Writing about family history

I’ve been asked to give another talk to the local family history and genealogy group about writing the story of your family. The group is full of experts on exploring the past, of finding out all the details of their ancestors’ lives such as their births, marriages, deaths,, their children, their occupations and trades, where they lived, where and how they travelled abroad, legal and court documents and so on… vast reams of facts. What I’m going to be talking about is how to translate those details into an accessible account for others to read.

I did a similar talk last year, but focused on the different ways a story could be told – as an imagined narrative using the facts, as a piece of creative non-fiction where details are imagined, writing a story through letters, as a recipe book… a hundred and one ways to tell a family’s history! I was delighted by the friendly and appreciative audience and there were a lot of questions afterwards and more conversation while we had tea and biscuits.

I’ve been asked back and I’m beginning to plan in more detail what I’ll talk about. Although some of the same ground will be covered I can’t just do the same again, so I’m going to talk more about actual writing, using my list of ‘P’s – people, plot, place, pace. point of view, purpose and polish. I will also talk about beginnings and endings, because for this type of writing I guess the middle will pretty much look after itself. I think I might read some of the stories I’ve written about my family, maybe comparing a factual account with an imagined version.

When people have got such a vast archive, it’s very difficult to know how and where to start, how to prioritise from a writing point of view. Biting off more than can be chewed is something which happens in this type of project. I took a long time with writing my family story, and made a lot of false starts, writing things in a style which on reflection was artificial and not my own voice – trying to write as I though biographical stories should be written.

I’m not nervous about standing up and speaking – I can witter on for ever, but trying to give people ideas which are practical, helpful and above all do-able, well that is a challenge!


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