A history professor once told me, “go back to your roots, write about your local community, find fascinating stories in your family’s past.”
In those days I was more interested in women’s rights and wrote my senior thesis about early pioneers in the women’s movement.
But when I began working as a reporter and feature writer for a newspaper located in Orange County, California, I discovered my professor was right. Stories spilled out of actual events like bubbles in an overflowing bathtub. And they weren’t hard to find.
I’m not sure why it took decades before I wrote my first novel based on happenings in California history. Shadow of the Fox is that book, with made-up characters who lived in the rancho period, who are put in a situation that could have occurred in a hidalgo household. My heroine, though, is reminiscent of one of my own ancestors. Her name was Reducinda and she was the mother of my own great-grandmother, Francesca Nieblas.
The situation and background of Sorina Braithwaite (my character), is totally different from the fabled Reducinda Rodriquez (my ancestor). But her strength and rebellious character reminded me of my ancestor, who, if put in similar situations, might have reacted the same.
Tales of Reducinda’s exploits were told to me as a child by great aunts, so I grew up admiring this very strong woman who died long before I was born. I visited her grave once in the historic Old Mission Cemetery of San Juan Capistrano. I didn’t get any vibes from being there, but it made me wonder about how she survived a very tumultuous time in the state’s history.
My grandmother, another Reducinda, did not talk much about her namesake. But her sisters, Lecia Nieblas Watson and Liz Nieblas were more forthcoming, recalling stories they’d heard about the woman’s foxhunting on Signal Hill, her first marriage to the son of a prominent Northern California ranchero, her attraction to other famous men of the time, and her rags to riches to rags roller coaster existence.
One day I will research the actual events in her life. Genealogy sites help you do this. But for now I am happily writing my series about life in California during the rancho period and just after, making up stories for my principal characters. Book Two will take place in Southern California where I grew up, although the third book in the Mission Belles series will take my characters to Sonoma, California, another historic town where I lived for many years.
The point of this, for other writers of historical romance, is to take stock of your own roots, your own family stories, and the people who were your ancestors. Family history is gold waiting to be unearthed for those of us who write novels.
If you read historical romance, it’s a good way to get a dose of history in an entertaining way. And if you’re in Australia, if you say you’re “unearthing your roots” you might get a raised eyebrow, or even a good laugh.