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    Thursday
    Apr052012

    Turning Research Into Stories

    Houston, we don’t have any problem at all. We’re here for the Family History Expo this weekend. Family History Expos are always great events with lots of enthusiastic people looking to improve their skills at researching their family histories.

     

    They will attend wonderful classes on how to find the facts about their ancestors: how to explore the vital records to find the details of births, deaths, marriages, children, military service, homes owned, etc. No doubt many of them will be filled with enthusiasm and excitement triggered by release of the 1940 Census which is sweeping the genealogy community.

    Courtesy of NYPL Under Creative Commons

    A lot of those at the Expo will come to us to talk about creating a family history book. Our role is different from the folks who have been talking about how to be a better researcher. We suggest that people step back from the mass of facts they’ve collected to look for the people behind those facts. What’s their story, both as individuals and as a family extending over multiple generations.

    Think about what makes a good story. First, a story is about characters. What are their goals? What obstacles must they overcome to achieve them? What motivates them? What are their emotions and feelings as they struggle to overcome the obstacles in their lives? The second element of a story is the world in which those characters lived. Recreating a time and place gone by is a part of telling the family story.

    Some of the elements of your family’s story, most notably the settings in which events took place, may be researched. But some of the most important can’t. If you are fortunate, you’ll find a diary, a journal or letters that help you to know what your ancestors were thinking or feeling. Many of us aren’t that lucky.

    Without records we can only speculate. For people steeped in admonitions that their research produce evidence there is often a hesitation to speculate. They feel as if it’s against the rules. It’s not.

    Let’s take my paternal grandfather, Merritt Barnes, as an example. I never met him. He was long dead when I was born.  He left no letters and journals behind. So most of what I know of him is based on stories my grandmother and father told about him. I know that grandfather, who was an itinerant printer travelling the West after he left upstate New York in the 1890s, went to Alaska in 1898. Why? No problem there. He joined the rush to the Klondike to find gold. He didn’t. What money he made before he returned to the lower 48 came in a boxing ring where he apparently was moderately successful.

    When he headed east eventually reaching Rapid City South, Dakota, drifted east to Pierre where he met my grandmother. His one great adventure over, grandfather decided to settle down. He married grandmother. I am speculating here, but it seems a reasonable assumption doesn’t it?

    The newlyweds tried to make a go of it on a Dakota homestead, but, like homesteaders all over the high plains in the at the turn of the century, found that they couldn’t. They took off for California. I can’t talk to my dad or grandmother about this decision, but it’s easy to speculate that the lure of the Golden State was hadn’t lost its gleam. They bought a hog ranch in Roseville. Grandfather saw himself as a gentleman farmer.

    So what sort of man was grandfather? It seems safe to speculate here that he was, like so many who came west in those days, looking to strike it rich. It hadn’t happened in Alaska, but maybe it would happen in Roseville.

    There’s a whole lot I don’t know about my grandfather, but speculating about what might have motivated him, what he might have thought or felt helps me to understand who he was better. Those speculations, informed by facts that I do have access to help me to reconstruct his story.

    It is thinking about stories like my grandfather’s that lie at the heart of creating an engaging family history book.

    That’s one of the things we be sharing with people at the Family History Expo.

     

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