Blog Entries: 1 to 4 of 4
WRITING ABOUT A DIFFICULT ANCESTRAL HISTORY
When we come across an ancestor who, by today’s standards, led a less-than-savory life, our first inclination is to downplay, whitewash, or outright avoid writing their story because it is too difficult to address. As genealogists, however, by our very avocation, are obligated to record our histories as truthfully as possible.
The first thing to remember is that we are not responsible for our ancestors’ actions and, by writing their stories maybe we can do something positive for those they harmed.
When we discover an ancestor who did something reprehensible, such as being a slave owner or overseer, a persecutor of someone for witchcraft or some other unsavory act, we need to process our emotions and separate ourselves from the past.
It is important to realize that the things that our ancestors did – or didn’t do – in the past are not our fault. But, how we record these actions for posterity is a vital part of the story of our ancestors and should not be omitted from their narrative.
History is not always pretty, but it is important that we record it – warts and all – for posterity, for how else will people know the truth? Recording the past will inform the future.
EVERY FAMILY HISTORY DESERVES A NARRATIVE
An article in American Ancestors magazine by Brady Brim-DeForest connects family history research to the importance of writing a narrative for future generations.
As genealogists, we understand the importance of documentation and collecting datum to fill in the blanks of our ancestors’ lives which connects us not only to our past but to the future as well. Mr. Brim-Deforest states that “understanding who we are is made richer when we understand all of those who have come before us.” This is where storytelling becomes the enticement that future family historians need to ensure that the past is kept alive.
Our role as genealogists is to make our research accessible to non-genealogists and to motivate and inspire future generations of family historians. To aid us in putting flesh on the bones of our data, and to avoid boring and dry narratives, answer the following questions:
- What is interesting about this individual?
- How should I structure the story?
- How will the reader react to the story?
Use the following components to help translate your data into an interesting story.
- Specific time
- Specific place
Data provides precise information, but it can’t provide context. This is where your story will fill in the spaces in our ancestors’ lives between the data points.
BUILDING A STORY AROUND AN ANCESTRAL PHOTOGRAPH
Select a photograph from among your favorites – preferably from a previous generation – and use it as a visual prompt to write a short story about the person/s, event, time period, clothing, location and family relationship. Be sure to include some or all of the following information:
- Who is in the photograph? Be sure to identify everyone, including maiden names if known.
- Describe the setting of the photograph. Is it a formal portrait in a studio setting? A family occasion or event? A work or casual outing? Who took the photo?
- How are the people in the photograph dressed? Formal clothes? Casual, military, work or play attire?
- What year was the photograph taken? How old are the people in the photo? How are they related to you?
- Describe the background, props, hairstyles, accessories? Are animals, such as pets, included in the photo? Are there children as well as adults in the photograph? If it is an outdoor setting, can you determine where the photo was taken?
- Do the visual clues in the photograph tell you anything about their lives? Their social status or background?
Give the photograph a title, write a short introductory description and use your imagination to tell a story about what this photo says to you about your ancestor’s life set within the historical context of the time and place in which he or she lived.
CONTEXT IS ESSENTIAL
A recent Beetle Bailey® comic strip highlighted the importance of context when writing about events, occupations, skills and equipment from our and our ancestors’ past so that a reader in the future understands what we are describing. In the comic, an older character tells a young worker that she was in a “steno pool, wrote in shorthand, and typed on a Selectric.” The young worker replies, “I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you just said.”
As writers of our and our ancestors’ stories, we must keep in mind that the effect of progress is to make many things, occupations and skills obsolete. It is up to us, the writers and recorders of history, to research and describe in detail what these terms mean, how they fit into the context of our writing and, perhaps, what replaced these items over time.
As in the example above, a steno pool was a collection of women who took dictation using Gregg shorthand – a form of stenographic writing that was fast and efficient – and typed out their notes on an electric IBM Selectric typewriter. Including images of equipment, photographs of workers, and detailed descriptions of the training required for skills such as taking shorthand would add depth, interest, and knowledge to our stories and prevent those blank stares and statements like, “I have no idea what you just wrote.”