18 April 2017

A Mission Impossible

with Wendy Percival

 I must begin by thanking Helen for inviting me on to her blog [HH my pleasure Wendy!] and allowing me to tell you about my current Mission Impossible which I’m hoping may not be so very impossible if I can persuade you to help. But before I explain what I’m rambling on about, let me introduce myself.

Ever since I came across an Australian death certificate, dated 1868, in the proverbial “box of documents in the attic”, I’ve been fascinated by family history and the secrets it holds. I’m clearly not alone, judging by the millions of viewers who watch TV’s Who Do You Think You Are.

As the programme regularly demonstrates, we invariably know little about our family history and that concept was the inspiration behind my first Esme Quentin genealogy mystery, Blood-Tied, where Esme discovers her sister has a secret past. In her search for the truth, Esme unleashes more than she bargains for and is caught up in a terrifying ordeal.
Fortunately, for we lesser mortals, family history research isn’t usually so dangerous! Though it can throw up some surprising, poignant and sometimes shocking stories, as you’ll see if you read my blog Family History Secrets where I share what I’ve uncovered during research into my own family’s history.

These investigations give me plenty of “plotting fodder” and it was the discovery that my husband’s ancestor had been transported to Australia in the early 1800s which set me on a trail to find out more. What I learned about the brutal penal policy of 19th century England was harrowing and gave me the idea for the second Esme mystery, The Indelible Stain, which I set on the North Devon coast. Esme finds a woman’s body at the foot of a cliff and must delve into the mystery of a convict girl who was transported to New South Wales for her crime in 1837 to uncover the truth behind the woman’s untimely death.

My new “short reads” eBook, Death of a Cuckoo, was inspired by reading about a Victorian refuge for “fallen women” here in Devon. The records left by this organisation meant I could dip in for background information to develop my initial idea.

Which sort of leads me back to My Mission….

The obvious appeal of  Who Do You Think You Are is the discovery of ancestors’ stories, frequently emotional, which have been unpicked from records, photographs and accounts, and paint a picture of their lives.

Wouldn’t we just love a BBC researcher to investigate our own family history stories! Imagine discovering that our great-grandmother or great-great grandfather had written an account of their life. What a find that would be! It would make an intriguing read.
But it probably never entered their heads to make such a record. And even if it had, they probably thought they were way too “ordinary” for anyone to be interested in their day-to-day existence.

Even you, as future great-grandparents, great-aunts or uncles, or even if you’re none of those, probably think the same. So let me try and convince you that you’re wrong, that your memories are worth recording – whoever you are and whatever age!
The pace of life and society is changing faster than it’s ever done before. Some aspects of our lives as children would be unrecognisable to the youth of today. Knowledge we hold of our parents and grandparents are never going to be accessible to anyone in the future – even those clever genealogists employed by the BBC – unless we make sure they’re recorded now. It’s said that such knowledge is lost within two generations unless someone takes the time to write them down.

Fortunately, this idea is already taking hold and writing personal memoirs is a growing phenomenon. Some have published their accounts online. A fellow family historians I know, Cathy Murray, is one of them. She’s produced two delightful eBooks of her 1950s childhood, called Cabbage and Semolina (as you might guess, school dinners are mentioned in this one!) and Jam for Tea. Both books are a collection of memories and events which she recalls with affection (or trauma!). What’s interesting is that reading them stirs memories of similar incidents in my own childhood.

Another inspiring read is Remember Then, a collection of women’s shared memories from 1939 to 1969 compiled by genealogist Janet Few. The book is divided into chapters covering different topics – the homes in which they lived, the games they played as children, their neighbourhood, school days, celebrations and holidays, for example. Photographs and images of advertisements of the time within the pages create a real historical document!
So, that’s my Mission Impossible – to get you to write down your memories. But, I hear you say, I wouldn’t know where to start. The answer to that is, “Just start”. You’ll be amazed at how things come flooding back once you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Ask yourself, what would I like my ancestor to have told me?

Another good place to begin is what you remember of your parents – how they met, where they lived, their jobs, the things that made them laugh, as well as any stories from their own childhood they shared with you.

As children, my sister and I loved to hear about when a World War Two incendiary bomb dropped on my mum’s house, landing in the bedroom where she was asleep! My gran ran upstairs and smothered the flames with a feather mattress and carried my mum downstairs into the back kitchen out of harm’s way.

My dad, on the other hand, was pulled off a wall when he was 7 years old and spent 3 years in hospital after getting TB in his hip. He spoke of coming home from a large ward with high ceilings and feeling claustrophobic at the tiny rooms of the family’s lodge cottage.
When I’ve finished editing my third Esme Quentin novel, due out later this year, I shall be digging around in the boxes of photographs and family archives and write what I remember being told, as well as my own childhood memories. In fact I’ve already made a start. I hope you will too. Your descendants will love you for it!

Further interest:

Wendy's  book links

Amazon UK
Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon US

e-book only
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Read the Discovering Diamonds Review HERE


  1. An excellent mission, Wendy. Considering how much I'm addicted to WDYTYA, I can't believe I didn't ask the relevant questions of my grandparents and parents when I had the chance. A regret, certainly, but as you say perhaps we assume they haven't done anything of interest? But just look at Danny Dyer - oh, how I loved that episode, real drama - so who knows? I'm a long way from writing a full-blown memoir, but I have written down a sort of summary of my life for my sons and their children etc. to read whenever if they wish. At least it'll give them some insight into this woman's life in mid 20th-21st century,(which may or may not be typical!) since they haven't asked...
    I enjoy the way you weave the past into your Esme Quentin stories and you seem to have such fun (and some frustration?) tracing your own ancestors. Janet Few's book triggered quite a few memories for me. Felt rather nostalgic as I dipped into it. Keep hunting!

    1. I so agree Susan! For myself imy grandmother was very deaf and as a teenager I couldn't be bothered to talk to her because of it - how utterly stupid of me! Nan was a fascinating woman, received a medal for bravery during WWII was a prolific reader and - get this - could say the alphabet backwards without pause. She also got cut off by the tide and climbed the cliffs at Robin Hood's Bay, Yorkshire, in 1918/19 (in Edwardian dress!) carrying her baby, my Dad, in her teeth. Wow!

    2. Well done, Sue, for actually writing something down! And yes, we're all as bad as one another, aren't we, at asking questions at a time we might actually learn something? I also enjoyed reading Janet Few's book, as everyone I've introduced it to have. I agree - very nostalgic and a great prompt for stirring memories.

      Wow, Helen, what an amazing family story! Do you know what she did to earn her WWII medal? She sounds like some special lady!

    3. Love the sound of your grandmother, Helen! What a gal.

  2. Great article, Wendy. I have been writing up my Mum's wartime diaries and nostalgic memories of my own on my Lost in the Past blog.

    1. That's brilliant, Elizabeth. What a fascinating project. Setting up a blog to publish bits of family history is so good for making us record what we might otherwise not get around to writing down. It's then fairly easy to create a printed version for family members who aren't computer savvy, too. Good for you!

    2. You can reach Elizabeth's blog HERE

  3. What a great article, Wendy and Helen. Both my parents died in their mid-fifties and I've many gaps in the early years of my family story. I think it's so important for people to leave some of their recollections for the next generations. It's only when you get older yourself you start to realise all that's been lost. I've managed to get my young niece switched on to family history and she's fascinated. And thanks for including a mention for Cabbage and Semolina too. Best of luck with The Mission.


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