the better.
  2. We’re good with details (such as comparing vital statistics in order to determine if this Mary Smith is related to our Mary Smith).
  3. We think abstractly, which can lead to unusual connections.
  4. We are nosy (or is that just me?).
  5. We don’t mind spending tons of time on something no one else may ever look at.

Joking aside, obviously anyone with an interest and an internet connection can get started, but I really think that the storytellers among us thrive here. A series of documents becomes a narrative. A marriage license tells a whole story in a few short lines. This inconsistent spelling here—is it because an impatient clerk misheard it, or maybe the distant relative in question didn’t know how to write. The concrete details may be scant, but they sketch out a picture that we writers can use to fill in some blanks.

It’s also been quite interesting to see how details get altered over time. For example, my paternal grandmother’s father (my great-grandfather) went by Joe, but his Polish given name was Vasil. Various documents also spell it as Wasil, Wasel, and Vosel. As for his surname—it’s got three different spellings on his death certificate alone. It makes tracking down certain details a challenge. Even though the internet age has made this type of research infinitely more accessible, it can be tricky when searching digitized records since you don’t necessarily know how it’s spelled. I probably seemed like a crazy person the few times I sat at a coffee shop working on this stuff, saying names out loud and trying to guess at new spellings based on how it sounds.

There’s so much information available online. Everybody knows this already. I knew this already. (My new book, The Stories You Tell, deals a lot with this very issue.) But until you really dig in to see what’s out there, it’s hard to grasp the scale of it. But it’s crazy to find a picture of your grandmother at age seventeen simply because someone at some point decided to scan every page of a 1941 yearbook from a small town in Pennsylvania. Why was her nickname “Kush,” according to the print next to her name? I’ll never quite know, but I’m glad I know it anyway. Genealogy is a personal way of making sense of history, of figuring out where you fit in the order of things. I think that’s similar to what we’re trying to do as writers too—giving meaning to our experiences, and hopefully leaving something for those who come after us.

Have personal experiences you want to share? WD University's Writing the Personal Essay 101: Fundamentals will teach you how to avoid the dreaded responses of "so what?" and "I guess you had to be there" by utilizing sensory details, learn to trust your writing intuitions, and develop a skilled internal editor to help with revision. Register today!

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