October 2020: The DNA Of It All

Janet Dawson:

Five years ago, I attended a reunion of folks on my mother’s side of the family. I saw people I hadn’t seen in years, as well as some I’d never met before. That’s what happens when people start procreating. The family pool spreads outward, in ever-expanding ripples.

The cousins who were into researching genealogy assembled a huge family tree on sheets of paper spread out on tables. We peered at old photos that had been scanned into computers and transferred to flash drives. One cousin had put together a large PowerPoint presentation full of sepia-toned pictures of relatives, some of whom had been born before the Civil War.

I also contributed photos: A picture of my mother at the age of three or four. Another of Mom and Dad on their wedding day in 1944. A photo of Mom taken on VE Day.

One image shows four generations of my family, gathered in front of Grandma’s house in Purcell, Oklahoma. Looking at the picture, I recognize aunts, uncles, and cousins. On the right side of the photo, my father holds a baby wearing a dress. That’s me. And that gives me a good idea of when this photo was taken.

In the middle of the group is my great-grandfather. He was born in 1858, in eastern Kentucky. He died in 1954, at the age of 96. My grandmother was his oldest, one of eleven children. My mother was the youngest of Grandma’s six kids.

After the reunion, I did one of those AncestryDNA home testing kits. Saliva in a tube, then I mailed it to the company and waited. A few weeks later, I got a report outlining my ethnicity results, which get updated from time to time. I understand this is because Ancestry is constantly adding information to their database.

Janet Dawson family photo

My ethnicity results contained few surprises. With family names like Dawson, Metcalf, McSwain, Cannady, and Thomas, it’s obvious my roots go back to the British Isles. The first time I visited Britain, I felt as though I’d come home, and no wonder. I made it a point to visit Skye in the Inner Hebrides, because of family stories that my ancestors came from that island. You see, my latest ethnicity update estimates that nearly half of my DNA comes from Scotland. Cue the kilts and bagpipes for a chorus of “Scotland the Brave.” Maybe that’s why I like Outlander so much, both the books and the show. I draw the line at haggis, though.

As for the rest, England and Northwestern Europe account for a third. Ancestry says Northwestern Europe includes Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and bits of Northeastern France and Northwestern Germany. All those Normans, I’m thinking. Added to the DNA mix: a tablespoon or so from Ireland and another teaspoon from Wales. British Isles, indeed. Just for a bit more flavor, there’s a dash from Norway and a pinch from Sweden. Vikings? And an intriguing soupçon called “Indigenous Americas—North.” This may relate to the ethnicity report that says I’m part of a community designated Eastern Kentucky and Northeast Tennessee, as well as a subset of that called Southeastern Kentucky Settlers. This part of the United States was settled by waves of English, Scots-Irish, and German immigrants.

Family history can make for interesting characters. When I look at the DNA of my fictional characters, I find family histories not far from my own. My private eye Jeri Howard has a mother named Marie Doyle, whose Monterey, California family has both Irish and Italian roots. And her father? The surname Howard is English. As for Zephyrette Jill McLeod, her father is a McLeod and her mother a Cleary. Then there’s the historical novel I’m working on, set in New Mexico. The protagonist is Catriona MacNeill, American born, of Scots heritage. Her father Fergus was born in the Highlands. He’s an immigrant who fought on the Union side in the Civil War, then went west, to the frontier army.

I really do like bagpipes. And yes, this is the McSwain tartan.


What have I been reading? Besides research reading for the historical novel, I’ve been reading mysteries, of course. I recommend Death at High Tide, by Hannah Dennison, the first in the Island Sisters mystery series. It’s set in the Isles of Scilly, about 25 miles off the southwestern tip of Cornwall, and features two sisters and a series of murders in an old hotel, cut off by high tide several times a day. And All the Devils are Here by Louise Penny is a stunning addition to the Armand Gamache series.

During this coronavirus stay-at-home period, I’ve participated in lots of online events via Zoom and Crowdcast, attending meetings and webinars put together by local chapters of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. They’ve been very informative. Coming up, several events to promote the latest Jill McLeod book, Death Above the Line. Look for details on the events page of my website.

First up, a book club sponsored by Pam Dehnke of Nightingale’s B&B in Ashland, Oregon. on Wednesday, October 14, at 1:30 PM, PST. Later in October, the Northern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America will sponsor Mystery Week. This year it will be virtual. I’ll be participating in a panel about historical mysteries on Sunday, October 25, at 7 PM. Coming November 7 at noon, the Sisters in Crime NorCal Fall/Winter Showcase. I’ll be with several other authors, reading from the latest book.

As is usually the case, my handsome tiger cat Bodie is sure to put in an appearance.

D.Z. Church:

My dad taught me to say Scots-Irish, Swiss, Swede, German, and French when people asked for my nationality. And after some baffling early Ancestry.com results claiming I was an Iberian-Swede, it turns out Dad was right. Though, I suspect my double-helix is shaped like a hoe or possibly a hog.

I come from a long line of farmers, so long it is encoded in the family name—translated as “peasant who rents.”

So, we not only farmed, we share-cropped in Alsace-Lorraine. Which means that branch of the family is French or German depending on the year and the war.

My father’s family arrived in Illinois via the two common routes. The French-German half came by covered wagon from Pennsylvania. Think How the West was Won. And the Scots half trekked the Cumberland Gap through Kentucky, Tennessee, and eventually Missouri, farming along the way. My mother’s family (the Swiss and the Swedes) all came by boat through Ellis Island much later in the parade.


My paternal grandfather was a deft farmer, and not unlike the father in Friendly Persuasion, given to fits of pridefulness. He painted his barn white and farmed with Percheron horses as signs of his prosperity. Now, the century-old farmhouse is gone, burned to the ground as a fire department training exercise.

The images of the farmhouse in flames sent via Facebook by a member of the black sheep side of the family were and remain hurtful. Who gleefully sends that sort of image? Why? What a beginning for a character sketch.

Sometimes it’s the DNA of the characters…

My first book, Perfidia, takes place in Barbados, shortly after its independence from England. The population of the island consists of the descendants of blacks brought over during the slave trade, and lily-white British landed gentry. Read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for a frame of reference. Since then, the gene pool has been generously stirred. Yet, in 1972, when the story takes place, it was still better to be a landed white Barbadian than a black Barbadian with a folding house. In the book, one of the few remaining Barbadian plantations is at stake. Three men vie to inherit, one is a little bit Latin, another lily-white, and the third is mixed race. So, as historical fiction, it is essential that the plot address the subtle prejudices of the time.

Our heroine stumbles into the mix unawares, learning that the fate of Perfidia was encoded in the family book centuries before. The heir must be legitimate, a direct descendant of the plantation’s founder, and must resemble him, as well. In Perfidia‘s case, DNA matters!

Sometimes it’s the DNA of the place…

The Coopers of the Cooper Quartet live and farm in Southwestern Michigan. The area was settled by the Dutch, so their neighbors are Dutch, as are many of their relatives. The families of my Dutch schoolmates met at church, at the grange, and remained a close-knit clique. Things may have changed now, but the books take place in the late ’60s and early ’70s, shortly after my family moved to Colorado. The depiction of the fabric of the Dutch community is accurate to that time.

Black and white photo of house

On the other hand, a high-school friend posted on my class’ Facebook page that the surnames in the Cooper books read like our yearbook. Yes, and your point! It did leave me wondering about attending our next class reunion. But, then again, even Salinas, California, forgave John Steinbeck for East of Eden. Not that I am Steinbeck, mind you. Also, there is not one single bad guy of Dutch descent in any of the books, well, maybe one semi-bad, confused guy who might or might not have been led astray.

Another example of place defining character is in the book I’m finalizing, Booth Island. Booth Island is located in a lake in southwestern Ontario, Canada. Families of French, English and Scots descent have farmed this region of Canada since before the War of 1812. However, post-World War I, Pennsylvanians surged in and bought up most of the available lakefront property and islands. It mattered, a lot to the rural families, especially to those that didn’t benefit. And there you have a major plot point. One that motivates and drives the characters’ interactions, while burbling well below the surface of the waters.

But interesting characters are always true to their DNA, themselves, their past, and their times.

Take, for instance, Hero Jarvis, wife of Sebastian St. Cyr, in C. S. Harris‘ Regency-era series. Watch her grow! Or Billy Boyle as he wends his way through World War II in James R. Benn‘s series of that name. Or Rosie Ewing of Alexander Fullerton’s Rosie Ewing Quartet and the prequel. [On a side note, I’m facing a similar problem; what do you do when your Quartet wants to be a quintet?] Or Travis McGee as he loses his chauvinism over the arc of all of John D. MacDonald’s books. Or—yes, Jess Birdwell in Jessamyn West’s The Friendly Persuasion. So many…so very many.

Who’s your favorite character? Now, ask yourself why. I’d love to hear, drop me a note on my web page or or on my Facebook page.

I blog the fourth Thursday of each month on Ladies of Mystery. To read September’s entry Comfort in Trying Times, in which I wax poetic about the books I read to escape fire, plague, and unrest. And like Janet, I am a member of Sisters in Crime and the Coastal Cruisers chapter. Zooming is a wonderful thing.