David McCulloch, who has won Pulitzer Prizes for his books on Harry Truman and John Adams, knows how to write a good life story. Says McCulloch, “I believe very strongly that the essence of writing is to know your subject…to get beneath the surface.” As you create your personal or family history book that’s advice you should take to heart.
Unfortunately it’s something we often forget when we set out to research our genealogy or create a family history. We turn into Joe Friday, the character played by Jack Webb on the old TV series Dragnet, who was fond of saying, “Just the facts, ma’am.” A plethora of tools beginning with ancestory.com and familysearch.org help us find more and more of those facts. But as we gather the facts we may miss the stories that would make the family history memorable.
One of the great challenges of writing a family history is to recreate the experiences of its subjects. What were people’s lives like? What did they believe and value? What did they enjoy, hate or fear? How did they love? Part of the job is learning as much as you can about the person.
Genealogy.com has created a tool that will help anyone trying to “recreate” the lives of family members. Biography Assistant is a list of topics, each with numerous questions attached to help you “get beneath the surface.”
Topics range from those that illuminate the person’s daily life to those that relate her life to broader historical events. Here are a few samples:
- Entertainment and Popular Culture – What was the most popular kind of entertainment of the time? What were the fashions of the day?
- The Great Depression – What is the first thing that comes to mind when she hears the word Depression now? What did she have to do without?
- Watergate – De she witness Nixon’s speech to the nation? What was her reaction to Nixon’s resignation?
Exploring questions like these as you research your family history can bring the names and dates on the family tree to life.
If you are fortunate enough to have relatives or family friends who knew the person you are researching you can play “oral historian” and interview them. The questions from Biography Assistant would provide a fine list to use to guide the interview.
Even without interviewing anyone, you may find letters, diaries, documents, records and family memorabilia including photographs which may provide interesting stories and insights about the person you are researching.
Finally, a little research into the times in which the person lived can provide a better understanding of the experiences you are trying to recreate.
Taking the time to gather the stories beneath the surface will give your family history a richness that your readers will appreciate.