Do You Hear Voices?

Is your world real or imagined?

The other day a distant relation sent me a thick packet with a copy of the history of our family reunions dating all the way back to the late 19th century and a ten page history, written in neat hand, of one branch of my family tree going back to the early 1600’s.

How thrilling it was to finally see a picture of my great-great grandfather Lucien as an old man and to read about the exploits of family members who escaped being scalped by Indians during the Revolutionary War and others who sadly died during the Civil War. My great-great-great-great grandmother was such a fine spinner that wealthy women paid top dollar for her work. Some family members drank too much, others were heroes and still others were exploited as children.

I knew a few of the stories through my mother but most of the history was new—yet as I read it I felt like I knew it all already. There was a satisfaction in reading it but not that sense of surprise I would have expected. My aunt told us of an unsettling dream she had about meeting many past generations in heaven. I remember my father and uncle teasing her about it, scoffing at the notion of heaven and not really wanting to discuss death since that branch tended to die young and they were all in that age window of being taken. My aunt died a few days later.

This sense of knowing the past through dead relatives, of knowing them though never having met them, is so similar to knowing the characters I write about. I’ve never been able to change a thing about a character once they appear in my mind. I’m only able to unearth deeper truths about them. It’s as if they’ve been there all along waiting for their stories to be told, not mine. When the story starts to go in a direction that isn’t true, the characters push back and demand I dig more.

Sometimes I worry that this or that thing may be too much for a reader or my characters to bear, but the characters won’t rest until I put them through the wringer. But am I putting them through the wringer or just transcribing their history? Do they live in another dimension? Will I meet them some day in heaven?

It’s odd to have this knowing and the desire to know more. Occasionally there is also a sense of being pat on the back, as if a character is whispering in my ear. Yes, that’s exactly as it was for me. Those are the best moments. And so strange. After I finish publishing this series about the Crenshaw and Weldon families I may fictionalize my family tree, but I find the line between fiction and reality blurring. I feel Buck Crenshaw and my great grandfather begging me to get things right, but what for?

Readers and writers: How real are your characters to you? How real is your past to you?