Nancy and I attended the Family History Expo at St. George, Utah over the weekend. We had a great time as we always do at an Expo.
One of the classes we presented is titled A Good Read: Make Family History Books Exciting. Its focus is on how to use family stories to make your book dramatic. We discuss ways family historians can employ techniques of fiction writers in their accounts of their ancestors’ lives. One of the techniques we discuss is using imagined dialogue. We suggest that you can bring your relatives to life by imagining conversations they might have had at key points in their lives.
How do you do that and remain faithful to a factual portrayal of history? Let’s take a look at some of the things that might guide you. First, people live in a particular time and place. This means that they may face some distinctive challenges or opportunities. Begin by trying to understand as well as you can what your ancestors unique location both geographic and temporal would have meant for them. The situation in which they found themselves will have a lot to do with what they might talk about and what they might say.
Next recognize that circumstances lead to emotions. Speculate on what a person living in that time and place might have been feeling. Their speech will reflect the emotional tone of their situation.
People say things because they are motivated to do so. As a historian, you have the benefit of hindsight. You can look back and see what your ancestor did in response to being in a particular situation. Whatever they did, it’s likely that they talked about what they might do, exploring the things that might ultimately have motivated them to take the course of action they chose.
Finally, you may know something about the way you ancestor spoke. For example, maybe you have heard relatives say that great granddad had a favorite expression or two. If you don’t have that kind of direct knowledge, maybe you have letters written by the relative in question or even a journal or diary. These will give you some ideas about their favorite turns of phrase and how they might have liked to construct sentences.
With a little thought and imagination you can combine these things, all of which have a basis in fact, and construct a speculative conversation in which what your ancestor might have said is fairly represented.
In our next post, we’ll offer a writing challenge in which you can try out some of the things we discussed today.