Category Archives: families

3 Books I’ve Read This Year

Why Just Three?

Basically so that I can talk more about books in a later blog post! I’ve read more than these, but I’m behind in my self-imposed Goodreads challenge. The truth is, I’ve given up on several books this year, so if you count partial reads, I’m beyond my challenge. I know that people feel differently on the topic of whether or not to finish a book that you’ve already invested time in, but for me I’m not going to stick with a book that doesn’t grab me–especially if it irritates me. (Another topic for another post!)

So I thought I’d pick a few that I did enjoy and showcase them.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Have I mentioned that I love historical fiction? Since this one was a best-seller, I decided to give it a try. Rich in detail surrounding the Chinese and Japanese communities in Seattle and California both during WWII and in the 1980s, this book had a mystery to be solved and a character’s heart that needed healing. Loved it!Hotel_on_the_Corner_of_Bitter_and_Sweet_cover








Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd

My reading list usually contains a few books by Irish authors. I’ve found some really wonderful stories from over the pond. This one is set during the troubles when teenage Fergus and his uncle discover a bog buried in a bog. This happens from time to time in Ireland because bogs preserve history. With the mystery of how this child was murdered back in ancient times, Fergus’s brother protesting his political imprisonment by starvation, and his unlikely friendship with a British boarder guard, the story kept me enthralled. Highly recommended.

bog child








The Widow of Gettysburg by Jocelyn Green

After visiting Gettysburg I wanted to learn more about how the battles affected the small population of townspeople. This book was just the thing. Not at all easy to read about, but realistic and compelling. As Liberty Holloway endures trial after trial, she also learns something about herself and her ability to care for everyone no matter their race or political conviction. But that is nothing compared to what she learns about the mother she’d never known, and a history she had no idea she was a part of. It’s also a love story, and a story about compassion, which is welcome considering the horrific subject.

The Widow of Gettysburg







Have you read any of these novels? I would love to hear what you thought!

Stepping Into the Past

Deadman's Curve NYC, www.cindyswriting.comHow to Go Back in Time

How many of us have remarked that we wished for a time machine. We have to see and experience things ourselves to truly understand them. But since that’s not possible, we can do the next best thing (something I always try to do when writing historical fiction) and read the words and thoughts of those who lived before us. There are a few ways to accomplish this.

Read Their Words


Thomson Family Book

There is nothing like a diary or journal to get into the mindset of the people of the past. Did you know John Adams kept a diary? Here is a fascinating list of online historical diaries. There are slave narratives (audio believe it or not) on the National Archives web site.

You can find more at local historical societies and libraries. Sometimes they are hard to read but worth the effort. My husband found a hand-written genealogy written in 1888 by one of his relatives. It’s not just a genealogy, though. It has memories and stories that relatives told as well, including one man who was a chaplain in the Union army and accompanied the troops on Sherman’s march to the sea. It has remembrances about how one man’s mother was distressed when he joined a different church until a pastor set the mother straight, and even one interesting story about a trip to a fortune teller.

Live in Their Society

Nothing beats contemporary newspapers for learning about the world our ancestors lived in. Of course you can look for names and dates, but to get a feel for how they lived their lives and what events influenced them, read newspapers and magazines. The magazines often contained serial fiction that later was put into books that you’ve probably heard of. In my novel Annie’s Stories I talk about Harper’s doing this, and you can even read some issues online here. For historical newspapers look here.

Russian Immigrants at Ellis Island, www.cindyswriting.comLook at Photographs

There are many sites where you can find old photographs, and just doing a Google search will bring up many. If you’ve ever seen photographs of immigrants at Ellis Island, you’ve probably seen Augustus Sherman’s photographs. He makes a cameo appearance in my novel Grace’s Pictures. I love to study the expressions, but you can also learn a lot from the clothing (were they rich or poor?) and even from the setting (in a studio, at home, outside?) Those Ellis Island photographs often depict people in their native garb, something they may have quickly discarded once they stepped foot in Battery Park when relatives met them with more American clothing (so they wouldn’t stand out.)

Dutch Immigrant at Ellis Island

These are just a few things that help me go back in time. What other ideas do you have?

Old Family Bibles Seek Reunions

Old family Bible in a post by

From Flickr: Chuck Coker

You Mean We Have a Family Bible?

That’s what Billie Jean King said on an episode of PBS’s Finding Your Roots. I have a family Bible our church gave us as a wedding present, but no ancient family Bible that I know of. However, Bibles were used by our ancestors to record births, deaths, and marriages–just the kinds of details family historians are looking for. So chances are you have a family Bible. You just don’t know about it.


Where to Find Old Family Bibles

Ebay. It’s incredible how many old Bibles are out there. Another option is to keep your eyes open when you’re at antique and second-hand shops. But truly the chances of finding your family Bible are slim this way. Fortunately there are web sites and message boards seeking to reunite families with their Bibles. I admit I’ve never been lucky enough to find mine. I recently found a listing for a Myrick family Bible, but alas I could not make any connections with the names in the Bible or the location. But if you’d like to try, here’s the message board:

I haven’t tried this. It requires a membership but will alert you when something shows up with your surname: Anyone tried it?

Here is a collection of Family Bible web sites:

Did your family attend a church? Check to see if a Bible was donated there. Chances are they’d be happy to give it to you.

Genealogy centers or historical societies often have surname files that contain photocopies of information from family Bibles.

It’s Not My Family Bible

The most likely scenario is that you’ll be shopping and come across an old family Bible that is not connected to you. If you feel compelled to reunite it with the proper family, buy it and list it on one of these sites. I have never done this, but I think I would if I could afford it. We have several old family Bibles at our church that were donated over the years. Eventually someone in those families is probably going to want them. I think we need to help each other out and patch those connections back the way they belong, don’t you?

Why Family Bibles are Helpful

I recently connected with a distant cousin online. I told her I had never been able to find when my 4x great grandfather died. He is not her line, but she had a family Bible with the date written in, most likely by his sister. Sometimes these records are the only ones that have the information we are looking for.

Tell me the story of your family Bible.

Living in a Land of Immigrants

Immigrants--author Cindy Thomson

Scottish immigrants at Ellis Island

The Melting Pot

Once when I was at a bed and breakfast in Ireland sitting at a table with folks from other countries, a German photographer noted that while both America and Canada are populated by immigrants, America is different. He didn’t quite say what he meant by that because the conversation drifted to 9-11 and Obama and other subjects that non Americans seem to want to hear about from Americans. While I didn’t ponder further at the time about why Canadians and Americans are different (I’ve met many Canadians and don’t consider them THAT different from me, eh?) I did think about living in a land of immigrants. I wonder if that’s why genealogy is such a popular hobby. Everyone seems to want to get back to their “immigrant ancestor”–the one who came over.

How Did We End up in America?

Well, I was born here, but only because my ancestors came over. There is some rumor about a bit of Cherokee blood, but mostly I believe I’m of Celtic descent. Really must do a DNA test sometime. Have you done one? (Please share in the comments.)

There are several reasons our ancestors might have come over, not to mention the different time periods when North America saw waves of immigrants. I’ve written a lot about Ellis Island immigrants because of the setting of my latest novels. My ancestors, however, came over earlier. One branch came from Ireland right before the Revolutionary War. There were several periods of Scots-Irish immigration in the 18th century. I wrote about that here. Of course many people can trace their Irish ancestors to the middle of the 19th century and the Potato Famine. I recently found another branch on my tree that came over

Immigrants--author Cindy Thomson

Irish famine cottage eviction

much, much earlier, in the 1680’s from Wales. Once you know when your ancestors came over, you can probably determine why just by looking at history. They didn’t come over on a fluke. They were driven by famine, crop failures, and political unrest. Some, like many Italian immigrants, came to seek their fortune and then go back home. (Some stayed on even though it wasn’t their initial intent.) Once you hear these stories, you’ll better appreciate how they paved a way for you.

Why Keeping the Culture Alive is so Important to Us

For Americans, it’s always been important to celebrate the culture from our mother country. Festivals and feast days, ethnic neighborhoods, food, dance, song, stories….

I have attended several Irish festivals to promote my books. Groups from Ireland, especially Northern Ireland and the Saint Patrick Centre–say they have nothing quite like this at home. They have attended these festivals and encouraged tourists to come visit them. It worked on me!

Dir of Saint Patrick Centre Tim Campbell with Author Cindy Thomson

With Tim Campbell, Director of the Saint Patrick Centre at Milwaukee Irish Festival in 2007.

Tim Campbell, Dir of Saint Patrick Centre with Author Cindy Thomson

With Tim Campbell at the Saint Patrick Centre, Downpatrick, Co Down, in 2010.

Get Involved in Preserving Culture

There are so many clubs, cultural organizations, genealogical societies, and groups I haven’t even thought of where you can get in touch with your roots. I think that’s mainly an American thing. Correct me if I’m wrong. But our roots are shallow in this country, so I think it’s only natural that we seek our immigrant ancestors.

Celebrating Culture--author Cindy Thomson

San José Library via Flickr

What groups are you involved in?

4 Ways to Preserve Your Family Stories

Stories, Not Just History

Sure you need to keep your family tree charts and group sheets safe, but that’s not what I have on my mind today. I’m thinking about the stories, the things that are so easily lost and not attainable in public records. Have you ever said, “I wish I had asked my grandparents about their lives when they were still here with us?” I’ve heard it many times, and I’ve said it myself. So here are some tips for capturing those stories.

1. Make a Recording

Record the Stories


Never has it been more convenient to get those stories and tales recorded. Most people have cell phones with video capability. You can also download an app just for recording audio–you know, like those tape recorders we had in the old days! Here is one in iTunes and here are some for Android. I’m not endorsing any, so look around and find the best voice recorder for you.

Hearing the stories about someone’s youth in his/her own voice is a treasure. Be sure to download the file to your computer and back it up. Here’s a don’t-do-what-I-did tip: Make sure you know where your cell phone’s speaker is and don’t cover it up with your thumb. I only got bits of this conversation (pictured below) between my mother and her sister. It was classic. Glad others were recording at the same time!

Cindy Thomson's family reunion May 2013

Remember to record your own stories. Tell everyone at your next family gathering what you plan to do and just have fun. Chances are you’d be talking about these things anyway, so get them recorded. Just make sure everyone’s aware of what you’re doing. You might want to edit too. Sometimes people say things they regret. Remember that Yogi Berra quote: I really didn’t say everything I said! Older people can be a product of the age they grew up in when there wasn’t as much political correctness, if you know what I mean.

2. Don’t Forget to Take Pictures

Cindy Thomson's familyIt’s easy to forget when you’re gathered with folks and caught up in conversations. That’s why my cousin hired a photographer for our family reunion.

Also take pictures of pictures if you have no other way to copy a photo you come across. The more copies out there the more likely a photo will not be lost. Share on Facebook/Pinterest/Tumblr…then the image will be forever, right? Some social media sites like Pinterest allow you to make private boards if you’d rather. And don’t forget to get in the picture yourself. (Isn’t everyone taking selfies these days?) When my sister passed away I was sad to discover that she’d managed to stay out of the way of cameras for most of her life.

3. Go Ahead and Use Paper and Pencil

Cindy Thomson's Family Tree BookTechnology fails often, doesn’t it? Take some notes, put out a guestbook, encourage folks to write things down. Everything that I have in my dad’s handwriting makes me feel connected to him even though he’s been in Heaven for a few years now. We’ve definitely gotten away from letter writing in this society, but often people will write down their thoughts and emotions better than they would in person. Don’t miss that opportunity.

4. Get as Much as Possible on Your Computer

I know that seems to contradict what I’ve been saying, but it doesn’t really. You need both electronic copies and paper copies. What if there’s a fire? What if your computer crashes? Oh, yes, there’s the cloud, so definitely get your family treasures out on the cloud as well. Do it all. Just in case.

Author Kate Kerrigan's computer

Author Kate Kerrigan shares some of her family history using her laptop.

Family genealogists are probably using a program such as or Family Tree Maker software, and they are wonderful for storing not only names and dates, but also photographs, scanned documents, videos and voice recordings. And sharing with other family members is quick and easy. If genealogy is not your thing, I hope there is a keeper of the records and stories in your family.

Wrapping it Up

I know I’ve just thrown out a couple of ideas. I want everyone to know how easy and convenient it can be to preserve the stories of their ancestors and their own as well because EVERYONE SHOULD KEEP THE STORIES!

How are you keeping your family stories for future generations?

When Father’s Day Hurts

Father’s Day did not become a national holiday in the U.S. until 1972. It’s not that it wasn’t suggested and even recognized before, it’s probably because fathers didn’t get behind it. Men, as we know, are not as sentimental about such things as women are.

But now you cannot watch television without being reminded to remember your father this Father’s Day. And if you don’t have one, or have a dysfunctional father-child relationship, you probably don’t appreciate these reminders.

If my father were still alive this Father’s Day, I would bring him licorice, bake him a chocolate cake, pour him a lemonade or a hot cup of tea. And we would talk about everything, and know that if only the world would operate the way we KNOW it should, all life’s problems would be solved.

See what I mean? That’s one example of not wanting to think about Father’s Day and what you’ve lost. Of course, the best way to look at is to remember your dad and the good times, and be thankful.

But if your experience was unpleasant, that’s another matter all together. In my novel Grace’s Pictures, Grace McCaffery had an abusive father who used to tell her she was worthless, not smart, and just someone others wouldn’t want to be around. He said she was lucky he had her to take care of her. And then she didn’t. He died, and she wasn’t so lucky and was physically thrown out of her home and into a workhouse. Her father’s messages never completely left her, despite her mother’s attempts to speak words of worth to her. Grace tries to hold on to those words, but she is separated from her mother. Perhaps coming to America will help her to start anew. If she can just overcome those negative messages.

Families can be difficult, and even good ones are far from perfect. Grace finds a way to overcome her past, but it’s a difficult journey for anyone. There is hope, however, and if this describes you, my prayer for you is that you will find that hope.

I found this song inspiring. I hope you do too.

Growing Up Climbing the Family Tree

This is an awkward post for me to write, but I’m doing it because I want people to understand me better…or more likely, I want to understand myself better. When you read it, you’ll probably wonder what the big deal was. I’m not uncovering skeletons or confessing a sin. It will seem that way to you because you’re not me, so don’t feel bad.

Well, you might know that families are complicated. You might relate to that concept. And a disclaimer first: my family loves me, and I love them. Okay. Here goes…

Technically I was not an only child. I had three older sisters. (I say had because the oldest has passed away.)

Since there are nearly seven years between me and my closest sister, I’ve heard it said (by Dr. Kevin Leman and others) that puts me in the only child category. And quite honestly, it’s a lonely place to grow up.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my sisters, but truly they grew up without me there and that changes how a relationship develops.

My mother and sisters long before me.

Why am I telling you this? Because while I was attending a writing seminar a few years ago, the leader kept asking me why writing these family legacy type stories was so important to me.

No siblings in several of my growing up pictures.

“Because,” I said, “we can all learn so much from history and the sacrifices made for us.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because it’s important to know who you are.”

“Why is it important?”

“Uh, because then we will know where our place in the world is.”

“Why, why, why?”

Hmm…She made me search my heart and it came down to the loneliness. I need to feel connected to family because so often growing up, I did not.

There you have it.

That’s kind of a hard thing to admit, frankly.

So I started wondering…

Where is my place? How do I know I belong? What is the family legacy I need to pass on? Where does it start?

I imagine adopted people feel this even more strongly than I did, not to mention children raised in foster care. Everyone has to find that connection somehow. For some it comes through mentorship or close friends. Family gets redefined, and I think that’s the absolute right thing for some people.

For me, I had a family. They were just older than me, and different, and involved in activities I was not ready for. I was on a journey to find my place.

It started here:
I think I was about 13 or 14. My oldest sister (middle, in the big-legged pants and halter top) visited from California and we had a reunion with my mom’s side of the family. Always being the youngest (and most bored) I started collecting my relatives’ stories and recollections. Something you MUST do. Right now! All of you!

Agee Family Reunion
Then several years later my parents bought me a book to record my family history. And I just took off from there.

This was taken in 1984 after we were all grown up.  Technically. 🙂

There are advantages to being the youngest by many years. If I can’t think of any, my sisters will. But as for genealogy, my situation drove me to study the branches on the tree, and therefore I learned a lot. And when I have time to keep looking, I will certainly uncover much more. Anyone who does family research knows it’s never ending and addictive.

Just a few of my discoveries:

  • My grandfather did well during the Great Depression because he was the only manager of the only Kroger grocery in a fair-sized city.
  • My grandmother’s paternal side lived for many years in Ohio (something I only recently learned) and one was a part of an antislavery movement near Cincinnati. I am pretty certain she never knew this.
  • One ancestor died at home during the Civil War. He was brought home by his brother and because he died at home, his widow had a difficult time getting her pension.
  • My Scots-Irish ancestors left Ireland not only to escape poverty but also because they didn’t believe in paying tithes to a church they didn’t belong to.
  • One ancestor, when only a young boy, freed a slave he had been given as payment on a debt.
  • Another ancestor after becoming a widow, moved her children to the wilds of Indiana where Indians were still a threat. She bought land (not usual for a woman in the early 1800s.) And they prospered there.
Family history will continue to inspire my writing, from novels, to short stories, to non-fiction articles. I think our experiences meld us into who we are and what we feel compelled do. And as a Christian I believe God directs our paths.

So, to rephrase another writer, “I write to know I’m not alone.”

If you’re a genealogy buff, what experiences formed your passion for researching your roots?