When you are writing, do you ever get stuck on how to move from one section to the next? This is a common problem, even for nonfiction writing. These “transitions” are widely misunderstood. It’s not only that the topic has changed, it is that your role as the author has changed. You need a new voice to suit the new material. How can you change your “voice” when you are writing – after all, you are the same person, aren’t you? Yes and no.
Here’s how I look at it: I wear different hats throughout my day. Sometimes I want to be seen as serious professional and so I act the part. Sometimes I want to wear the hat of the fun-loving friend, or to be a dutiful child to help my parents, etc. We all play roles like this, and we shift between them when and where we decide they are appropriate, changing those hats at will. The same goes for writing, but you may not have worked out which hats you’ll need to wear just yet.
Many family historians begin with the most obvious voice, the one they read in their source materials: the voice of an academic. Yet, if you are not writing an academic book (and even academics these days are trying to be more engaging) then you risk being unnecessarily boring. You can switch voices throughout your book, even from one paragraph to the next, as the changing subject demands.
What other voices can you use? If you’re using that first voice to explain history, the second, perhaps more important voice is the one that shares your feelings. If you want people to care, tell them why you care. Talk about your fascination, your passion, your dedication and joy in the subject. Readers will be delighted when you engage their emotions as well as their intellect..
Another voice is what I call “the family chronicler”. Unlike a cold, distant academic, this is your family, and you own these people, for better or worse. When you, as family chronicler, say “My great-grandfather could be mean and ornery”, the reader smiles knowingly. They are getting the real story, the inside scoop.
Another hat to try on, if you haven’t already used it, is what I think of as the museum curator. Who better than you to guide your readers through the twisted passages of your research? Stop and interpret for them each thing you wish them to understand. In a museum, there is often a brief explanatory sign next to the display. That is simply labeling. But if you’ve ever taken a tour with a docent or curator, you’ll hear background stories, technical details, and a bit of speculation. That’s so much more interesting.
Then there is the real you. Dou you have a sense of humor, or a sense of irony? These reflections of you, the author, also lend interest to the book. Your unique views about what it all means may be the most powerful voice you can bring to the prose. After all, readers are always interested in you, the author. They will be looking for your take on the subject, so do consider editorializing. Don’t hesitate to interrupt all your other voices to include your unique insights.