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Using Tom Wolfe's Advice in Writing Family History

Biff Barnes

A good reporter must "…provide the emotional reality of the news, for it is the emotions, not the facts, that most engage and excite readers and in the end are the heart of most stories," said Tom Wolfe, journalist and author of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities.

It’s good advice for family historians as well as reporters.

Richard Gilbert in his blog Narrative recently recalled Wolfe’s 2007 article, “The Emotional Core of the Story” published in Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard .

Wolfe suggests that the narrative journalist employ four techniques drawn from fiction.

  • Scenes: Present the narrative in a series of scenes and use “ordinary historical narration” as little as possible.
  • Dialogue: Quote copious verbal interplay among characters. Dialogue is the easiest prose to read “and the quickest to reveal character.”
  • Details: The careful use of details that reveal “one’s rank or aspirations, everything from dress and furniture to . . . speech, how one talks to the strong, to the weak, to the sophisticated, to the naïve . . .”
  • POV: Point of view that puts the reader “inside the mind of someone other than the writer.”

Employing these techniques of what Wolfe called “The New Journalism” and is now referred to as creative non-fiction a writer can bring his character’s to life. He can answer the two fundamental questions posed by novelist Stephen Crane: "What are they thinking? What is it like to be one of these people?"

To accomplish this, journalists like Wolfe, Joan Didion, Truman Capote and Gay Talese drew upon extensive interviews to immerse themselves in the world about which they were writing.

That kind of interviewing is, unfortunately, not a tool available to most family historians. Interviews with living relatives may capture stories about more distant ancestors which have been passed through the generations. But for the most part the process of trying to recreate the thoughts, feelings and motivations of distant relatives is a somewhat speculative one.

A fortunate family historian may discover letters, journals, diaries, published sources which provide some insight into the thinking of ancestors. But often one must try to learn all one can about the time and place in which an ancestor live and use the facts of the persons life to speculate about how a person living in that time and place would have chosen to do what they did and present it dramatically.