Transforming Family History into a Narrative: Bringing Your Story to Life
Genealogists understand the power of family history and life stories. Too often, though, they become simple collectors of information, facts, and documents. They never share the knowledge they've gained or the stories they've learned because they're not sure how to take all that information and turn it into a descriptive narrative.
In the end, taking all your research and turning it into a legacy for your family will be one of the most rewarding things you do as a family historian. That's why we've assembled these tips on how to make that leap from family historian to family history writer, and bring your family story to life.
Interviews. Talk to your living relatives-as many as are willing to sit down with you! Take a tape recorder as well as a notebook and pen, and ask for their stories. Ask questions about daily life, family traditions, hobbies and interests they had. Encourage them to share the details of their personal lives, and the lives of those around them. You're moving beyond the dates and locations to really understand who your relatives were, and are.
Research locations. Setting is one of the most important parts of creating a really compelling story. Research town and city news and events during the time your ancestors lived, and look for photographs and personal first-hand accounts. You want to paint a vivid picture of the place they lived in and the community they were a part of.
Take trips. One of the best ways to really understand where your relatives came from is to revisit those places, seeing them in person instead of just photographs. Take a tour of their neighborhood to get a feel for the people who live and lived there, and talk to neighbors about their town and its history.
Look at the larger picture. Your family history is intensely personal, but your ancestors were also deeply affected by the world events happening around them. Find out what was going on, from wars to natural disasters, political upheaval, epidemics, advances in technology and science, and more. Learning as much as possible about the world around them will give you real insight into their personal lives.
Learn about the culture. This is especially important if you're writing about ancestors who come from a place that is very different than your current home. Research the culture your family came from, including food, music, and family and holiday traditions.
Read fiction. Most historical fiction is careful to include real and authentic historical details, and can offer you a vivid sense of the atmosphere of the time you're writing about. Fiction can show you how to create a really interesting narrative, and also how to think of your ancestors as characters in a story, not just records you've uncovered.
Create a plot. A family history can be just a recitation of facts and figures, but to make your story deep and moving, consider finding what writers call a "narrative arc." What goals were your ancestors trying to achieve? What were their obstacles? How did they achieve their aims? A plot not only makes your story more interesting, but it also helps you focus your efforts. Some potential plots include immigration stories, rising to success, living through wars or conflicts, and family upheavals.
Choose a starting point. Begin at the beginning, right? Not necessarily. A story should grab the reader right out of the gate. Start with an interesting anecdote, a fascinating fact, a compelling conflict to make your story dynamic, interesting, and alive. You can use flashbacks or narrative description to fill in any important background information.
Get personal. You've got a database full of facts and figures, but what your family is interested in is the real stuff: stories, traditions, special moments. Don't be afraid to focus on the personal, emotional details, even if it means leaving out some of the data you've painstakingly researched. The most valuable and important history you can offer your family comes from your heart, not your head.