Friday, July 31, 2009

Using Genealogy Software to Discover Your Characters

By Persia Walker

So I finally did it. I broke down and bought genealogy software. Yes, I'm an amateur genealogist, but in the end, that's not why I cracked the piggy bank. I did it to get help with discovering characters and organizing their familial relationships, not mine.

The story I'm now working on involves a fairly complicated family history. I tried using outlining software to keep it all straight, but without success. I could've just done it the old fashioned way, with a pad and pencil, but then I would've ended up with squiggles all over the place. So computer software it was.

As a Mac user (tried and true), I first turned to Reunion. It's a great piece of software, but I couldn't get it to generate the family trees I wanted it to.

Even so, I would've gotten it, but the price. At $100 a pop, Reunion would've had to write the family history for me.

Then I found the other Mac-friendly software, My Family Tree. Nifty. More than nifty. Quite satisfying. I downloaded a demo and then after playing around with it for about half an hour, decided that the $49 price (which is only $4 more than what I'd budgeted for such a software) was a fair and decent price. It even offered a few features that Reunion doesn't offer. I spent another couple of hours entering data for all the characters, their kin and kindred, into the program.

Sounds like a waste of time?

It wasn't. The program asks all kinds of good questions: birthdays, deathdays, days of marriage, education/graduation, etc. It asks not only when but where events occurred. In posing these questions, it prompts you, as the writer, to think about coming up with answers. Plus, there's a world history window that tells you what was going on in the world during any given character's lifespan. A specific event might not be immediately relevant to your story, but it will flavor your character. There are certain events, for example, that freeze time. Many people remember exactly what they were doing when they learned that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and now many can say the same about Michael Jackson. Most will have a favorite song that, when heard, reminds them of their high school prom, or freshman year in college, or the girl that got away. A program that offers such convenience as a world timeline can help an author tease out the events that might or might not have impacted or influenced his or her character, i.e. ground a character in his or her period.

My main complaint with My Family Tree is that the timeline feature does seem to be a bit glitchy. I added Michael Jackson's lifeline in there as part of the current storyline (the character loved his music). When I tried to add his date of death, the program kept changing it from June 2, 2009 to January 6, 2009. Huh? But otherwise, I'm happy. I've generated relationship sheets that help me keep track of each generation, how the people are related to one another. Will I include all of that information in the final work? Most likely not. But I'll (a) be able to write with more confidence (always a good thing) and (b) avoid certain faux paux. I remember wishing I'd had such a program when writing Harlem Redux, when I began The Palmer Affair, The Quilt, and now the untitled book I'm now working on. (Note: If you're wondering why you never heard about The Palmer Affair or The Quilt, it's because they're one of the five or so books on my hard drive that are 85%-90% done, but not quite there yet.) After several manuscripts without this genealogy software, it's good to have it. I've actually gone back and even plugged in Lanie's information. It's wonderful to see what was going on in the world around her. Again, I do wish that the folks behind it would work on the glitches in the Custom Database, but other than that, I'm happy with My Family Tree. It was a good buy and a useful tool for a writer.

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