The books I write always have some sort of mystery. My genealogical novels don’t always have a murder or kidnapping or other crime, but to me they are still mysteries because they are about someone trying to solve the puzzle of his family’s history. Who is he really? Where did he come from? Who were his ancestors?

When I started writing my genealogical mystery novels, I had a mild interest in genealogy but hadn’t delved deeply into my own family history. I didn’t need to research my father’s side because he and his older sister were the genealogists in our family and interviewed hundreds of relatives to gather family information. They constructed a pretty large family tree, printed it out in large binders, and delivered them to family members.

My mother’s side of my family tree was a completely different story. Because she was an Ethnic German born in Europe right before WWII started, much documentation was lost or destroyed. Because of trauma, fear, and shame endured by my mother, her family, and millions of others, people didn’t talk much about the war and their experiences. That meant, a lot of their family history was also lost.

My mother’s oldest brother, Gerhard, had become interested in his family history when he was in his sixties. He traveled from Germany to the small village (in the former Sudetenland, now the Czech Republic) where he was born. There, he somehow got copies of a few Ahnenpass Identity Cards that his parents had to carry. He sent photocopies of them to me and to his older sister, my Aunt Trudy. My mother had passed away many years before.

When I got those copies years ago, I tried to read the Identity Cards but couldn’t because they were written in an old-style German script called Sutterlin. Also, they were photocopies of old documents and were not very clear.  I put them away in the front of my father’s family tree binder and let them rest for many years. My aunt and uncle had trouble reading them, too.

When I started work on my first Tangled Roots genealogy mystery, Breadcrumbs and Bombs, I knew right away that I wanted my main character to research his German roots. I needed to understand a bit about what he was thinking and how he might go about it, so I got those photocopies out and began studying Sutterlin. I still couldn’t make out most of the names. Not only was the German script difficult, the handwriting was sometimes very messy. It wasn’t until I had my own DNA tested and created a family tree online that things started to come together for me. I input the names that I knew for certain and then slowly began figuring out the other names, the places of birth, and birth dates, with the help of some websites and some books. Soon, I was able to input a few more names into my family tree.

With the names input, I began getting a few ‘hints’ on Ancestry. Later on, with birth places, birth dates, names, and even some of their house numbers, I was able to research online and view Baptism Records, Marriage Records, and Burial Records. Those are not easy to read, either, I have to say, but from those, my family tree grew considerably. By then, I was working on a spin-off Tangled Roots series and was completely hooked on genealogy.

My main character had a different experience than I did with genealogy research in that he had diaries and journals and photos that helped him. I wanted him to do it the old-fashioned way. He refused to use his DNA, in the first books. In my newest book, his tactics begin changing and lead him in a direction he hadn’t anticipated.

For me personally, my experience with exploring my family roots has been eye-opening and ever-evolving. On Ancestry, both sides of my family tree have probably quadrupled (or more). Of course, my father’s side started out much larger than my mother’s. Ancestry tells me I have more than 48,000 DNA matches on my father’s side, over 2,200 on my mother’s side, and over 3,200 unassigned. I know that Europeans don’t use Ancestry very much, so that probably accounts for a lot of the difference in numbers. I also wonder, though, if a lot of my ancestors didn’t survive the war and the expulsion from the Sudetenland. I may never find answers to those questions. However, along with researching my genealogy, I’ve read many history books, memoirs, and WWII related novels and now have a much better understanding of what life was like for my German ancestors. All my efforts have been worthwhile indeed. I’ve used some of what I learned about researching genealogy in my newest novel, Bohemia and Broken Hearts, due for release in a few weeks.