Genealogy is not a topic that often hits the pages of the New York Times, except when the business pages report on companies like Ancestry or My Heritage. Today’s op-ed piece Your Ancestors, Your Fate by is one that should generate wide interest, especially among those interested in genealogy and family history. According to the author, researcher Gregory Clark, “To a striking extent your overall life chances can be predicted not just from your parents’ status but also from your great-great-great-grandparents.”
University of California, Davis economics professor Gregory Clark is the author of The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility. He and fellow researchers began with a simple question: what is the reason for a person’s upward social mobility, or lack of it?
Clark reported that,” …my colleagues and I estimate that 50 to 60 percent of variation in overall status is determined by your lineage. The fortunes of high-status families inexorably fall, and those of low-status families rise, toward the average — what social scientists call “regression to the mean” — but the process can take 10 to 15 generations (300 to 450 years), much longer than most social scientists have estimated in the past.”
Are you are a family historian working to transform your research into a book? You want to make sure it is one family members will enjoy reading. Here are six things to keep in mind.
Storytelling is a center of attention at the annual RootsTech genealogy and family history conference. During a stroll around the exhibit hall you’ll find new services for uploading stories to share on to the web, others to help you record or transcribe stories, not to mention plenty of videographers who will record you and your family telling stories. I appreciate the value of placing stories at the heart of family history.
I fear that a critical ideas is getting lost in the process of saying “gee whiz” to the latest storytelling systems which will be both fun and so easy that all you need to do is click your mouse. Sharing and preservation are not the same thing. The emphasis with many of the new web-based storytelling systems is on sharing. But family historians need to give at least equal attention to the preservation of their family stories.
When you are writing, do you ever get stuck on how to move from one section to the next? This is a common problem, even for nonfiction writing. These “transitions” are widely misunderstood. It’s not only that the topic has changed, it is that your role as the author has changed. You need a new voice to suit the new material. How can you change your “voice” when you are writing – after all, you are the same person, aren’t you? Yes and no.
What are the secrets in your family’s history?
We may be bombarded by news about the disappearance of privacy in our society, but as Bruce Feiler observed in a recent story in the N.Y. Times, “Secrets endure. Especially in families.”
It is often left to the family historian to discover them.
The road to these discoveries frequently departs from the conventional path of scouring vital records, interviewing family members, reviewing letters, diaries, or journals and searching newspaper records. Finding the secret truths frequently begins with a surprising trigger that might easily be overlooked.
Today we welcome Lynn Palermo, The Armchair Genealogist and creator of the Family History Writing Challenge, who joins us with a guest post: A 10 -Step Strategy to Writing a Family History Book
A family historian and a detective have a lot in common. Think about legendary detectives – Sherlock Holmes, Columbo, Sam Spade or Kinsey Milhone . What makes them successful? They are all, despite dramatic differences in personal style, careful searchers, engaged in diligent inquiry or examination aimed at discovering the facts. Jack Webb became a TV legend as Detective Joe Friday on Dragnet with the line, “Just the facts, ma’am.” Family historians are equally single-minded researchers collecting the facts about their ancestors...
Family historians also need to remember that being a good detective also means being a good story teller.
If you are writing a family history or thinking about starting to, Lynn Palermo, The Armchair Genealogist, has a few questions for you:
Have you been writing sporadically never finishing a story?
Have you procrastinated writing your stories, not sure where to begin?
Do you need that nudge to finish your stories and finally publish?
Are you overwhelmed and need some support in getting started?
If you answered yes to any of the questions, Palermo’s Family History Writing Challenge is designed to get you over the hump.
The challenge is simple. Make a 28 day commitment beginning February 1st to write your family history every day.
If you are thinking about writing a memoir or family history or are just a lover of life writing, The You Tube video of the interview between novelist Salman Rushdie and Emory University Vice President Rosemary Magee recorded on February 27, 2011 as part of the university’s “Creativity Conversations” series is for you.
Rushdie, author of the Booker Prize-winning novel Midnight’s Children, The Satanic Verses which earned him a flood of death threats including a fatwa from the Ayatollah Khomeini, and, one of my favorites, Shalimar the Clown was in the process of writing a memoir Joseph Anton at the time of the conversation.
He reflects on memory and writing memoir, nonfiction and history and how an author must draw upon the tools of fiction to produce a great memoir.
Creating a family history book is a two part process.
The first is, of course, research to gather as much information as possible about the ancestors who will be included in the book. Unfortunately, no matter how we might try to keep things organized research often takes on a somewhat random quality, running into brick walls here only to uncover unexpected discoveries elsewhere. While the events of an ancestor’s life are arranged on a simple timeline, there is seldom such a clear pattern to the way we learn about it.
Step two then is deciding how to impose order on our rather disheveled mass of research when we begin to write about it. Posing two questions will help do it:
How do you know what you know?
How do the facts which you have gathered relate to other things you know?
Many biographers, stuck for a more clever title, have simply called their books The Life and Times of [their subject here]. It’s not terribly creative, but it does convey an important idea for every biographer or family historian to remember: every life comes with a historical context.
A person’s life story is shaped by the time and place in which he or she lived. What social, cultural, technological and political forces might have had an impact upon the subject of your research? For family historians exploring those larger forces can seem like a huge endeavor tacked onto canvasing family and vital records to gather the essential facts about a family member.
That task just got a lot easier. The Associated Press and Ancestry.com have announced a partnership that will make more than one million stories from the AP newswire available in a searchable database.
If you plan to write about a person’s life – yours in a memoir or a family member’s in a family history – think about your audience before you begin. Why will anyone want to read the life story you have written?
Few people are looking for a simple factual account of events, although attention to getting the facts right is essential, as James Frey learned when he fabricated his memoir A Million Little Pieces. Readers are interested in insight and understanding. A memoir or family history may start in individual experience, but it should go beyond the purely personal space to suggest insights and understandings readers can apply to their own lives.
Consider the most widely read memoir and family history of the last 50 years: Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes published in 1996 and Alex Haley’s fictionalized 1976 account of his family history Roots.
The first step in the process of actually creating the family history book you keep saying you will write someday is to transform it from a dream to a specific goal on your to do list.
Genealogical research is infinite. There’s always more to do. As long as you’re focused on research your book remains a dream.
A book is finite. It requires specific actions to make it a reality. The first step is to set a target date for completion. “I’ll have my book written by _____.” Once you have established a target date, you can plan backward from that date to set sub-goals which will lead you to completion of the book.
To construct a narrative family history one must gather the family lore and stories to supplement the facts drawn from vital records. Unfortunately, as most family historians know too well the people we would like to ask about those stories are often no longer with us. When that’s the case, you need to reconstruct your family’s narrative from the limited records available.
Letters and diaries can be a rich source of family stories. Even a single letter can be a wonderful tool in understanding an ancestors time and place.
Letters and diaries are part of the cultural conversation of the times in which they were written. The topics they address are those which were important not only to their authors, but to their contemporaries. These personal writings can help us to understand both our ancestors’ connection to their times and their the unique way they experienced those times.
“I just don’t have a lot of family stories,” say far too many genealogists who want to write a family history.
I understand. Everyone always wishes they had taken the time to gather family stories when they had a chance. There are plenty of questions you wish you’d asked Grandfather Harry or Great Aunt Sue, who was the family busybody and knew everybody’s story. But the opportunity to sit down with them with a notebook and pen or even better a tape recorder has come and gone.
But that doesn’t your family history is doomed to be a dutiful recounting of facts recalled from your genealogical research and pages of pedigree charts. You can make your book lively and interesting. All it takes is a little perspective.
October is Family History Month. We want to invite you to help us celebrate by participating in a poll. It short and sweet:
What’s the best reason to write a family history book?
Leave you answer in the comments (or if you would rather Tweet them using the hashtag #STTBooks). We’ll compile the results and post them at the end of the month.
We hope you’ll enjoy telling us what you think. Encourage your friends to share their thoughts.
We are looking forward to hearing from you.
Family historians are researchers first. They must look carefully and thoughtfully for the facts of their ancestors lives, assemble them, and organize them into a narrative. Some researchers are more skilled or more fortunate than others, but the truth is that none of them will be able to gather all of the facts they would like to have about their ancestors.
What do you do when you want to write a family history, but come face-to-face with the fact that the historical record you have been able to discover is incomplete, even fragmentary?
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor Richard Todd offer some useful advice in their book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction.
Brick walls, those frustrating points where you can’t find the information you need and don’t know where to turn which stop your research in its tracks, are favorite topics when genealogists gather. How do you break through that brick wall?
You may run into the same sort of blockage while you are writing your family history. Often the barrier is a missing detail. Until you can find it, you can’t move on. Your family history is stuck. You take off your writer’s hat and slip back into the role of researcher.
Fortunately there’s a way to overcome such obstacles.
The important thing to understand is that just because you family history occurred in a chronological sequence, you don’t have to write your book by following the same sequence. It’s perfectly okay to deal with ancestors, events, or stories out of order as you develop your manuscript. You can go back later to fill in the details of the hurdle that’s obstructing your progress now and add transitions to smooth out the book’s flow.
Here are five tricks to help you avoid getting stuck when you run into an obstacle.
Rigid adherence to a chronological framework can be one of your greatest enemies when you are trying to write a memoir or family history that interests readers.
Using a chronological approach to help organize your book often leads to chapters of equal length with time periods homogenized so that all events seem to have equal importance and receive equal attention. Life, however, isn’t lived that way. Some times or events are pivotal. Understanding those turning points is the key to the story. Other segments of your life can be dealt with in a more summary fashion. Let’s face it, not everything that happens to us is all that interesting.
So, how does one avoid falling into a chronological trap?
As you are working to get the coals just right for your Labor Day barbeque, take a moment to think about how we happen to be celebrating this day all across America.
The holiday’s origin goes back 119 years to 1894.
The American Railway Union had undertaken a drive to organize railroad workers nationwide, triggering strikes across the country. A strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company in the Chicago area was the lynch pin of the effort. The administration of President Grover Cleveland, which was solidly anti-union, sent 12,000 troops to Chicago to break the strike. U.S. Marshals fired on protesters near the city, killing two, and the strike collapsed. But the results sparked a massive backlash against Cleveland’s heavy handed actions and only six days after the strike ended both houses of Congress had approved a bill proclaiming Labor Day a holiday and Cleveland had signed it hoping to quell the protests.
It’s a fascinating story. You can learn more about the Pullman strike in an article titled Pullman Strike of 1894 in the California Historical Society’s journal California History. A post on the PBS NewsHour Blog The Origins of Labor Day provides details about the holiday itself.
If you are a family historian think about the working men and women in previous generations of your family. A search of some of the many excellent collections of documents in libraries and archives will help you understand much more vividly how your ancestors lived.