Point of view is not something family historians are likely think about. After all, you seek to collect “true” stories. Then, when you’re ready to write, you review what you have gathered, and you tell the story - from your own point of view. What’s the downside? The result can be more like a report than a story.
Instead, consider switching your point of view around. Look at events from the point of view of the people you are writing about. How did they feel about what was going on in their lives? What were they thinking about as the events you describe unfolded? We know that much of the drama of history comes from decisions they made. So, what would they have considered before deciding to take the action they did?
It’s one thing to document events, but you have to dig a little deeper and think a little differently to document people. As a family historian you know how things worked out in your ancestors’ lives. Yet when your ancestors experienced those events, they did not know what the outcome would be. How do you recreate your ancestor’s thoughts and emotions as they faced the uncertainties of their lives? These are the dramatic turning points that make the best stories.
Changing point of view requires you to look differently at your sources. As you examine letters, photos, family memorabilia, school or church records, local newspapers and town records, don’t confine your search to discovering what happened. Look deeper, and reach for insights into what your ancestors were feeling as events unfolded.
Unless you’re lucky, you won’t often find written records spelling out these insights into the emotional lives of your ancestors. What do you do then?
1. If you want to stick to what you can document:
Take a look at what someone else in the same place, going through a similar experience, said about it. Your ancestor didn’t keep a diary? A neighbor might have. If your ancestors were present or impacted by a significant historical event, or perhaps part of a social movement, then it is very likely that some of their contemporaries left behind personal accounts. Their documentary records may help you to understand what your own ancestors would have been thinking or feeling as they prepared for pivotal moments in their lives.
2. If you don’t have a documentary record to borrow:
Use your imagination and put yourself in your ancestor’s place. The human experience is universal; we react similarly to emotional circumstances such as being uprooted, seizing an opportunity, facing conflict, pursuing romance, etc. Now take it a step farther: what might you ancestor have been thinking, given what we can expect he would have been feeling?
Exploring history through point of view combines speculation about both thinking and feeling. Put the two together, and your story will be richer. We can never know what exactly what was inside another human being’s head and heart, then or now, but you can certainly make some reasonable speculations based on other things you know about them. That’s what historians do all the time, and it’s perfectly okay, as long as you play fair with your reader by being clear that you are speculating.