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5 Ways to Build Drama in Your Family History Book

Biff Barnes

A family history book begins with research. You search for much information about your ancestors as you can. After scouring all of the available sources you accumulate quite a wealth of such information. You have facts from the vital records, letters, journal or diaries your ancestors left behind along with colorful anecdotes and family lore. You want to put all that information together in a book that engages your audience.

Courtesy of Christine Zenino under Creative Commons

Before you begin banging away at the keyboard, take a little advice from playwright David Mamet. He said, “The audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn’t, I wouldn’t. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned in to watch drama.”

So how do you find the drama in the mountain of information you have gathered? Here are five places to look:

Look for the conflict in your ancestors lives.  Conflict is the heart of drama. What were your ancestors’ goals? What motivated them to strive for those goals? What obstacles did they have to overcome to achieve them? Or, if they were unable to overcome the obstacles, what adjustments did they make in their goals?

My grandfather, originally from upstate New York, was like a series of waves of young men who headed west during the late 19th century. He found his way to Alaska in 1898 in search of a fortune in Yukon gold. Plenty of drama there. But, grandfather didn’t find gold. After a year he headed east on his way home, but stopped in South Dakota where he me my grandmother. Now we’ve added romance.

Relate you ancestors to a larger story. Looking at the time and place where the events in your ancestors lives took place lets you see how what was happening to them was part of a larger story. The time and place can create a dramatic setting for events.

When grandfather met grandmother in 1899, life of the plains was anything was anything but sanguine. The revolt of farmer, who believed they had been exploited by railroads and bankers, had swept across the plains in the mid-90s resulting in the nomination of William Jennings Bryan for president on the Democratic ticket. When the Great Commoner lost to William McKinley in 1896 a lot of people on the plains decided it was time to look for greener pastures in the growing cities or farther west.

Look for turning points. In every person’s life there are points at which the direction things are moving shift and head in a whole new direction. Sometimes that means moving to a new place. The immigrant story where an ancestor decided to leave the old country and come to America is a classic. But deciding to enter a new business or become part of a social or political movement can be equally dramatic. Find these turning points in your ancestors’ stories and build upon the drama inherent in them.

My grandfather and grandmother got married, but they didn’t stay in South Dakota. They headed west, once again following my grandfather’s dream of striking it rich. This time the goal wasn’t as exciting as finding gold, although it did put them on the edge of California’s gold, country where they bought a hog ranch in Roseville, California, not far from the state capitol in Sacramento.

Find the values and themes that run through your ancestors’ stories. In nearly every family’s history there are recurrent themes and values evident in multiple generations. Some of them might include: searching for a better life, confidence that self-reliance will lead to success, dedication to their community and helping others, the importance of religious faith, a belief that education is essential, the entrepreneurial spirit, trust that hard work will be rewarded, confidence that love will help overcome our setbacks, certainty that family is the most important thing. Discovering and emphasizing these themes and values gives meaning to the life stories of your ancestors.

My grandfather never struck it rich. The hog ranch failed when hog cholera swept California’s central valley. He and my grandmother moved to San Francisco and grandfather opened a print shop, pursuing the trade he had learned before he left New York. He did well for a while, but like a lot of small businesses his was wiped out during the Great Depression.

The themes running through his life seemed to be optimism that he would eventually strike it rich, but when he failed he would be resilient and self-reliant enough to reinvent himself. His was a quintessentially western story. Was it dramatic? I have always been struck by the similarities in grandfather’s story to those described by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Wallace Stegner regarding his own family in the novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain.  

Discover the lessons your ancestors’ lives have to teach. One of the questions students often asked when I was teaching history was, “So what?” If I couldn’t provide a good answer, I wasn’t doing my job well. The same thing is true with family history. You need to answer the “So what?” question regarding the lives of your ancestors. What meaning did their experiences have.? Ultimately what any reader is looking for is an insight that will be useful to her. Make sure you make those lessons evident.

In listening to my parents talk about my grandfather I learned two important lessons. First, willingness to take risks can lead to great rewards, but failure can put you and those close to you in difficult circumstances. Second, preparation and hard work is a better formula for success.

By seeking the dramatic elements of the stories of your ancestors you can create the kind of engaging family history book that will appeal to an audience well beyond genealogists.