History, Heritage, and the Stories We Tell

On Monday, we celebrated the Memorial Day holiday, a day set aside to honor those who have served in the military and to remember those who gave their life for our nation.  My thoughts went quickly to my grandfather, a WWI veteran who filled my head with stories of his wartime exploits in France.

WWIYes, in many ways, I had a rather odd childhood. Along with “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, I heard tales of Ypres and the fighting in France.

Both my grandfather and his brother served in the first World War. My grandfather, in fact, saved his brother’s life — although that was one story he never told. I learned of it only after his death. In looking back, I can recall occasional references to it, but I didn’t know the details.

My grandfather was a rather brash, bold gentleman, the sort of fellow who saw what needed to be done…and did it.

I don’t know the name of the battlefield on which my great-uncle nearly lost his life, but as the medics walked about the dead and wounded after the battle ended, they marked those who could be saved. Ones with little or no chance of survival were passed by.

The medics walked past Michael Zungs, shook their heads, and moved on.

“He’s not going to make it,” they said.

Yes, he was going to make it, and my grandfather made certain of it. He slipped into the medic’s tent, stole a white coat, and slipped it over his uniform. He then made the rounds again, marking his brother as one to save.


 

Missouri WarSeveral years ago, I began exploring family history in a bit more depth. I found fascinating stories of experiences during the War Between the States. Digging deeper still, I came to appreciate not just my family stories but my cultural heritage. I learned a great deal about “The German Experience” during the Civil War era here in the hotly-divided “border state” of Missouri.

It was a place of terror.  Confederates roamed the countryside calling out Union supporters and executing them in cold blood.

Yes, I could tell you the tale of how my great-great-grandfather’s life was spared because of his son’s poor English, but that’s another story for another time.


My point here is that we all have stories. We have a family heritage that has played a role in history. We each have a culture filled with traditions, beliefs, stories, and ways of looking at the world around us.  It’s important for us to explore that heritage, be it Jewish, Russian, Latin American, Irish…or whatever.

It’s important for us as authors. It’s also important for us, I think, as human beings.  It helps to know the past, and to see ways in which it’s shaped us.  The more we know about who we are and where we’ve come from, the richer our writing will be, the more depth our stories and characters will have, and the stronger the connections will become between the words we write and the people who read them.

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Real People – Real Stories

Disclaimer: No, I don’t use “real people” in my stories. At least, not intentionally. OK, so maybe bits and pieces of real life — including people — do show up in my stories. Consider it a compliment that your life is exciting enough to be part of a story.

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REAL PEOPLE – REAL STORIES

 

All joking aside, I don’t really use “real people” in the stories I tell. I’m not talking about friends or family members — many of whom actually plead, “Put me in a book, please!” Maybe they think life will be be richer, fuller, or more exciting as a fictional character. Yeah, that can be arranged, I suppose.

The “real people” I’m talking about are mostly historical figures. I write historical romance, you know. From time to time, a real person gets a mention as part of the story’s narrative.

  • In “Happily Ever After”, for instance, I mention William Rockhill Nelson and Charles Gleed, both newspaper men from the early days of Kansas City journalism.
  • In “Summertime”, set in 1914, I mention Woodrow Wilson and his intention of keeping America out of the war in Europe.

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Other than brief mentions, I hesitate to use “real people” — historical figures — in my fiction. Many times, though, authors do write stories that include well-known characters. A favorite romance novel, Texas Viscount, by Shirl Henke, calls upon the larger-than-life persona of President Theodore Roosevelt to add excitement and intrigue to the pages. In her story, Roosevelt works.

Another use of “real people” from history is in speculative fiction, the fascinating “What if…” variety of novel. One example of this “alternative” history is The Secret Daughter of the Tsar by Jennifer Laam, who looks at Russia’s Romanov family from a new perspective.

Honestly, I don’t have imagination enough to pull off such a feat. It’s enough for my brain to keep history straight as it is, although I’m fascinated by many of these “it-could-have-happened-this-way” stories.

Real people of the lesser known variety often find their way into fiction, as well. Books have been written about Narcissa Whitman and her husband, Marcus, sharing their tragic story as missionaries in the Pacific Northwest. Maggie Osborne’s best-selling Brides of Prairie Gold was inspired by the real-life experiences of a group of women. 

So, what about “real people” who aren’t famous historical figures? What of those whose lives weren’t filled with danger or excitement? Is there a place for them?

Sometimes we find fascinating stories of very ordinary people. Quite often we find them in our own family histories, and when we do, those ordinary people suddenly aren’t so ordinary any more.

I recall reading the story of my great-great-grandfather, a German immigrant who lived here in Missouri during the War Between the States. For those who aren’t familiar with midwest history, the border between Kansas and Missouri was a frightful place to live. Guerrilla raids were frequent, towns were terrorized, and citizens were often shot.

One day, a group of Confederate “bushwhackers” came calling at my ancestor’s farmhouse.  They’d been roaming the countryside, searching for Union supporters, and shooting them.

My great-great-grandfather, Louis Grotjan, quickly hid in the attic. His family spoke little English, and when the bushwhackers questioned one of the sons about his father’s whereabouts, the boy — too frightened to lie and too confused to speak — pointed upward.  As the Confederates tried to get more information, the child could only mumble a few words in German. When he began to cry, the raiders concluded that the boy’s words and actions were an indication that his father had died and gone up to heaven. They left the farmhouse without a search.

A few years later, my great-grandfather was born. Had his older brother’s poor English not saved his father’s life that day, Oscar Grotjan would never have lived. He wouldn’t have married and raised the daughter who became my maternal grandmother. Quite simply, had a little boy spoken better English, I wouldn’t be writing this post today.

There are other memorable stories I’ve found on the family tree. Some are love stories, some are exciting dramas, and one, in particular, is a bit of a mystery.

When my great-uncle, Frank Zungs, died, he left behind a suitcase filled with personal treasures. Letters. Old photographs. Clippings. This. That. Bits and pieces of a life that ended too soon. He was only in his 50’s when he passed away. Among those treasures was a beautiful portrait of a singing star with words of love on the back…addressed to him, signed by her.

Who was she? Why did they never marry? What became of her? I’ll never know the answers to those questions, but the memory of that beautiful picture has remained in my mind from the moment I saw it. It served as a bit of inspiration when I wrote Summertime, the story of a young man born and raised in a little farming community — much like my great-uncle Frank — and who fell in love with a singing star who went on to have a career on the stage in San Francisco.

No, I don’t use “real people” in my stories. At least, not intentionally. But, yes, life does offer inspiration and ideas, and if we look, we’ll find fascinating stories worth telling over and over again.