Scott Skipper writing and research feature pic

Research and Writing: How Skeletons in the Ancestral Cupboard Fuel the Creative Process

Research and Writing

From science fiction to soap opera, good background research is so important to create the canvas on which to paint a novel. In today's how to be an author guest post, Scott Skipper shows how research and writing go together, using the discoveries he made while studying his genealogy. Three novels have arisen from this so far!

The Ancestral Cupboard

by Scott Skipper

Scott Skipper writing and research feature picIn 1997 I began researching my genealogy and quickly discovered that I come from colorful stock. While looking for traces of my surname, all over the internet I encountered references to Indian chiefs, interracial marriages, dubious affairs, hog rustling, homebred militias and always more Indians. Some years later I went to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and stumbled across a series of documents that proved it was all true. One of my earliest ancestors in the New World shunned white society, married an Indian maiden and became a Chief Man of the Nottoway Indians. His name continued to appear on land and court records for twenty years.

That is a story that was itching to be told, but to do so I required intimate knowledge of the times, people and places. So I delved into the history of the Nottoways—more correctly known as the Cheroenhaka. Nottoway is a derisive term used by their enemies, it means snakes. Some of what I discovered truly astounded me. This was not the textbook version of the period at all. I had to write this story but the character development of my distant ancestors gave me pause. Did I really want to claim to the world that I descend from renegade philanderers and duplicitous wild Indians? Well, of course I did.

So, "Family Traits" was born. It is the tale of three generations of my Skipper grandfathers cohabiting and corrupting the Indians; conniving and conspiring against the Colonial Governor, and continually running afoul of the law and their wives.

Within the Cupboard

To concoct a viable story I pulled all the documents together that I had collected over fifteen years and hunted for a thread that could tie the historical characters to one another and situate them plausibly in the correct times and places without taking too many liberties with fact and without merely producing a sterile genealogy. I had been to London and visited the corner of Whitehall where Charles I lost his head—this seemed a good starting point and the English Civil War a fine motive for decamping to the New World. I went to Barbados to look for footprints and to get a sense of the route that the colonists followed from England to Virginia. Naturally, I needed to see Jamestown and Williamsburg and to see the lay of the land where the events in my tale actually took place. Finally, I had to see the swamp where my ancestor took his Indian family to protect them from the depredations of the white settlers—sadly some ecological miscreant has since drained the swamp. At some point during the research phase of "Family Traits", and the subsequent "In the Blood", I visited every place described in the action of either story.


Between trips I devoted a great deal of time to reading sixteenth and seventeenth century accounts of the Virginia and North Carolina colonies, various shipwrecks and passenger lists. I owe much to the Gutenberg Project for free access to arcane books from the period and I regret that I did not include a bibliography in "Family Traits" although I did append a glossary. I even found a fragment of the Cheroenhaka lexicon which I used sparingly for the names of invented characters and to add a bit of Indian flavor. History itself gave me an excellent villain in the person of Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia who made converting the Cheroenhaka to Christianity his personal and cruel crusade.

So, over the months, a messy collection of deeds, wills, court transcripts and family lore coalesced, with false starts, blind alleys, ruthless paring of deadwood and infinite proofreading, into a plausible, if slightly off kilter, tale of three generations of troublemakers named George Skipper who carried the genes for a prominent nose and a wandering eye.

Family Secrets Revealed

"In the Blood" created a different sort of conflict. This was the life story of an ancestor who can be definitively linked, not only to me, but also to all my living paternal cousins. To tell the truth about this complicated man was to risk offending people with whom I enjoy taking Thanksgiving. But the truth must be told, so I soldiered onward and spilled the beans about four wives, sixteen known offspring and the suspicion of others. The timeline of George Washington Skipper's life was fairly easy to follow including his Confederate Civil War career thanks to the memoir of his brigadier general, Author Middleton Manigault — the appendix of which became the inspiration for my third novel, "The Hundred Years Farce".

The specter of polygamy was not the major issue in telling Washington's story. The complexion of wife number four, with whom he resided the longest, was a deeply guarded family secret. When I had an elementary school assignment to make a family tree, my grandfather refused to broach the subject. In 1997 when my cousin revealed to me the identity of my great-great-grandfather, he neglected to mention it—we are both descended from wife number three so he could be forgiven for not thinking it germane. Regardless of how we view interracial marriage today, in Reconstruction era South Carolina it was not only scandalous, it was grounds for lynching, and of course, so was polygamy. Washington Skipper, as he was known, kept his secrets for a hundred years. I doubt if he can ever forgive me for letting the cat out of the bag.

Are you brave enough to do this kind of research and writing? Use the comments below to give your reactions to letting the skeletons out of the family cupboards. And share this post with your friends, too, using the handy "shere" buttons liberally distributed around this page!

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