If you’re like most of us you have had children come to you and say, “Tell me a story.” That’s a lot like the position you’re in when you set out to write a family history. You need to tell your family’s story.
That’s much different than simply recounting the information you’ve gathered about ancestors during years of careful research. You are the lens through which your reader will view your family. You need to reflect, evaluate, and make judgments about what you have discovered. What is important? What is not so important? What lessons are to be learned from the experiences of your ancestors? What might those experiences tell family members who are currently alive or in future generations about their own identities? Yours is the voice of the storyteller which draws meaning out of the experiences of those who have gone before.
You begin with a story, indeed with many stories spread over generations. There is no better explanation of the elements of a story than Aristotle’s unities of time, place, and action. The action is often the easiest thing to deal with. Your ancestor had a goal, faced an obstacle which might prevent him or her from reaching it, and either overcame the obstacle or was unable to do so and had to adjust his or her course. But understanding the events involved often requires you to delve into questions of what it was like to live where and when your ancestor lived. What social, political, economic and geographic currents might have shaped your ancestor’s quest for his or her goal? Novelists call the process of describing those currents “world building.” Attention to time and place is just as important for family historians. It is exploration of the context of an ancestor’s life that is most often missing in a family history.
In a well told story a theme emerges from your recounting of a series of events. You as the storyteller must discover that theme. What did the experiences of one generation share with the next? Often what you find is that there is a commitment to or striving for a particular value that crosses generational lines. Can you explain what happened to several ancestors in terms of a quest for justice, a desire to help others, a deep commitment to a religious faith, honesty, loyalty or patriotism? Has a sense of humor, cleverness, education, or business smarts been highly prized by family members? These themes extending from generation to generation can help current members of the family to grasp their own identity.
What is critical to realize as you set out to tell your family’s story is that there are many ways to tell any story. One person looking at a collection of research may interpret it one way. A second person might take the story in a completely different direction. Which one is right? Maybe both of them. Never be afraid to express an opinion about the meaning of what you have learned about your ancestors. Evaluating the facts you’ve gathered and making judgments about them is what historians do. Great histories, and great stories, begin with facts, but become compelling when the storyteller discovers meaning in them and shares it with his readers.