- Darrell Delamaide
- February 9, 2023
Turning personal tales into compelling historical fiction.
Sometimes, writers of historical fiction turn to their own genealogy for subjects. Perhaps the best-known novel based on family history is Roots by Alex Haley. Extensive archival research by the author, as well as travel and interviews, resulted in the book being described as both fiction and nonfiction. In any case, it transcends the boundaries of the particular to portray the powerful influence of our forebears.
The Last Kingdom series by Bernard Cornwell relates the story of how England came to be in the 9th and 10th centuries after the author traced his own ancestry back to the 11th century’s Uhtred the Bold and made a fictional Uhtred his protagonist. The resulting hit streaming series starring Alexander Deymon, named after the first of Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, The Last Kingdom, became so popular that the author recast the whole 13-book series with that label.
Daphne du Maurier wrote two books drawing on her family history. In 1954, she published Mary Anne, about her great-great-grandmother Mary Anne Clarke, who was the mistress of Frederick Augustus, the Duke of York and Albany (and son of King George III and brother of George IV), in the early 19th century. Her 1963 novel, The Glass-Blowers, is based on another ancestor, a master glass-blower who moved to England from France at the time of the French Revolution.
Using genealogy to find subjects has precedent. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel, The House of the Seven Gables, was inspired by his cousin’s house in Salem, Massachusetts, as well as by his ancestors, who played a role in the Salem Witch Trials. Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, published in 1901, when he was 26, and drawing on his family’s history over several generations, described the lost world of Germany’s 19th-century bourgeoisie.
German novelist Oliver Pötzsch has put a novel twist on this tradition with a mystery series set in 17th-century Bavaria and featuring his ancestor, the Schongau executioner Jakob Kuisl. The first in the series, The Hangman’s Daughter, also introduces his daughter, Magdalena, who plays Watson to Jakob’s Sherlock.
Pötzsch portrays a world on the threshold of the Enlightenment but still wracked by plague, superstition, and the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War. Genealogy led him to the character and time, which he captures in convincing and sometimes gruesome detail (it was a different world). Seven further novels in the series have all been translated. It helps that Pötzsch is a skillful writer, and that the translations are excellent.
Pötzsch puts his research to further use with a novel set in contemporary times that also relies on German history. The Ludwig Conspiracy deals with the mysterious death of Ludwig II, the so-called mad king of Bavaria, whose Neuschwanstein became the model for Disney’s trademark castle and remains a big tourist attraction.
I lived in Munich for a year and had a chance to explore the locales mentioned by Pötzsch. His books could be seen as straddling two genres, historical fiction and mystery, but categorizing them only helps readers looking for genre fiction. The best novels defy pigeonholing, and certain family sagas fit that description.
Darrell Delamaide is author of the novels The Grand Mirage and Gold.