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A Lesson in Writing a Narrative Family History

If you are ready to start writing your family history book but not sure how to turn your research into an interesting life story then I have some tips to get you started. How do you write a descriptive, creative, narrative story about your relatives when all you have is a list of dry facts and documents to draw on? How do you turn your facts into a story about an individual you never met?

Believe or not before you begin writing your family history, I am going to suggest more research. However, this time, you may want to consider a few different sources. Up until now, you have sought out very specific documents that you can attach to your ancestors. Unfortunately, there will not always be a collection of documents to help identify your relative. Even with these documents in hand, you may need more if you want to write a narrative of your ancestor’s life. Below is a list of my favourite research sources for bringing to life the lives of an ancestor.

•Interview the living -the first time you interviewed them you may have been seeking mostly facts, dates, and names. Re-address your living relatives with a different approach, this time, seeking out stories around daily events, traditions, hobbies and specific interests. Get to the root of who they were not just when they lived.

•Turn to your digital library to find social histories and experiences of other people in the same given time and place.

•Look to town and city histories during the period of your ancestors to help paint a picture of the community in which they lived.

•Revisit the neighbourhood of your ancestors to appreciate the kind of community they came from, who their neighbours were, and the struggles and strengths of their community.

•Look to timelines of wars, natural disasters and epidemics to understand the world and local events your ancestors lived through.

•Read about cultural customs including foods, music, social events and traditions of their homeland.

•Fiction novels although to you may seem unconventional, can sometimes offer up a very detailed window into the lives of our ancestors. Many historical fictional novels were written with great care to insure historical accuracies. Writers invest a lot of time in painting a picture of the people of the time. These novels can be very useful in giving you a feel for the lives and perils of your ancestors through some major historical times and events.

Culling as much information as possible from all of these sources and weaving them with the historical facts of your relatives, will put you on your way to a creative narrative history that your family will want to read. Perhaps painting a picture of your ancestor where one may have never existed before.

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Comment by Lynn Palermo on December 16, 2009 at 10:40pm
Thanks for your comments Catherine. You are absolutely right. Novels do not replace accurate historical information of specific times and places. Fictional novels offer you a unique opportunity to place yourselves in the mindset of character during a time in history that may be similar to your ancestors. It is simply a creative tool mean't to give you a "feel" for a time and place through a creative genre.
Comment by Catherine Davis on December 16, 2009 at 9:45pm
I thoroughly agree with all your suggestions and thank you for reminding us of them. I would only add a cautionary word about using novels, and that is to use them as leads, not "gospel," double check the facts and not get carried away with the story. As you point out, most novelists do tons of research, but they also take poetic license, and many, but not all, tell you that in their fore- or afterwards. Authors sometimes move battles or castles or events to different times or places because it better matches their story. But,the real location or time may be the answer to your family "story" so use novels as your stepping off point to dig into real history.


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