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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | Meet the Relatives

Meet the Relatives

Last week, I received an unexpected message on Facebook from a descendant of the Fox sisters! This lady, who lives in a neighboring county of PA (and whom I hope to meet up with this summer) is a great-great-(great?)-grandniece of Maggie and Kate Fox.

This is really exciting – and also kind of nerve-wracking. Since my characters are real, historical people, I knew (theoretically) that there might be real, living descendants who could encounter my book.

And read it.

One of the first things I did when I exchanged messages with this very nice lady was apologize, because her direct ancestor, Elizabeth Fox doesn’t appear in the book at all. Maggie and Kate had four older siblings, but since two of them had no direct role in the spiritualism business, I ended up cutting all mention of them in order to streamline the story and reduce the word count. In We Hear the Dead, there are only 4 Fox children: Maggie, Kate, David, and Leah. The other sisters, Elizabeth and Maria, were left out altogether.

We Hear the Dead is fictional, after all. I collapsed the timeline of events and sometimes changed their order. I took the bare facts of these people’s lives and created full-blown fictional characters out of them. A biographer can simply state what happens to their subject. A novelist must provide personality and motivation. That’s all fine and dandy until I remember I’m writing about somebody’s great-great-grandmother.

There are descendants of the Kane family living too, and I wonder what will happen when/if they stumble on my book. Maggie did NOT have a good relationship with Elisha Kane’s family. His brother Robert plays an important and unpleasant role in We Hear the Dead, putting obstacles in the path of their relationship. Maggie calls Robert “detestable” and “vile.” When she hears he has fathered a child, her reaction is: Robert Kane had produced offspring? What a repugnant idea!

Yeah, wait until somebody emails me and says, “Excuse me, but that was my great-great-granddaddy.” Gulp!

I guess that’s all part of being a historical novelist.

And yet, it feels strange. Writers feel possessive toward their characters. It’s a little unnerving to realize that “my characters” actually belong in someone else’s family tree.

9 Responses to Meet the Relatives

  1. That would be a little nerve-wracking. It hadn’t occurred to me that you might hear from descendants. But it sounds like you’ve thought this out and handled it well. Good luck meeting the relatives *Smiles* and have a great day.

  2. Candyland says:

    That is so cool! It’s like writing a version of nonfiction, so yeah I guess it would be nerve-wracking hoping you told the story well enough.

  3. Sun Singer says:

    Now I know why I don’t write historical novels. I don’t want to worry about meeting or hearing from people associated with a book unless they promise to be really friendly. 🙂


  4. Donna says:

    Reminds me of the meeting I had in Kansas with direct descendants of William Gish – the farmer who physically abused my grandfather’s brother when they came to a booksigning. What was I to say????? “Oh, it’s so nice to meet you, thank you so much for coming! You’d like to buy a set of books? Wonderful!” Now let me get out of town before your read them! UGH!

  5. Oh, she was very friendly! We are hoping to get together and dish about Fox sisters tidbits sometime this summer.

    I guess my nerves are more on the order of what Candyland said — Will the descendants think I did a good (and fair) job of telling the story?

    Donna — Did you ever hear from them again *after* they read the book?

  6. JEM says:

    Oh man, how cool is it that you found each other, though!

  7. E. Arroyo says:

    That is awkward. LOL But exciting, I think.

  8. Jen says:

    Wow that is super neat!!! I think it’s both nerve-wrecking and incredibly awesome that you’ll get to meet someone that is a relative. I understand being nervous because you did right a novel and not a biography about their lives but nonetheless this person picked up the book and read it, how special. They emailed you afterwards and I’m sure they thought you did well or they wouldn’t have talked with you!!!

    How fun!!!

  9. Wow–what a tightrope walk historical fiction seems to be–enough fact to keep things straight, with enough fiction to fill in the blanks and keep it interesting. Fascinating. You’ll have to let us know how the meeting goes in real life! I think it’s cool that she found you and approached you!