When Books Become Personal — Judith Miller

As I mentioned in my last post, I truly love researching history. While writing my last series, Refined by Love, I populated the books with characters who reflected a bit of my own Scots-Irish heritage. After doing some searching, I discovered that my “McCoy” ancestors came to this country back in the 1700’s, settled in Pennsylvania and then migrated to West Virginia, the state where I’ve set all three of books in that series.

Where did my ancestors come from, you ask? Well, maybe you don’t actually ask, but I’ll tell you anyway. Prior to arriving in America, I discovered they were among some of the “planters” who migrated from Scotland to an area in Northern Ireland referred to as Ulster. Only 30 miles separated the lower coast of Scotland from the coastline of Ulster in Northern Ireland, so they didn’t have far to go. Research tells me that by 1612 ships were traveling back and forth with the frequency of a ferry and that the people in Ulster and Scotland had been interacting for many years across the small stretch of water, because it was an easy crossing.

Fast forward to 1632 when Charles I demanded the Presbyterians join the Church of England. All those who disagreed with his demands were called “Dissenters.” This policy met with such resistance that an army was raised to force Scots out of Ulster. Some emigrated to America; others went home to Scotland. Those who remained faced imprisonment. The Irish resented the intrusion of Scottish interlopers in Ireland, and their resentment exploded in 1641 in bitter insurrection, when an estimated 250,000 Scotch Irish Protestants were massacred by the Irish and many of the remnant fled to America.

In “The Brickmaker’s Bride,” Ewan McKay has already arrived in West Virginia to escape the harsh conditions that remained in Northern Ireland in the 1800’s. His knowledge of brick making sets the scene for this first book. Needless to say, I knew little of brick making back in the mid-1860’s, but after visiting a few old kilns in the hills of West Virginia and reading some early books on the subject, I knew enough to take my characters into some predicaments that were almost as hot as those kilns.

In “The Potter’s Lady,” I remained in West Virginia, but moved to another town. To write this book, I needed to develop my knowledge of the potteries that existed in the area during the nineteenth century. While researching, I learned that workers were subjected to lead in the products produced in the potteries. When I read this, I knew it was a plot twist I wanted to address in the book. While the danger was known by both the workers and the employers, women, men and children continued to toil in the potteries for long hours because they needed to eke out a living. Unfortunately, even today, in some places, making enough money to support a family means facing long hours and horrible working conditions.

As I began the final book, “The Artisan’s Wife,” I set the story in a tile making company in Weston, West Virginia. I based the tile making business upon the Moravian Tile Works, a place I had visited many years ago and located in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. I chose Weston because I wanted to include the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, later known as the Weston Asylum. It, too, was a part of my personal history. While going through the change of life at a time when far too little was known about depression, my grandmother entered the asylum and died there due to heart failure. While I had no great desire to enter the actual building (it is now open for ghost tours), I wanted to include some of the early history of the asylum to reveal that when mental hospitals first began, they were a much better option for those who truly needed help.

All three of these books deepened the knowledge of my ancestry and provided me with a continuing admiration for the men and women who toiled to make this country into a great nation.

Having the opportunity to research is one of the many reasons why I love to write historical fiction. How about you? Have you attempted to trace your ancestral line? If so, did you find any tidbits that surprised you?

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3 Responses to When Books Become Personal — Judith Miller

  1. Maureen Lang says:

    I love reading about your research, Judy! Most of us live in such comfort these days it’s hard to imagine the conditions people endured before us. Although I haven’t done family research myself, a relative of mine traced my father’s lineage back to Sir Walter Raleigh, which I thought was a fun fact. 🙂

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    • judithmccoymiller says:

      Hi Maureen! Sir Walter Raleigh? Now, that’s some lineage. 🙂 I haven’t found any famous folks in my research, but I do think it’s fun to discover the types of work they did and when they arrived in the country. Research is truly one of the greatest blessings of my writing life. It has given me the opportunity to meet so many unique people and also let me gain a greater understanding of what our ancestors truly endured.

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  2. I have traced my husband’s tree back to County Cavan in Ireland. The name may or may not have been McKigg at that time; but they were McKeage here in Canada, until one branch changed it to MacKeage.

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