Some people think they can’t write an interesting family history. “My ancestors were boring,” they say. There’s nothing to tell.” Others find too much drama in the past, and find it painful or embarrassing to record. Still others haven’t taken interest in writing their family stories at all.
The truth is that all family histories are fascinating, and all of us can write them well. It just takes careful research, imagination, and a willingness to add your own voice. Use these five strategies to write a captivating narrative of anyone’s life story.
1. Find stories in the facts. Study names, dates, and places to see what stories they tell you. Was your great-grandmother’s youngest child born five months after his father died? Did your aunt move 600 miles away from home as a teenaged bride?
Study larger facts about your ancestor’s culture, history, religion, occupation, etc. What was life like for that Southern sharecropper or poor Russian immigrant? Get more tips on this kind of research from Bringing Your Family History to Life through Social History by Katherine Scott Sturdevant.
2. Gather living memories. If your family history project covers recent generations, interview your relatives. Ask what were the most important relationships and events in someone’s life and why. Ask for sensory details (What did he look like? How did it smell at the machine shop?). Ask for that person’s opinions or feelings about the way things happened.
The more respect you show for someone else’s memories and opinions, the more interesting stories you are likely to get. Listen closely and ask specific followup questions. Don’t judge or condemn perspectives different from yours. Be willing to depart from your interview questions to listen to what the speaker wants to say. Show compassion for difficult memories or tender feelings.
3. Lead with an interesting story. “Silas Hornsby was born 11 August 1804 inNewport, Rhode Island. . . .” Are you bored yet? I am. When you begin writing your family stories, don’t start with someone’s birth unless it’s a real whopper of a story.
Instead, pretend you have 30 seconds to interest a total stranger in the lives of your great-grandparents (or whomever you’re writing about). What would you tell them? What do you find unique, ironic, amazing, or inspiring about that generation or person? Was there a life event or turning point that you find poignant? Put that first, then go back and tell the rest of that person’s story.
4. Think creatively—while sticking to the facts. Let’s say your great-grandparents lost six of their eight children as infants. You have no proof of how they felt, but you can imagine it. Your imagination can make their story more vivid.
“I can only imagine how they felt each time they buried another tiny body,” you write. “Four died in the winter. It must have been like a repeating nightmare each time they hacked a small grave from the frozen, rocky soil.” The phrases “I can imagine” and “It must have been” show which parts of the story the writer is filling in with imagination.
5. Show yourself. You can put yourself in the story even if you’re writing about ancestors who lived hundreds of years ago. Your thoughts and emotions can substitute for theirs, which may be lost to time. I’ve given you one example already, in which the writer imagines what something must have felt like.
You can also write about the process of discovering your family stories. For example: “After years of searching for any details about her life, I suddenly had her diary sitting in front of me. Suddenly I was nervous about who she would turn out to be. My hand trembled as I turned the first page.”
If you don’t want to put yourself into the story, at least explain why you have written it. Ian Frazier, who lost his parents, does this in his book Family: “I wanted my parents’ lives to have meant something. . . . I didn’t care if the meanings were far-flung or vague or even trivial. I wanted to pursue them. I hoped maybe I could find a meaning that would defeat death.”
“Meanings that defeat death?” There’s nothing boring about that! Isn’t that what family history is all about? So don’t be shy about searching out and writing your family history. You’ll find plenty of meaning in it, and so will those who read it.
Sunny McClellan Morton is a Latter-day Saint heritage writer and author of My Life & Times: A Guided Journal for Collecting Your Stories. Learn more about her at sunnymorton.com.