A family historian and a detective have a lot in common. Think about legendary detectives – Sherlock Holmes, Columbo, Sam Spade or Kinsey Milhone . What makes them successful? They are all, despite dramatic differences in personal style, careful searchers, engaged in diligent inquiry or examination aimed at discovering the facts. Jack Webb became a TV legend as Detective Joe Friday on Dragnet with the line, “Just the facts, ma’am.” Family historians are equally single-minded researchers collecting the facts about their ancestors.
Detectives, however, are must be more than gatherers of facts. They need to construct a narrative of the crime they are investigating. The facts may show what happened. The suspect had the means and the opportunity to commit the crime, but as anyone who has ever read a mystery or watched a detective show on TV knows, the investigator needs to discover the motive. No CSI team is going to uncover the why of what happened. That’s where the detective’s deductive reasoning comes in. When you combine all the facts what do they tell you? When Sherlock Holmes began with the words, “Elementary my dear Watson…” the story of the crime he had created from the facts always followed. Family historians need to remember that being a good detective also means being a good story teller.
Once you have gathered the facts, what do you do with them? As my friend Philipp Mayer of Group National Publishing likes to say, “Presentation is everything.” If you want to interest others in what you have discovered through your research you must find the way to tell a story.
A storyteller does more than simply present the facts as he has found them. He creates a story with the facts he has discovered. The National Association of Storytellers in a post on What is Storytelling? explains that a storyteller creates “multi-sensory images, actions, characters, and events—the reality—of the story.” Storytelling may be rooted in facts, but it also “encourages the active imagination.”
If you think of the six questions which guide journalists in telling a story (who, what, when, where, why, and how) a researcher focuses on the first three – the facts of what happened -, but the storyteller gives at least as much attention to the latter three.
- Creating a sense of time and place allowing their audience to experience what it might have been like to experience what their ancestors did
- Discovering the motivation which explains why ancestors acted as they did
- Exploring how ancestors might have felt about their unfolding lives
Things like sounds or smells of a place, and a person’s dreams or emotions aren’t likely to be discovered in searching the factual record of an ancestor. The family history detective must understand that telling a story requires more than the facts alone, it also requires drawing inferences from the facts and speculating about what their ancestors’ lives must have been like.
When the family historian becomes a storyteller he moves from being a gatherer and categorizer of facts to being a creator, because is Voltaire once observed, “History consists of a series of accumulated imaginative inventions.” It is only by imagining what must have been that a family historian can take his audience from what he knows to what he understands about his ancestors.