Baker Bookplate: Have you seen this anywhere?

In my quest to find the anonymous author of the 1831 travel diary, the first clue to pop up was almost too indistinct to be of much use. Heraldic bookplates emblazoned with “BAKER” were pasted inside the cover of each volume. Take a look:

Baker bookplate from diary

Baker bookplate from diary

This narrowed my search to a few thousand individuals, assuming “Baker” on the crest indicated his family name, not the name of the bookshop where the diarist purchased the blank diaries. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a single Baker in my family’s history. Genealogical research usually starts with a current name and traces it back through time. To identify my diarist, I had to reverse the process. I hunted for a 19th century name using sketchy clues buried in hundreds of pages of handwritten text. Which clues would lead further along the right path and which would dump me at the end of a blind alley?

Good news: after extensive searching, I found the diarist. When I tried to trace his descendants to the present day, however, I encountered sad news: two of his children died in childhood. There’s a reasonable chance he had other children who lived to produce further generations, but with a name as common as Baker, I’ve not found enough evidence to prove it.

If you have anyone named Baker in your genealogy, check old books which have been passed down through your family for a bookplate like the one above. If you find one, you could be holding a missing piece of the puzzle. Please respond—you’ll make my day year.


What did your American ancestors look like?

Have you ever wondered if you inherited your unusual height or your hazel eyes from a certain American ancestor? If that ancestor was an American who traveled abroad, you may find the answer in our National Archives.

Because the diarist in my book had traveled in 1831, when Louis Daguerre was still experimenting with what would become known as “daguerreotypes,” I thought I’d never learn what the writer looked like, but I was wrong. Once I’d discovered his name, the doors to storehouses full of original documents flew open.1831 Passport Application

At the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D. C.,, I readily found not one, but two passport applications for my diarist. The first one, dated 1831, was a handwritten letter from a local official to the Secretary of State, “The Hon. Martin Van Buren.” The wealth of information included the traveler’s birthplace, age, reason for travel, plus the physical characteristics of height, eye and hair color, complexion, and the size and shape of his forehead, nose, mouth, chin, and face. (This application gave me a “two-fer”—it also described the diarist’s traveling companion, Charles Dutilh.) Combine these details with a second application from 1835, dress the man in the fine clothing he bought in Paris, and a police sketch artist could give me a good likeness, in color no less.

Though most foreign travel in that age involved immigration from Europe to America, a surprising number of Americans wanted passports to sail to Europe, whether for pleasure, business, or to visit with relatives in “the old country.” Applications archived at NARA date back to 1795, although the indexes that enable easy searching start in 1810 and contain some gaps in the early 19th century years. Even if you’re not sure that your American ancestors traveled abroad, it’s worth a look to see what pops up. Maybe your great-great-great-grandfather had hazel eyes, too.


Travel in Great Britain without Advance Reservations

Travel without reservations? Isn’t that chancy? Perhaps, but you can cut the risk by using Britain’s network of tourist information centres.

On my book research trip following in the 1831 diarist’s footsteps, my son and I spent six weeks traveling throughout England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. No town seemed too small to sport an info centre marked with a big italic “i’ on a simple sign. The knowledgeable staff in each centre helped us select appropriate accommodations (often at a small guest house), phoned for the reservation, and provided directions to it.

London was the only British city for which we secured our rooms prior to the trip. In a tourist mecca like London, the best places are booked up well in advance. We planned to spend too much time there to leave it to chance.

Bonuses of traveling “on the fly”:

  • When not hemmed in by prior reservations for specific days, flex days can be built into the itinerary. These come in handy when time runs short and the list of enticing sights is long. No need to say longingly, “I wish we could spend one more day here.” Now you can! (Even though we’d included five flex days, I regretted not doubling that number.)
  • The locals staffing the info centres know of great lodgings most folks would never find on their own. (A favorite was Fairfield Garden Guesthouse in Bowness on England’s Lake Windermere.)

Fairfield in Bowness (563x640)


  • Most info centres close around 5 p.m. After lingering at must-sees en route, it’s easy to arrive in a town too late in the day. (For our fallback plan, we used guide books or listings picked up at previous centres.)
  • The Brits are fanatics about attending their football matches (soccer to us Yanks). Unaware of the impending Finals, we spent the last of our three nights allotted to Glasgow in the nearest available accommodation—25 miles away in Greenock.

One caveat:

  • This treasure of a resource has recently suffered from budget cuts; some info centres have closed or scaled back services or hours. It would be wise to verify their status before traveling. Though not all centres are shown on any one website, is a good place to start.

As long as you’re tolerant of a few risks, the rewards of traveling without advance reservations can turn a vanilla trip into a flavorful adventure.


Editing Tips: Cut, Polish, and Repeat

After writing 480 pages and fixing things my critique group pointed out along the way, I figured Twice upon a Trip was nearly done. Seven years of research and writing lay behind me and the finish line was in sight. I let the book marinate on the shelf for a few weeks, then took a quick look and cut ten pages I loved, but knew didn’t fit with the story line. Time to start querying agents!

Elizabeth Evans of Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency was one of the first agents I contacted. Great news—she responded immediately and loved the concept. Not so great—she informed me, “The high word count suggests to me that there’s still a lot of editing that needs to happen before the project would be saleable. The target range is 65,000-100,000 words.” To meet the upper limit, I’d have to cut 53,000 words—over a third of my laborious work. My tome needed tough love.

Encouraged by Elizabeth’s half-positive reply and thankful for her advice, I started Edit #1—going after the plumpest, low-hanging paragraphs. Here are a few tips I gleaned:

  1. Create a separate computer file to hold the cuts. (I named mine “Axed Chunks” in a flash of optimism to embolden my efforts.)
  2. Look for digressions that don’t quite fit the focus of the book.
  3. Cut and paste them into “Axed Chunks.” (It gave me solace knowing that, although gone from my book, those masterfully phrased passages still lived somewhere.)
  4. Rinse and repeat.

After two edits (each cutting about 12,000 words), I still had a long way to go. Edit #3 proceeded word by word, like this:

  1. Look for thoughts expressed two ways; cut the weaker one.
  2. Trim out all but the most relevant, tightly worded details.
  3. Cut as many adjectives and adverbs as possible, substituting stronger nouns and verbs.
  4. Make a list of any words or phrases that appear often. Set it aside and move on.
  5. Go back to step 1 and do it again.

Edits #3 and #4 clipped another 10,700 words. Edit #5:

  1. Scan the whole document for the first entry on the “Used Often” list. Each time it’s found, decide if it’s really needed, or if a synonym might be better. Cut or reword at least half of the occurrences.
  2. Repeat for every entry on the list. (FYI, mine included: a little, a bit, right, really, small, immediately, encounter, straight, quite, about, a few, info, certainly, finally, most, all the, beautiful, still, actually…)

My five edits lowered the count to 117,000 words. Though not in the bull’s eye, at least my arrow glanced off the rim of the target instead of flying way over it. If other writers have more editing tips to improve my aim, please share them. 36,000 words down, only 17,000 to go…


Anyone named Baker in your genealogy?

Rummage through your drawer of family memorabilia, quiz your elders, or log on to your genealogical software—we have a mystery to solve.

In the 1960’s my aunt entrusted a crumbling travel diary to my care, based on my promise to transcribe the faded pages. Only after a thirty-year career typing computer code instead of diary entries did I find the time to seriously tackle the project. But from day one, the mystery of the diarist’s identity exasperated me like an itch I couldn’t scratch. No one knew who wrote the diary or how it ended up amongst my great-grandfather’s papers in the family attic. Over the last seven years I’ve followed every thread of a clue left behind in that fine script. Through the magic of the internet—Ta Da!—I discovered his name, who he married after his trip, even where he’s buried. The only disappointment in my quest was learning that he had no connection whatsoever to my family’s heritage. He’s definitely not my triple-great-grandfather. So, you ask, where’s the unsolved mystery?

Here is where you come in. I’m hoping that the same internet which produced his identity with enable me to crowdsource the elusive answers to two questions:

  • Did the diarist have any children who lived to adulthood?
  • Does the diarist have any living descendants, like you, for instance?

Without divulging any spoilers from my book, here are five facts to look for in your family’s records:

  •   The diarist’s surname was Baker, unfortunately quite a common name.
  •   He was a young American in 1831, implying a birth year in the early 1800’s.
  •   He was unmarried as of 1831.
  •   He was a man of means, enough to fund an extensive European Grand Tour.
  •   His hometown was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

If you have an ancestor who meets these criteria, please respond either with a comment or via my Contact page. If not, spread the word to those who you think may have a connection. I’ve not yet finished the Acknowledgements page in my book. Give me a good reason to add your name to it!

If you’re curious to see if my plan succeeds, revisit this blog for updates.