Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Glendoveers Come to Life

    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.


  1. The Glendoveers, aye? I have boxes of old family photos, ancesters whose names I don't know, and anyone would who know them has passed away. So I've invented backstories for some of them. Sounds like a fascinating writing process, looking forward to the book.

  2. Thanks, Jill. My son's girlfriend goes to flea markets and collects the family photo albums that people discard. There is something kind of melancholy about knowing that all those pieces of personal history have been thrown away. It makes me feel better knowing that someone has rescued the Christmases and birthdays and picnics and weddings. We always try to figure out the relationships between the people in the photos and imagine what they're like.