When the 900-page family saga, Roots, was published in 1976 by Alex Haley, a nationwide fascination with discovering one’s ancestors ignited. Today, with more than 108 million visits to genealogy sites annually, discovering who your people are is big business. But as mystery author and fifth-generation Texan S.C. Perkins has shown us, it can also be murder. In Lineage Most Lethal, Perkins’ new novel, her intrepid Texas genealogist Lucy Lancaster finds herself with murders to solve–in both the past and present. Perkins’ first novel in her Ancestry Detective Series, Murder Once Removed, was named Best First Traditional Mystery at Malice Domestic and nominated for an Agatha award. It’s the stuff of every debut author’s dreams.
Currents: We share a similar experience and debt to our high school English teachers. With so much additional responsibility placed on our teachers right now, tell me about the impact your teacher had on you.
Perkins: Teachers are incredibly important, and vastly underpaid for what they do in shaping young minds. My high school English teacher, Mrs. Fowler, was wonderfully encouraging. She was funny, optimistic, engaging, and great at inspiring us to think about what we read and what it meant to us as well as other readers. However, it was her response to an essay I wrote about Ernest Hemingway that really made me sit up and realize I had a talent in my writing–and she accomplished this with one word: “Wow!” I’ve never forgotten it, and I’ll always be grateful for that little push from a good teacher that made me notice and begin to cherish my gift.
Currents: War is often an element of genealogy research. In Lineage Most Lethal, your story is rooted in World War II–and, if that wasn’t exciting enough, espionage. Tell us about this.
Perkins: I’ve been fascinated with World War II and its history since I was a child, and one of the things that intrigued me the most was the spying and codebreaking that happened during the war. So, when I knew I wanted to introduce one of Lucy’s grandparents, I wanted very much for her to have a grandfather who was a WWII veteran.
Also, when I was writing a small scene in the first book in the series, Murder Once Removed, I was describing Lucy’s desk that used to belong to her grandfather. Without thinking, I wrote how a large crosshatch had been carved into the top of the desk, and right then I knew that Grandpa had been more than just a soldier in WWII. He had used that crosshatch to decode ciphers because he had secretly been a spy! So, when it came down to the plot for book two, I knew I wanted part of it to be about Lucy’s Grandpa, World War II, and espionage—and, boy, did I have fun doing so!
Currents: Your character of Grandpa is the sort that everyone knows–or wishes they did. How did you create this character and why was telling his story important for you?
Perkins: I was lucky enough to grow up with two wonderful grandmothers, but both of my grandfathers unfortunately passed away when I was a very young child. I never got to know them, but I’ve heard many fun stories about both, that’s for sure. I think I got my love of history and learning from my paternal grandfather, and my cheeky personality and my love of the outdoors from my maternal grandfather. So, when I began writing Grandpa, I decided I would give him the best traits of both my grandfathers, as well as a few traits from a couple of great-uncles and other grandfather-like figures in my life.
Initially, I wanted to introduce Grandpa a little later in the series, but then I realized Grandpa would already be in his early 90s at the youngest, so I needed him to come on stage as soon as possible. Honestly, it was the best decision, because Grandpa is the most fun to write. I adore him, and I’m hearing that readers do as well, and I couldn’t be happier about it!
Currents: So much of what’s on the Internet isn’t reliable and genealogy errors are common. What are some sites that were helpful to you in your research for Lineage Most Lethal and how? Have you had trouble tacking down a particular bit of information? How did you prevail?
Perkins: You do have to be very careful when you’re researching genealogy. Whenever you can, you should back up the facts you find by researching them somewhere else and trying to come to the same conclusion. Sometimes, this isn’t possible, so just remember that the farther back you go in your family tree, the more you need to take those branches with a grain of salt. Three of the best places I’ve found for research are:
1. Daughters of the American Revolution. You don’t have to be a member to use their resources — https://www.dar.org/national-society/genealogy
2. FamilySearch.org. It’s free to create an account, and it’s the largest genealogy organization in the world — https://www.familysearch.org/en/
3. The National Archives. They give a lot of great information for beginners — https://www.archives.gov/research/genealogy
As for tracking down genealogical information, I’ve been lucky enough to become friends with a couple of genealogists, so when I need a little extra help in making sure my information is correct, I’ve been able to go to them for help. And while I’m still very much a genealogy novice myself, I’ve learned a bit more with each book I write. Genealogy is truly fascinating and fun to explore!
Currents: People delve into genealogy believing they’re going to discover exciting stories about their ancestors. However, they often discover some branches should have been pruned. What are some cool things you’ve discovered while researching that you could use for your characters?
Perkins: I’ve discovered so many interesting facts about genealogy, and pretty much every last thing I’ve learned would be fun to put into a plot! While I confess, I’ve mentioned these below before in other interviews, they’re still some of my favorite factoids that are also serve as great tips for beginner amateur genealogists.
Full siblings can vary in the amounts of DNA they carry of each ethnicity. If you and your full sister are, let’s say, Irish and English, you could be 70% English and 30% Irish, while your full sister could be 40% English and 60% Irish. This is due to the random way genes dish out genetic inheritance.
If your surname was changed when your family came through Ellis Island from another country, it wasn’t someone at Ellis Island who made that decision. Instead, it was likely your ancestor, who may have changed your family name for any number of reasons. They may have simply wanted to change it, or they may not have known how to properly spell it in the first place. There is also the chance that it was spelled properly, but the person writing it down had handwriting so bad that it looked to be spelled differently.
The census can tell you so much good information about your ancestors, but ship-passenger lists can also help you out. Information you can find from these passenger lists includes occupation, health, hair color, height, and the amount of money they brought into the U.S. with them. The lists can sometimes also can give you the name of your ancestor’s nearest next of kin at the time in their home country, as well as the town from which they came.
Military pension records hold a good deal of information. For instance, if you believe one of your relatives might have been a minister, you might be able to find proof of it in military pension records. Your ancestor may have been the padre who married a soldier and his wife! Speaking of a soldier’s wife, if she is your ancestor and you haven’t been able to find her first name, she might very well be listed within your soldier ancestor’s military pension files as his wife and/or next of kin.
Other good sources of information are newspaper gossip columns, land deeds, probate records, and court records. In fact, disputes between neighbors and families alike were often resolved by suing each other–even for minor things–so court records have the potential to contain great insights into your ancestors.
Currents: Now to the truly important stuff: tacos. Crispy or soft? Beef, chicken, or fish? Cheddar or queso fresco? On the side: Guacamole or queso? Rice or beans?
Perkins: Okay, my answer to this is a resounding all of the above! I honestly love everything you’ve mentioned, and it usually depends on my mood. However, if you forced me to choose, here’s what I would say:
Soft tacos over crispy.
Beef tacos al carbon are my favorite.
Queso fresco over cheddar.
Guacamole and queso! (How do you even decide between the two?)
Beans over rice, every time.
Currents: What are you working on now for Lucy Lancaster fans?
Perkins: I’ve just finished the first draft of my third Ancestry Detective mystery, and it’s titled Fatal Family Ties. In this next adventure, Lucy will delve into a mystery surrounding a painting, arsenic, and Civil War records. I had a lot of fun researching and writing this one, for sure!
To learn more about the charming author and her entertaining novels, visit her website at www.scperkins.com, or find her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms at @SCPerkinsWriter.