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Stories To Tell Books BLOG

Bring an Ancestor to Life with a Biographical Sketch

Nan Barnes

How do I make my family history interesting for my readers?

The further removed from the present we get, the fewer interesting stories we may have about ancestors. You’ve probably heard the advice: use brief biographical sketches of these distant ancestors. Unfortunately a lot of people misunderstand what a biographical sketch is. Often they approach it, mistakenly I think, as a biographical summary, simply repeating the facts from the vital records. That’s not a biographical sketch. A sketch provides a quick insight into the person, which helps us understand who he or she was. The goal is to portray your abcesor as a living, breathing person, not a collection of dusty facts.

Patricia and Frederick McKissack, authors of Frederick Douglass: The Black Lion, a biography of the great African-American abolitionist, offer some insight into developing a good biographical sketch. They said, “Our first draft wasn’t very good because we were simply listing facts instead of telling a story….Then we got smart! Instead of trying to cram in all the facts we chose one very important story from Douglass’ life…” The story focused on how Douglass, a slave in Baltimore, used a sailor’s papers to escape to New York and freedom. The story, as the McKissacks explained, allowed them to “…use the colorful details and data we found through our research, [to] develop a much more interesting biographical sketch.”

But you may not have a story about your ancestor around which to construct a stretch. What then?

Bernard DeVoto, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history The Year of Decision: 1846, demonstrates how to create a vivid sketch of a person by combining factual knowledge regarding the person’s life with speculation about his character. His portrait of President James K. Polk, who led the country during the heyday of Westward expansion and our war with Mexico, brings Polk to life without relying on stories. He wrote:

“‘Who is James K. Polk?’ The Whigs promptly began campaigning on that derision, and there were Democrats who repeated it with a sick concern. The question eventually got an unequivocal answer. Polk had come up the ladder, he was an orthodox party Democrat. He had been Jackson’s mouthpiece and floor leader in the House of Representatives, had been Governor of Tennessee. But sometimes the belt line shapes an instrument of use and precision. Polk’s mind was rigid, narrow, obstinate, far from first-rate. He sincerely believed that only Democrats were truly American, Whigs being either dupes or pensioners of England – more, that not only wisdom and patriotism were Democratic monopolies, but honor and breeding as well. “Although a Whig he seems a gentleman’ is a not uncommon characterization in his diary. He was pompous, suspicious and secretive; he had no humor; he could be vindictive; and he saw spooks and villains. He was a representative Southern politician of the second or intermediate period (which expired with his Presidency), when the decline but not the disintegration had begun.

But if his mind was narrow it was also powerful and he had guts. If he was orthodox, his integrity was absolute and he could not be scared, manipulated, or brought to heel. No one bluffed him, no one moved him with direct or oblique pressure. Furthermore, he knew how to get things done, which is the first necessity of government, and he knew what he wanted done, which is the second. He came into office with clear ideas and a fixed determination and he was to stand by them through as strenuous an administration as any before Lincoln’s. Congress had governed the United States for eight years before him and after a fashion was to govern it for the next twelve years after him. But Polk was to govern the United States from 1845 to 1849. He was the only “strong president” between Jackson and Lincoln. He was to fix the mold of the future in America down to 1860, and therefore for a long time afterward. That is who James K. Polk was.”

Whichever approach you use, the question DeVoto posed, “Who is James K. Polk?” is a good starting point. Ask “who” the ancestor you want to describe was. Then choose one or both: use stories, or character description, to answer the question "who" for your reader.