You may have heard about authors writing about people close to them—neighbors, friends, even close family members—and getting into trouble for it. Writers are warned away from such practices. Writing too intimately about someone you know personally with a story he’d rather not broadcast to the world can lead to problems. The result may not be legal action, but it could definitely damage a relationship. No one wants to become an unwitting character in someone else’s book, especially when the characterization is unflattering or defamatory.
In Tangled Roots, I’ve based certain aspects of two characters on two members of my own extended family, but not in a way that would shock or upset anyone who knew them personally.
First, there’s the beloved centenarian vet, Chet Ludington. Very few readers would have an inkling about this, but I chose the character’s name as a means of honoring and remembering my maternal grandfather, Chester Liddington. The surnames “Liddington” and “Ludington” both have origins in either of two English locations called “Liddington.” The link between my grandfather and the book’s fictional character stops at the name and likely geographical origins, though. Unfortunately, I was only a bump that marred my mother’s figure when her father died. My grandfather was not blessed with the longevity genes that allowed Chet Ludington to live so long.
The second character inspired by my own genealogy is introduced fairly late in Tangled Roots. There you can read about an Irish lass named Alana Connolly. She survived the Irish Potato Famine and immigrated to Canada. I wish my grandmother, Lena Connolly, was still around so that I could ask her to tell me everything she knew about how her family (a grandparent or two perhaps) survived those years of atrocious deprivation. In fact, I don’t even know for sure that my family on my maternal grandmother’s side even lived through the famine. It’s possible that they left Ireland earlier or later than that time. I only know that, before she married my grandfather, Lena Connolly lived on Wolf Island, which is part of Frontenac County, Ontario, at the entrance to the Saint Lawrence River. Did her grandparents leave Ireland with hope of a new and better life in North America? Did they fall ill on the Atlantic journey, trapped for weeks with so many others who succumbed to typhus? I would love to know, though the information seems forever lost. Studying about the famine at least provided me a glimpse into what life might have been like for my ancestors.
In the book, as in real life, a descendant of a man whose family roots were in Liddington, England, married a young woman with Irish blood and the family name Connelly. Did any of the animosity the Irish held against the English linger in my grandmother’s family? Did they protest her marriage to a man of English descent? Or, as has happened to second generation children of so many immigrants to the United States, had my grandparents already shed their family identities as British or Irish and become citizens in heart and mind of their new land? Unfortunately, I may never know those details, either.
If my grandparents were still alive, I hope they would be happy that I turned to their stories—even though my knowledge of those stories was small—as inspiration for my characters.