Wish you could write family history like a master storyteller? Take a page from best-selling novelist Fannie Flagg’s fiction-writing. These three steps will help you bring your ancestors’ stories to life, so that their stories become as compelling to your relatives as they are to you.
Powerful storytellers create characters so vivid, we miss them when we finish reading. They take us into worlds that become just as real. Experiencing their stories changes us, even if just subtly. Fannie Flagg is one of this generation’s great storytellers, and she does all three of these things in The Whole Town’s Talking, our currentGenealogy Gems Book Club title. The book is an excellent example for family history storytellers who want to bring their own ancestors to life in narratives that captivate and change their own loved ones.
3 Keys to Amazing (Family History) Storytelling
1. Create vivid characters.
Lordor Nordstrom seems an unlikely hero at the beginning of The Whole Town’s Talking. He’s a 30-something single Swede who has come to the heartland of the U.S. to build a life. He’s a quiet man, a hard worker who starts a dairy farm. But then he starts to stand a little straighter and attract people his direction because he has a dream of what his world should look like. He places ads in newspapers and convinces other Swedes to settle nearby. Swedetown is born around him. We start to see that his quiet determination and vision are accomplishing great things for himself and others. Then this quiet, unprepossessing fellow gets up the nerve to place another newspaper ad:
Swedish man of 37 looking for Swedish lady for marriage. I have a house and cows.
But when he gets a response from a “24-year old Swedish lady of the Lutheran faith,” he starts to sweat and stammer and second-guess himself. He gets his picture taken: he looks like a hayseed. He gets a haircut: the bowl-cut style was a bad idea. But he persists despite feeling totally unready for the sweet, refined young lady who, after more stammering and shyness, eventually and very willingly becomes his bride.
NOW YOU TRY IT:
Think of an ancestor you want to write about. What do you know about him or her? Do you know she was born in a tiny village, or that he lost three siblings at once in a cholera epidemic? Do you know he was the first in the family to learn to read? Or that her husband disappeared when she had three children and one on the way?
You have to pay close attention to historical records to notice those kinds of details. You also have to think about and make connections between different events. That’s how you’ll realize those three siblings all died at the same time, and that not long after, he left school to take care of his family. Then you can start to create a “character” out of those scrawled names and details in all those old records.
Write down 5-10 specific details you know about an ancestor. If you can’t think of any, start scrutinizing historical records. Note physical details in military records or passport applications. Did he naturalize? Could she read English? How old were they when they married? Construct a timeline and make connections: “Oh my, he lost his wife in childbirth at the same time his father died. Suddenly he was caring for both his 82-year old mother and a newborn!”
2. Paint the historical backdrop.
Fannie places the story of Lordor and his want-ad bride Katrina in the beautiful but largely unknown American Midwest. The future of that country was as unwritten as the future of this couple. Gradually a small immigrant town comes into being, content to be its modest, friendly self. Fannie tells us about Main Street, the local businesses, the churches, the town’s main families and how they are related. We get just enough gossip to feel we know the people. In fact, we can imagine ourselves stopping in to gossip over a fence or attend a church potluck. The things that happen to the characters are more imaginable because we can picture the setting.
The story of Lordor and Katrina doesn’t just unfold against the settling of the Midwest frontier, though. As the narrator, Fannie Flagg puts Lordor and Katrina’s marriage into historical context, too. They were like many mail-order couples during a period of great change and movement in American history, she says:
On both sides, it was a desperate game of chance. But, surprisingly, many marriages did work out, and the results helped populate the country with a hardy and adventurous stock. People were willing to travel anywhere, sacrifice anything, to own their own land, to be free and be independent.
Though Fannie is writing fiction, she’s writing within a real historical world that she researches and loves to bring to life.
NOW YOU TRY IT:
We, too, can paint detailed portraits of our ancestors’ lives on a broader canvas of history. Do some reading about the history of the town and region. Look for trends or patterns or events that would specifically have affected your ancestors, based on where they lived, their ethnic or religious identity, financial status, gender, etc.
3. Give readers something to think about, or a reason this story matters.
The title of this story–The Whole Town’s Talking– doesn’t just refer to neighborly gossip on the streets and church pews of Swedetown (which eventually becomes Elmwood Springs). The key to this story is what happens at the town cemetery, on a hill overlooking the town on land donated by Lordor. After town residents die, we meet them again when they “wake up” in their cemetery plots. They still have their memories and personalities. They banter with each other and fawn over loved ones who come to visit their graves. They keep up on town gossip and their grandchildren and changes in society as best they can.
What I took away from this delightful scenario is the idea that family love persists past the grave. That memories of loved ones we honor at a cemetery may just be powerful enough to keep them there and, in a sense, alive. That they continue on.
NOW YOU TRY IT:
It’s not always easy to find a running theme, meaning, or message in a life you’ve researched. After all, you don’t see the whole thing. And most lives don’t unfold along a single theme. But if you’re excited enough to write about an ancestor, something about their story moves you. What is it? Try to put your finger on it. And then write about it, like this short passage about my own ancestor:
“What I see in Thomas Selby’s life is a man who never stopped moving or building. The challenges and opportunities of the frontier were to him an open door, beckoning to him. He started life with no apparent advantages, given away by his mother. That didn’t seem to dim his confidence. He was apparently uneducated, yet he studied law and argued a case before the Ohio supreme court. He bought up land and established friendships in southeast Ohio, then lit out for the California Gold Rush. He failed dramatically: the shipload of flour he took to sell the Goldrushers spoiled and he apparently had to walk all the way home. It took him seven years. But being broke didn’t stop him from buying homestead land in Missouri on the way home and immediately relocating his family. Eventually he settled there and spread his energies into creating enterprises: a flourishing farm, a general store, and judgeship.
I also see a man who seems to have totally excluded his wife and children when making decisions about the future. It was a common attitude for his time. But I think of him striding up to his yard on an evening seven years after disappearing, ragged and worn from the road. Family lore says he saw his wife come to the door with a gun and yelled, “Don’t shoot, Huldy, it’s me!” But if I were Huldy, finding out it was him–and that he’d just decided to move me into the wilderness without even consulting me–might just have made me pull the trigger.”
Last week was the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Among the amazing women in World War II was a reporter whose story of the bombing of Honolulu was so vivid the editor wouldn’t publish it. She went on to become a spy.
Reporter Betty McIntosh was working for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on December 7, 1941, when the bombs started falling. Pearl Harbor was the main target–and the one everyone remembers–but the city felt the attack, too. Civilians, including children, were among the casualties.
A week later, Betty wrote an article recounting the recent horrors. Her goal was to warn women what might be coming in other places, now that the U.S. was at war. But her editor killed the article, saying it was too graphic. That’s according to the Washington Post, which finally ran the article, in full, 71 years later.
“For seven ghastly, confused days, we have been at war. To the women of Hawaii, it has meant a total disruption of home life, a sudden acclimation to blackout nights, terrifying rumors, fear of the unknown as planes drone overhead and lorries shriek through the streets.”
That’s just the beginning. She goes on to recount that as soon as she heard the news on the radio that Sunday morning, she reported to work. (Click here to hear a radio broadcast announcement from Honolulu to the mainland, announcing the attack.)
Wikimedia Commons image. Click to view.
She saw the planes diving into the harbor and plumes of black smoke. Then, a nearby rooftop shot into the air.
“For the first time, I felt that numb terror that all of London has known for months. It is the terror of not being able to do anything but fall on your stomach and hope the bomb won’t land on you. It’s the helplessness and terror of sudden visions of a ripping sensation in your back, shrapnel coursing through your chest, total blackness, maybe death.”
(Click here to see images of the London Blitz, and here to see intense images from Pearl Harbor at the Huffington Post website.)
In the article, Betty goes on to describe the destruction to her neighborhood business district, and the chaos at the emergency room which she was assigned to cover. The aftermath wasn’t a calm after the storm, either:
“Sunday after dusk there was the all-night horror of attack in the dark. Sirens shrieking, sharp, crackling police reports and the tension of a city wrapped in fear….Then, in the nightmare of Monday and Tuesday, buy pinworm medication there was the struggle to keep normal when planes zoomed overhead and guns cracked out at an unseen enemy.”
Video Interview: Betty looks back at Pearl Harbor
The Response of Women in WWII
At the end of the article, Betty describes the frantic calls that began pouring in to the newsroom where she worked. They were from women, “wanting to know what they could do during the day, when husbands and brothers were away and there was nothing left but to listen to the radio and imagine that all hell had broken out on another part of the island. It was then that I realized how important women can be in a war-torn world.”
Betty McIntosh, reporter, spy, CIA employee
She ends by saying, “There is a job for every woman in Hawaii to do,” and names the Red Cross, canteens, and evacuation areas as places that needed women’s help. What Betty didn’t name was what she decided to do next: become a spy.
Witnessing the bombing of Honolulu and Pearl Harbor changed Betty, says the Washington Post. She became “restless,” wanting to do something different. So she joined the Office of Strategic Services and used her literary talents and knowledge of Japanese to spread misinformation to the enemy, including to enemy soldiers, to make them want to surrender more easily.
After the war, Betty went on to work for the CIA until she retired. You can read her biography, here. She died at age 100 in 2015.
What a story. What a woman!
“There is a job for every woman in Hawaii to do.” – Betty McIntosh
5 Posts to Help You Put Together Your Own Gripping Family Stories
Did you notice the many different sources threaded through this story? Images, news articles, oral histories, a YouTube interview, a radio broadcast clip? Your own family stories can often be fleshed out with all these different types of media. Click below for inspiring tips and how-tos.
Standing in judgement of our ancestors may be unavoidable. Genealogists dig up the good, the bad, and the ugly. We cannot pick and choose what we find, but we might be able to pick what and how we share it with others.
Recently, I received a letter from a Gem’s reader which included a very delicate and sensitive matter. She writes:
I love your blog and podcast. Thank you for all you do getting gems together for us! I have a question for you and would love to know your opinion (or the opinion of anyone else as well!)
I was recently at a family wedding. I printed out all the family and ancestor’s paper trails and documents and was passing them around to my aunt, uncles, and cousins. My mom’s eldest brother brought up a memory he had of his grandfather, my great-grandfather, a German immigrant. My uncle whispered it to me because the saying my great-grandfather often said is very prejudice. I won’t tell you what the quote is but it’s prejudice against Jewish, Irish, and Dutch people. Here’s my question – should I write down that my great-grandfather was prejudice against certain people to preserve this part of his character or should I let this information fade into history? As genealogists we are always trying to get a full view of the person we are researching – past the census records, military service paperwork, and wills – and into the real person and personality. So, I now have a more broad view of my great-grandfather, but it’s negative. Should I preserve this character flaw in my ancestry notes? I’m conflicted about what to do. Maybe if this was a further distanced relative I would have an easier time brushing aside this prejudice but I’m having a hard time with the “right thing to do.” Any advice would be wonderful!
As a side note I will tell you that in the following generations this mans’ children and grandchildren have married Irish and Jewish spouses. Haha. I guess the “saying” was never echoed by his descendants!
Judgement of Our Ancestors
This is a great question and I applaud you for thoughtfully taking a moment to really think it through and ask for advice before moving forward on recording what you were told.
You asked – Should I write down that my great-grandfather was prejudice against certain people to preserve this part of his character or should I let this information fade into history? My opinion is, no. Mother Lisa says this is gossip and you didn’t hear it straight from your great-grandfather. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone else attributing a negative comment to me without having the chance to review or rebuke it. It’s a slippery slope.
Little Tea & Gossip by Robert Payton Reid, Source: http:⁄⁄www.liveinternet.ru⁄users⁄pmos_nmos⁄post357791815⁄
You also asked – Should I preserve this character flaw in my ancestry notes? And there’s the slippery slope. I believe that we, in modern times, should avoid sitting in judgement of ancestors who are not here to defend themselves. We don’t want to presume that we are in a position to decide how wrong “the crime” is. We certainly don’t want to be negatively prejudiced against others ourselves, but it is impossible to put oneself in another’s shoes in a differing time and circumstance. We know nothing about what the person really said. Perhaps they were joking (even though in extremely bad taste!) Maybe the person who heard this, and passed it on, had an ax to grind and part or none of it is true. Or, maybe there was an experience that our ancestor suffered that could have given him a reason to gripe based on his personal experience. You just don’t know.
In my book, I would chalk this up to gossip and either prove it with substantiated evidence or move on. What goes around comes around so let’s hope it will prevent an occurrence of someone gossiping about you and your future descendant spreading it into the ages.
Deciding to Write the Whole Story
In cases where you have secured substantial evidence that a negative story is true, you still have a choice to make. When I come across particularly sensitive or negative information about an ancestor, and before I make it public, I ask myself, “who will this help, and who will it hurt?” Does adding it to the family history enrich it? Is there anyone living today who might be hurt? If someone stands to be injured, but you’re set on capturing the story, I encourage you to do so privately for your own records and of course, cite all of your sources.
If you do decide to write and publish sensitive stories, I know that you will want to do so in as gentle and fair a way as possible. Here are some things to consider when writing about delicate stories of our ancestors:
Be sure to cite your source – who told you the story and when. The reader can decide whether to take the story with a grain of salt or believe it.
Let your readers know your reason for sharing the story in the first place. Genealogy Gems blogger Amie Tennant recently read a family history that included a horrible childhood memory. The writer stated it was important to put the family dynamics in full view so that other stories would be seen in the “right light.”
If naming everyone in the story will cause hurt or embarrassment, consider documenting the essence of the story without naming names.
Whatever you decide, writing a family history, though difficult at times, can be a rewarding experience!
Our very own Sunny Morton has just completed her fill-in-the-blank workbook for writing personal and family history. You will find the overwhelming task of starting your story as easy as pie! For a sneak-peek at what’s inside, read Writing Your Personal History: Step-by-Step or get your copy of the book “Story of My Life” here.
Family history memoirs are a beautiful and personal way to write your family history. Here are 10 family history memoirs we love.
Memoirs these days aren’t the stodgy, only-written-by-the-famous tomes of the past. Anyone who has a story to tell can write a memoir. Well, genealogists often have fantastic stories to tell. Some stories call on their own memories. Some stories come from research discoveries and the ways these discoveries have changed them. Many genealogists have a combination of both kinds of stories to tell. These are the kinds of stories you find written up as family history memoirs.
Here are some of our favorite family history memoirs from the Genealogy Gems Book Club, our no-commitment online book club with exclusive interviews with the authors:
Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secretby Steve Luxenberg. One of Lisa Louise Cooke’s all-time favorite interviews was a chat with the author about this book. “I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading Annie’s Ghosts,” says Lisa. “This book inspired me, gave me concrete ideas for pursuing my own family history research, AND kept me on the edge of my chair. What could be better? Steve is such a riveting writer and speaker, and it’s fascinating to hear how someone who is not a genealogist–but rather a journalist–approached his family history search in an effort to find the answers to mysteries in his families.” Listen to the interviews in Genealogy Gems podcast episodes 120 and 121. This book and interview planted the seed for the Genealogy Gems Book Club!
Family by Ian Frazier. In this tale of a genealogical journey, the best-selling author explores his small-town, middle-class roots in the U.S. He explains a purpose that arose from loss: “I wanted my parents’ lives to have meant something. I hunted all over for meanings of any kind….I believed bigger meanings hid behind little ones, that maybe I could follow them to a source back tens or hundreds of years ago. I didn’t care if the meanings were far-flung or vague or even trivial. I wanted to pursue them. I hoped maybe I would find a meaning that would defeat death.”
Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family Historyby Helene Stapinski. An unforgettable personal narrative! The author tells her family history within the criminal and blighted culture of Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.A. She interweaves the stories of more infamous personalities from her hometown with those of her grandfather and other relatives. She seamlessly weaves her own memories with her research and shares how she has come to terms (or not) with her “crooked family history.”
The Journey Takersby Leslie Albrecht Huber. Here’s another book Lisa profiled on the podcast awhile back. Leslie is a professional genealogist who spent thousands of hours researching the stories she tells about ancestors who left homes in Germany, England and Sweden for new lives in the United States. She writes about their experiences but also her feelings about it, in a book about both a family’s history and the effect it has on the present. Check out Lisa’s interview with Leslie in the free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode Episode 98.
Out of the Shoebox: An Autobiographical Mystery by Yaron Reshef. In this memoir, Yaron gets a phone call about property his father purchased in Israel years ago. He and his sister can inherit it, but only if they can prove that man was their father. He goes on an international paper chase into the era of World War II, the Holocaust and the making of Israel. A forgotten bank account surfaces and more surprises happen during Yaron’s two-year quest to understand the tragedies of his family’s past and recover some of its treasures.
She Left Me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Meby Emma Brockes. An award-winning journalist tells the story of her discovery of her mother’s tragic childhood in South Africa. This is a genealogical journey, complete with trips to archives, poring over old court cases and dramatic reveals. But it’s so much more than that! It’s also about learning the past from living relatives. This is the ultimate how-to book for exploring and sharing sensitive family stories because she shows you how it’s done. Listen a meaty excerpt of our interview with Emma Brockes on the Genealogy Gems podcast episode 174 and the full-length interview in Premium episode 118.
Three Slovak Women, Second Edition by Lisa Alzo. You may know Lisa as a popular speaker on Eastern European genealogy at national conferences. This is her nonfiction account of three generations of Slovak women in the steel-producing town of Duquesne, Pennsylvania, and the love and sense of family binding them together. It will inspire your own family history writing projects! Click here to hear Lisa in the free Family History Made Easy podcast talk about her reasons for researching her family history and what she’s learned along the way, including in her travels in Eastern Europe.
The Worst Country in the World by Patsy Trench. This is a first-person narrative about her Australian ancestors, who were among the first European settlers in that fascinating country. Patsy actually quit her job and traveled from London to Australia several times to research the story of her fourth great-grandmother and other relatives. She describes the book she wrote as “a hybrid: part family history, part memoir, part novel.”
Scrivener software may be just what you need to write up your family history writing. Lisa Alzo shares 4 steps for getting started.
At RootsTech 2016, Lisa Alzo introduced Scrivener to fascinated audiences in the Genealogy Gems demo theater in the Exhibit Hall. I invited her to follow up by sharing Scrivener for genealogy with you, too. Here’s what she has to say:
“It is no secret that I am an avid user of Scrivener, a multifaceted word processor and project management tool. I have been using this program for all of my personal and professional writing projects since 2011.
Here are four steps to get up and running with Scrivener so you can use it to organize and write your family history:
1. Download Scrivener. Scrivener is produced by Literature and Latte and is available for purchase for use on Mac ($45) and Windows ($40). There is also a 30-day free trial available. Double click the Scrivener “S” icon on your desktop to open the program. Before you start your first project, take a few minutes to review the Scrivener manual for your and watch the helpful interactive tutorials.
2. Start your first project. Go to File and New Project. The New Window allows you to choose from different project templates. I highly recommend starting with the “Blank,” which is the most basic and creates a simple project layout you can build upon and customize later. The “Save As” box appears for you to give your project a name (e.g. Alzo Family History) and tell Scrivener where you would like to save your project (e.g. a desktop folder, or you if you are a Dropbox user you can easily save your projects there so that you can easily access them from another computer or laptop). You will not be able to continue until you save your project.
TIP: Start small! Begin with a smaller project like an ancestor profile or blog post rather than attempting to write a 200-page family history book your first time in.
3. Plot, plan, and outline away! Whether you are a visual writer who likes to storyboard, or if you prefer text outlines, you can use Scrivener your way. When you start a new blank project, you will be see the “Binder” (located on the left-hand side), which is the source list showing all documents in the project.
By default you’ll see three folders: The “Draft” board (called “Manuscript” in other Scrivener templates) is the main space where you type your text (you can compile everything in that folder for printing or export as one long document later on). The Research folder is where you can store notes, PDF files, images, etc. (not included in your final compiled document). The Trash folder holds any deleted documents until you empty. You will have one Untitled Document showing.
Simply add a title and then start typing. You can move sections around by dragging and dropping. Click the green plus sign (+) icon to add files or folders. Scrivener also lets you import files that you already have prepared in Microsoft Word or text based formats. As you work, Scrivener allow to easily “toggle” between its key modes:
Corkboard (where you can summarize on “virtual index cards” the key points you want to cover—the virtual cards can easily be arranged in any order you like);
Outline (use it if you prefer to control the structure of your work; and
Scrivenings (this mode temporarily combines individual documents into a single text, allowing you to view some or all documents in a folder as though they were all part of one long text).
There is another pane called the “Inspector” that offers additional features to help you manage your project.
4. Finalize your project. The true power of Scrivener resides in its “Compile” feature. (Compile is just a fancy term for exporting your project into any number of final formats—print, eBook, Kindle, PDF, etc.). With Compile you specify what Scrivener does/does not include, and how it should look. Mastering Compile takes some practice, so you should refer to the Scrivener tutorials and forums for guidance.