Memoir and Family History: Part 3—Family History

A family history tells the story of people in your family. Most people who write family histories start out doing genealogical research. After they gather all that information, they want to share it with other family members. I’m not going to talk about genealogical and historical research in this series—the subject is far too broad, and chances are if you are interested in writing your family’s story, you have already done the research.

The first step is simply assembling the information in some way. A relative has created huge notebooks with all her research on various family lines. She includes the family tree, copies of historical documents, and photos. While the notebooks are interesting, they aren’t very exciting. They don’t tell anything about the daily lives of her ancestors. They don’t entice the reader to get comfortable and read the story, ignoring everything around her.

So many genealogists decide to move to the next step: to put all this research into a book. You will find advice on turning genealogical research into a family history in Writing Family History Made Very Easy: A Beginner’s Guide.

The challenge is to write something that people will want to read, which means including more than just names and dates and events. Readers of family histories want to know what the people in the story did, what they believed, how they lived.

For current generations, you can interview living people. Ask them why they moved across the country or dropped out of college or opened a business. Find out how they lived, what they did for fun, what motivated them. Start with your oldest living relative, even if their memory is failing. Often senior citizens who can’t remember what day of the week it is can clearly recall their childhood and early adulthood.

Ask questions that don’t require a specific answer but that guide the older person in a general direction. Asking “tell me about school” might get a better response than “what was a typical day like when you are in elementary school?” You may not get an account of everything that happened in a typical day, but you will hear about the things that are strongest in the person’s memory. Those strong memories will make your story more interesting and more authentic.

Recognize that each person’s memories are their own and may be different from other people’s memories of the same experience. Expect to hear different perspectives, and use those different perspectives to add texture to your story.

If you are writing about ancestors from earlier generations, you will have to depend on historical research. However, you may not learn enough details about your family to make the story interesting.

After years of genealogical research, my client David Bowles starting writing his family history as nonfiction. He wanted to share what he’d learned with his children and grandchildren. However, his family found the story boring. To fill in the gaps and make the stories exciting, he began writing The Westward Sagas as fiction. Although he has invented scenes and dialogue, nothing in the stories is in conflict with known history. He writes about real people in real historical situations. All the known facts, events, and dates are accurate. He may have imagined that his ancestor planted corn at a particular time and place, but he knows from extensive research that his ancestor owned a farm in that location at that time, that corn was a crop common to the area, and that the time he indicated was the right time to plant.

Some writers prefer fiction because they want to make up more elements of the story. In that case, you need to make clear to readers if the book is not historically and genealogically accurate. Descendants are reading about their family deserve to know if they are reading total fact, fact-based fiction, or pure fiction.

For more about writing family history, check out the following resources.

Next week, we’ll talk about getting started with your family history or memoir.

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