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DNA, Ancestors and Developing Character

Red MoonThree months ago I spat into a tube and sent my DNA for analysis. When the result was ready I activated my details not expecting any shocks.

British 51% – as expected

Irish 47% – at least 10% greater than expected

Swedish 2% – well! My grandmother was Danish so is there a connection?

I signed up to Ancestry. com for a year although my sister and I started our research a couple of decades ago. 

Touching the Past – A Memoir

My feet slipped in the sodden graveyard. Rainwater seeped through my boots as I squelched my way down the rows, reading one monument after the other. Simple or ornate, the headstones were grief, carved in a moment of time. 

My journey began by asking questions of my parents, and other relatives. They liked to talk about their youth and walk me through their memories so  I gathered the stories like flowers and pressed them between the pages of a notebook.  Each page a petal of history.

Family memorabilia came my way. I collected photographs, certificates or a name on the fly leaf of a brown paper-bound book. 

I trawled through cemeteries in the areas my ancestors will inhabit forever. The headstones gave me names, dates and places but they were paper people whose names were ink scratches. As their stories unfolded they morphed into human beings.

Rosemary and Richard married in the Anglican parish church of St Peters’. Both were underage,  and both raised as Catholic.  Did they not have parental approval? Had they eloped? Did they reunite with their families? 

I discovered the birth of Damaris Kirby, to Henry, over two centuries ago. Eighteen months later another Damaris was born to the same Henry. The first  died aged ten months and against the entry a note stated Henry a pauper of the parish. Did he breed a long line of paupers, I wondered, when the same names came up on a workhouse register decades later? No mention of mothers.

My imagination carved my ancestor’s faces, blurred images which fogged and swirled.

 I never found the apocryphal family bible. Had there been one? Was it thrown out in the bin bags taken from old Thomas’ house? Bachelor Thomas lived little more than a skip from where I grew up and I never knew him until after he died. Through his letters I discovered that my paternal grandmother had nine other siblings. Where had they gone? Why were they never spoken of?

Hundreds of trails appeared, like veins spreading through mist. One led me to Formby, where many of my ancestors lived before the industrial Diaspora. In St Luke’s graveyard  the headstones lie flat, overgrown with grass and lichens. Worn marks reform into letters, difficult to read even when squinting. My heart skipped a beat when I made out the letters R B Y. Cleaning the stone revealed the name: Alice Kirby. 

Alice was born in 1766 and died 1854 aged 88 years. William, her husband, died forty years earlier. I discovered where she lived, where her ten children lived; and that she bore her last child at 44 years old.

 Her house, where she took in laundry working until her death, was small and whitewashed. In my mind, her height and build and expression form in my mind.  If I close my eyes and stretch out my hand, I am a whisker away from touching her.

Developing Character

My experience with genealogy reminds me that characters are not formed in isolation. Any two of my ancestors lived during historic events.  Cheered when Queen Elizabeth spoke –

I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” 

Characters who inhabit my stories have ancestors who contributed to their DNA. I have no need to identify their history but I acknowledge they have one.  Sometimes I need a profile sheet and work out birth dates, family history, relationships. One of my themes is the past affecting the present so I must have a practical timeline to avoid flaws in my plot. I can find enough of them without adding more.  

Back to my family tree.  An enormous amount of information pops on to my ancestry page. Details obtained from censuses, photographs, records inundate my page. It takes time to select relevant information and I’ve not made a dent. It will come, with time. 

Keep the writing flowing and have fun. 



Published inWriting


  1. A lovely post, Lynda. Those gaps between the dates of family history are so tantalising, aren’t they? But it sounds like you found out a lot of details.

    And I agree, the tricks to writing up family history are close, very close, to those that apply for fiction. I might not go so far back as a DNA search implies, when writing, but I like to know at least two layers of the family tree. Maybe I’ll experiment with a little more history. Thanks for the tip, Lynda.

    • Lynda Kirby Lynda Kirby

      It’s a fascinating subject, Cath. I’m sure you’ll find out so much when you start researching.

      • Judging by past experience, I’ll get lost wandering along the byways… Love looking into family history.

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