Writing Narrative for Family History
An increasing number of genealogists are taking the advice of a recent Daily Tip on Ancestry.com. The tipster advised, “I decided to put all my family tree into narrative form so that it would be easy to understand for my non-genealogist relatives.”
If you are trying to make the leap from genealogical chart to family narrative you should borrow a few techniques from the fiction writer. Your narrative needs to incorporate the elements of a good story: character, setting conflict and theme. Here are a few ways to heighten the interest of your family’s narrative.
Emphasize the drama in people’s lives by looking for the most interesting thing that happened to them and beginning their story at that point. Think turning points: the decision to adopt a child; a fire that destroyed the family home; quitting a job at a big corporation to launch a small business; or, being diagnosed with cancer. Jump into the narrative at that dramatic moment and use flashbacks to fill in back story later.
Create a strong sense of time and place by exploring the historical context of your relatives’ lives. This can work in two directions. You might begin by listing important events in the person’s life on one side of a sheet of paper and matching them with a historical or cultural event which happened at the same time on the other side. For example juxtapose a late 1960s college graduation and wedding with the nation’s angst over the Vietnam War and the draft or your grandfather’s opening of a Chrysler dealership with the rise of OPEC and the 1974 gas crisis. The other way to do it is to think of major historical currents and think about how they affected your ancestors. For example, if family members relocated geographically during the 1930s was it because of the economic pressures of the Great Depression.
Look for recurrent themes in your family’s history. A Chinese-American client of ours wanted to title her family’s history Imported and focus on the theme of immigration and adjusting to a new culture while preserving the old one. Another focused on the tradition of serving in the military as a defining feature of his family. Themes like emphasizing the importance of education or sacrificing for the children or searching for opportunity are all themes around which to organize your narrative.
Look for a dramatic way to end your ancestor’s story. You don’t have to conclude each story with the person’s death. For example, family historian Sharon DeBartolo Cormack explains that she ended a book with a man’s 85 th birthday where he read a two page statement of his philosophy of life, concluding, "Well, so much for the ruminations of a tin horn philosopher, just turned 85."
Enough was said, and rather than describing the much more somber occasion of his death, this conclusion allows your ancestor to “have the final word”, which is far more uplifting.