Brick walls, those frustrating points where you can’t find the information you need and don’t know where to turn which stop your research in its tracks, are favorite topics when genealogists gather. How do you break through that brick wall?
You may run into the same sort of blockage while you are writing your family history. Often the barrier is a missing detail. Until you can find it, you can’t move on. Your family history is stuck. You take off your writer’s hat and slip back into the role of researcher.
Fortunately there’s a way to overcome such obstacles.
The important thing to understand is that just because you family history occurred in a chronological sequence, you don’t have to write your book by following the same sequence. It’s perfectly okay to deal with ancestors, events, or stories out of order as you develop your manuscript. You can go back later to fill in the details of the hurdle that’s obstructing your progress now and add transitions to smooth out the book’s flow.
Here are five tricks to help you avoid getting stuck when you run into an obstacle:
Write the best stories first. Every family has some pivotal moments. They may be turning points when everything changes. Think about immigrant stories or the trek across the Great Plains in a covered wagon. Other moments reveal the character or values of ancestors. Think about ancestors who served in the military or stood up for their rights in the woman’s suffrage movement or the struggle for civil rights.
These stories have all the elements of drama. Writing them will be exciting and they will give some momentum that will carry along you as you draft the rest of your book.
Capture the moment. If you are continuing your research as you are writing (and most of us are) you are likely to come across interesting or poignant vignettes which reveal something important about an ancestor. Don’t put what you find aside to write about it later. You have the best grasp of the moment and feel for how to write about it right now. Later on you’ll find yourself trying to recall what you were thinking when you first discovered the details of the event. A lot of the emotional charge of the story can get lost if you are writing from memory.
An interesting side benefit of writing vignettes as they occur to you is that doing so can sometimes trigger thoughts or insights about completely different points in your family history, even some which have stopped you from making progress in the past.
Jump around to keep moving forward. An important part of finishing a book is maintaining your momentum. If you run into an obstacle, don’t become obsessive about overcoming it before moving on. You’ll find your progress grinding to a halt. Put it aside and work on something you do know about. It’s much more difficult to get started writing again at some point in the future than to keep making progress in the present.
Fill in the blanks later. If you keep making progress writing about whatever works at a given moment you will eventually reach a point where you’ll realize that most of your family history is written. Looking back on the obstacles that had seemed so overwhelming before you may find that retrospectively they seem less formidable. You may decide that the detail you absolutely had to have to write anything at all is not essential. You would like to have it, but can tell your family’s story without it. Or, you may find that in writing all of the things you have you have come to a new understanding of the moment that was such an obstacle (or maybe even discovered some new details about it while working on something else) and you have no trouble writing about it.
Improve transitions by taking a more holistic approach. Making effective transitions between scenes, events, or chapters of a book can be difficult. Part of the reason is uncertainty. No matter how well you have planned your book you don’t have a complete feel for how it will play out on paper until you get a draft done. If you have accumulated the equivalent of a complete manuscript by writing about stories, personalities and events and can take stock of them as a whole, connections that weren’t obvious while you were writing about them may jump off the pages. Logical, emotional and thematic threads that run through the stories of many ancestors may be obvious. Going back to the text to weave those connections into smooth transitions in your book is much easier than it might have been earlier in the drafting process.