In my newest book for Knopf, I write about a fictional family called the Glendoveers whose children were kidnapped in 1855. I had named the brothers and sisters already: Frances, intense, unsentimental and scholarly, was the oldest daughter; gentlemanly and dreamy George Jr. was the eldest brother; Helen, the little sister loved sweets and dancing; Arthur,the middle sibling was a restless climber of trees who would rather play outside than eat supper; and Peter, the youngest and Arthur's shadow, was dapper and loved his clothes.
In order to get some ideas of what the children would look like and how they would dress, I searched the internet for pictures of children from that time. When I came upon this photograph of the Davis family of Cayuga County New York, taken in in 1850, I felt my skin prickle. These were my Glendoveers--or, rather, my concrete image of them. Now that my first draft is almost done, I've referred to the pictures so many times that I feel these children inhabit my story.
Of course, I don't know anything about the real Davises except that they were a handsome group--but I owe a debt of thanks to these children and to the direct, intelligent gaze of the eldest sister, who became a favorite character.
I'm guessing that the youngest children are being helped to hold still for the cameras In the old days, pictures were not taken in the split second they are now. The subjects had to stay motionless for seconds while the camera's shutter opened its eye to the light.
Thanks to the internet and a thriving community of amateur genealogists, family photos from all eras are available for us to view. I don't know about you, but if the photograph is old and the subjects are compelling, I'm just as fascinated by the images as if the people pictured belonged to my own family.