Newspapers have long used sidebars, short stories presenting sidelights to the main news story. Textbook publishers do the same thing. A science text offers a short biographical sketch of the scientist who developed a particular theory to accompany the chapter explaining his ideas. Sidebars are a tool that memoirists and family historians might use as well.
Here are some examples of ways you can use sidebars to include interesting stories or bits of information to provide interesting sidelights to your book without interrupting its narrative flow:
- Biographical sketches: When a family history goes back more than a generation or two, it sometimes becomes difficult to find much information about ancestors other than what is contained in vital records. However, occasionally you uncover much more about one ancestor when you discover a journal or letter collection or because the person was of some historical significance and more records of his or her life exist. Write a brief biographical sketch of the person and place it in a sidebar (accompanied by a picture if you have one).
- Details of time and place: Details of settings like the city or town you or your ancestors lived in as it was at the time you are writing about, the family farm, home or place of business can be described in a sidebar.
- Details of specific historical events to provide context for events you mention in the books main narrative: The further back in history the events your book describes, the more likely your reader will not be familiar with them. A brief sidebar to highlight a significant moment will help them appreciate the world in which the events occurred. Let’s look at two examples from my own family. My parents dated at the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair held on Treasure Island in the center of San Francisco Bay.. A brief sketch of the Golden Gate International Exposition will help the reader get a sense of their world. On my mother’s side of the family ancestors participated in the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush along with 50,000 others who rushed into the former Indian Territory to claim a 160 acre homestead. A sidebar describing the broad picture of the rush adds color to the family’s experience.
- Colorful anecdotes: In everyone’s family history there are stories that have become part of family lore, but cannot be documented as fact. In my own family we have a wonderful story of how my grandfather went to Alaska in the Gold Rush of 1898, failed to find gold, but managed to support himself as a boxer, becoming, as my dad proudly recalled, heavyweight champion of Alaska. This undocumented story, which is far too colorful to leave out, gets a sidebar in the family history, separating it from that which we can document.
- Authorial content: As you research and write a family history you, as the author, have experiences or reflections on what you discover. Sometimes you run into brick walls and can’t discover a piece of information about an ancestor. At other times, you reflect upon what an ancestor’s experience might have been like or upon a theme that emerges from the lives of several ancestors. Maybe you want to speculate upon the thoughts and feelings of a person whose life you are recounting. All of these things might be separated from the main text in a sidebar.