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Turning Family Stories into Novels

This is the first in a series.

In 2014, I published Under the Almond Trees, a novel featuring three of my female ancestors making their mark in pioneer California. Released in 2020, my novel The Aloha Spirit was inspired by my husband’s grandmother. My work in progress follows a female ancestor born at Fort Snelling in Minnesota in 1835. I’ve been asked many times why I decided to write a novel instead of a biography of these fascinating women. I blame my grandmother.

When I was a child in the 1960’s, my grandmother told me stories about my ancestors. Some were one line, like “We have relatives who came over on the Mayflower.” Later I spent a lot of time tracing our family back to William Brewster, the religious leader. The Mayflower Compact was signed on his sea chest, which stayed in the family for almost a hundred years. 

Other stories were more detailed. My great great aunt Emily Williams was born in the Gold Rush town of Rough and Ready, where her father sold water to the miners. They later moved to San Jose, where he became the first president of the San Jose Water Works. She attended college and became an architect who built houses along the northern California coast. 

The story that captured my imagination was that of my great great grandmother, Ellen VanValkenburgh. She ran her husband’s business after he died in 1862. At the time she was pregnant with their third child. Later, she fought for women’s right to vote.

Ellen and Emily are two of the women in Under the Almond Trees. The third is my own grandmother. She never told me her own story, but I learned that she opened her own photography studio to pay for her daughter’s college education when her husband refused to do so. 

These are just a handful of Grandma’s stories. They are not novels. The stories intrigued me, though, and I wanted to know more about these women. Unfortunately, by the time I knew what questions to ask, my grandmother had passed away. My father told me what he knew, but it wasn’t much. I researched Ellen VanValkenburgh on and found out that her first husband was her cousin. From my father, I knew she wore black her entire life after her husband died. Ellen came to California from New York in 1851. From a distant cousin I found on Ancestry, I got a copy of Ellen’s first person tale of that trip, with her sister, around the horn. What a treasure! I made a chronological list of everything I knew about Ellen that included birth, marriages, moving to California, births of her children, residences, and death. I became more and more convinced that Ellen’s story should be shared.

Eva Walters, Emily Williams, Ellen VanValkenburgh

I researched events happening in the world around the events in Ellen’s life. For example, I learned that the route she took around the horn, crossing through Nicaragua, was developed by Cornelius Vanderbilt to compete with the Pacific Mail Line’s Panama route. I learned about her second husband’s business, the San Lorenzo Paper Mill in Santa Cruz, and about early efforts for women’s rights in the area. The architect, Emily Williams, built many homes in Pacific Grove, California, about the same time Julia Morgan built the Asilomar Conference Center there. I couldn’t find evidence that they knew each other, but they must have. I did find evidence of a thriving lesbian community there that would have supported Emily and her lifelong partner Lillian Palmer. The idea of writing a novel began to tease me.

But a novel requires more than a list of personal facts compared to a list of historical facts. A novel needs emotion, attitudes, conflict, and dialogue. I could only imagine how my ancestors felt and what they said about the events happening around them and to them. That is where the fiction comes in. Taking what I knew from family stories and what I learned through research, I created character arcs, theme, and story. Both Under the Almond Trees and The Aloha Spirit reflect my belief in the strength of family and the power of legacy. While Ellen VanValkenburgh worked hard for votes for women, and Emily fought to be an architect, my grandmother chose to devote her life to a husband and family. She chose to show her strength in a more traditional way, since we all know how strong you have to be to raise a family. 

Next time, I will share the process of researching The Aloha Spirit, inspired by my husband’s grandmother.

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