Research Can Enhance your Writing
Over twenty years ago, I began to research my maternal family’s genealogy, starting with my grandfathers’ parents, of Jewish descent from Poland; and my grandmothers’ parents, full-blooded Catholic Italians from Pomigliano d’Arco, Italy. After weeks at sea in the late 1890s or early 1900s, they arrived and were processed through Ellis Island, settling in Brooklyn, New York.
After months of pouring over microfiche at the local genealogy library (Latter Day Saints) – mostly census, birth and death records – I was able to piece together much of my maternal grandparents’ life in New York. Back then, it wasn’t as difficult (or expensive), either, to obtain Social Security application documents, baptism and death certificates. Now, much of that information has been digitized and may be readily available on Ancestry.com and other genealogy sites with a few search parameters.
Many of the death certificates from the early twentieth century were handwritten; it took me awhile to decipher “marasmus” from the doctor’s illegible handwriting. It was only after I found an online site listing archaic medical conditions alphabetically (similar to this one) that I was able to figure out what he had written so poorly. It was further insight into my great-grandparent’s existence. Initially, all I had determined was the cause of death started with an “MA” and ended with “US”.
It was marasmus which took the life of one of grandmother’s siblings. Marasmus is also known as malnutrition. This makes sense. My great grandmother would have nursed all her children. She spoke mostly Italian and some broken English, and between 1908 and 1922, she birthed 9 children, which included two sets of twins. My great-grandfather was a laborer, and when my great-grandmother was able to work, she was a housekeeper. They lived in a tenement building, which no longer stands. Theirs was a humble existence. Although poor, they were able to make their own wine in the basement and grow their own tomatoes and carrots in a community garden.
If you are writing a family history, short story or novel and medical research from a specific time period is warranted, you want to be true to the terminology of the time period. In the early twentieth century, what we know as tonsillitis was called quinsy. King’s evil was tuberculosis of the neck and lymph glands. If you were experiencing flu symptoms, it was called the grippe. Winter fever was pneumonia; scurvy, the lack of vitamin C. Epilepsy was called a falling sickness, and if you were feeble in old age, that was considered decrepitude. Sciatica was bone shave. French pox, syphilis. Cancerous tumors were called scirrhus. While these terms seem foreign and odd, they add a layer of authenticity to your story.
Further, because I found the ship records of my great-grandparent’s journeys to New York, I was able to research when the ship was built, how long the journey, and how many immigrants it had carried over its various journeys. Often, travelers from a certain area ended up living in close vicinity of one another and may have been a godparent noted on a baptismal certificate or a younger sibling of another immigrant already in the United States.