|What colour is your elephant?
A family history is like an elephant – huge and impossible to digest in one piece. One way of reducing the writing task to a manageable level is to consider it a compilation of smaller parts or chapters rather than as a whole. Also you don’t have to do everything in one sitting – pick one part at a time. It helps to set aside a regular time for writing – no phone calls, social or other activities.
This is how I started a recent presentation to the Redlands Genealogical Society Writing Group. My brief was to discuss and outline strategies for turning family history research into a family history. I suggested that a family history is likely to comprise facts – things you’ve discovered with documentary evidence; opinions– things you think or believe; assumptions – things you have assumed or concluded based on evidence/lack of evidence; and context– things that happened locally, nationally, globally which may have impacted on your ancestors’ lives. As well as these basic elements, family histories can also include memorabilia, family group sheets/pedigree charts, photos, certificates, letters/diaries, heirlooms, etc., etc. Obviously it may not be possible to include physical objects in a book, so an image may have to suffice.
A family history that only contains facts can be pretty boring, whereas a family history full of opinions, assumptions and context, but no facts, is not really a family history. A family history comprises all these various elements with an appropriate weighting or emphasis given to each – the weighting will depend on what you want to write, the amount of material you have, and your audience.
A useful strategy to help achieve balance is to print out what you have written and use different coloured highlighters to pick out each element. Have you highlighted facts in yellow and as a result your page looks like a field of daffodils? You can then decide whether this is appropriate. If you decide there is an imbalance, you can then take steps to adjust the balance. A page full of densely written text can be difficult to read, so try inserting a photo or a map or other image to illustrate your points.
|Little Stanney, Cheshire in
relation to Liverpool
Following on from an earlier point, you don’t have to start at the beginning and work your way forward nor start at the end and work backwards. You can decide who/what you want to focus on. This enables you to gather together the relevant material, read through it to highlight points of interest and renew your knowledge base. You may identify some gaps you hadn’t noticed previously, which may entail further research either before or during your writing. It’s a good idea to practice writing a short piece and share with others to get feedback.
If you focus on who or what interests you the most, you are more likely to keep going. Producing a good draft gives a sense of achievement and confirmation that ‘you can do it!’ Writing about a person of interest can help set the framework for how you structure the remainder of the work.
Some family historians decide they want to write the story of the whole family – paternal and maternal lines, others focus on one branch, either maternal or paternal. Others become fascinated by an individual ancestor, a family business or home, or the ‘ancestral’ home. Depending on your focus, some of these will be easier to achieve than others and some will require a greater effort and persistence.
Another thing to decide is who is telling the story. Are you the author, or are you going to let each ancestor tell their own story? Or, haven’t you really thought about it? When you decide who is telling the story you have covered two significant issues: firstly the tense – past, present, or future; secondly, the point of view – I, we, he she, they.
I used an example from my own family to illustrate some strategies for turning research into text. One of my great-great-grandmothers was Jane Hesketh. I have collated biographical details of her, as follows, but have little other information, so it is quite difficult to create a narrative of her life:
name – Jane Heskethbirth + parents – born Little Stanney, Cheshire, May 1843, daughter of William Hesketh and Eliza Duckers marriage + name of spouse – married George Hall, Chester, 3 November, 1866 children – Hannah; Elizabeth; Eliza; Joseph; Mary; Betsey; Sarah Jane; George Edward
|The Hesketh family tree
death – died 18 Oct 1897, Liverpool
A pedigree chart is a good visual aid that helps to keep you on track. Also some people relate better to an image rather than a lot of text.
Another useful tool is a timeline, placing an ancestor’s life in the context of local or national or global events. Meg Carney wrote about timelines in an earlier blog post. Depending upon the family history software you use, these can be generated from the data in your system.
I demonstrated to the group how you could create sentences from facts, e.g.
|Chester Union Workhouse
1851 census 30 March 1851, Jane Hesketh, age 8, pauper/scholar, Chester House of Industry
Jane’s early life was difficult. Within a few years of her birth, the Hesketh family was compelled to enter the Chester House of Industry (Workhouse). Jane was recorded as a pauper-scholar in the 1851 census. William was recorded as a pauper/day labourer. It seems likely that William had difficulty finding and retaining regular work and sufficient income to raise his family.
I added some context concerning Jane’s husband, George Hall, who is recorded in various censuses as a slaterer, plasterer, bricklayer and builder.
George was born in Leicestershire and had progressed through an apprenticeship in the building trade, eventually moving to Liverpool. There he would have been in demand as a slaterer and plasterer, and subsequently bricklayer and builder, in what was a rapidly developing city.
How did I feel about the life that Jane and George lived? I could add some opinions and/or assumptions.
Samples of text
- It’s likely the family had a more comfortable life, evidenced by progression into ‘better’ parts of the city as shown in the censuses.
- It’s difficult to say from this distance in time, whether Jane and George had a happy marriage, but it was certainly a productive one.
- Her (Jane’s) mother did not stay a widow for long, marrying ex-soldier Henry Abraham in Chester on 20 December 1867.
- George did not remain a widower long, marrying widow Ann Rylands on 28 May 1898.
If you are writing up material at different times, a style sheet will help to ensure that you are consistent in presentation. It also helps with the review and editing process. See my July post if you are looking for ideas on developing a style sheet.
Few writers come up with the perfect product at the first attempt, so approach the writing task with the aim of reviewing and editing. The more you write, or read family histories by other people, the more likely you may re-think how yours is presented. Carry a small notebook to jot down ideas as they come to you and/or keep a notebook by the side of the bed – ideas often pop into your head as you’re about to fall asleep.
Let your writing sit for a while after it’s finished before starting to edit. The aim of editing is to improve your written work, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater or adopt a slash and burn technique, i.e. start a major rewrite. We are sometimes our own worst critics. If you do one type of editing at a time, you can focus on different things. Your first edit may be to check spelling of places, names, etc., whereas a second edit may be to use your style sheet to ensure consistency throughout. Are all your facts correct – have you included appropriate citations?
Editing is easier on paper than on a computer. Printing out your material in 1½ or double-line spacing allows space for edits and a ruler is really valuable when proofreading line by line. Make amendments in a distinct colour such as green or purple and indicate when these have been incorporated into your computer version. After amending your text, it’s helpful to number your versions, e.g. Hesketh_Jane_v1_22Jul16; Hesketh_Jane_v1.1_27Jul16 (or you could number as v2). Set up a filing system which mirrors the system on your computer or vice-versa – label these and remember to file your work and remember to back-up. Keep older versions of your written work until you’re really sure they’re no longer required.
Writing needs to flow from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph and chapter to chapter, so that it makes sense. Try a variety of linking clauses, sentences, or words, e.g.
- It was not long after Jane’s marriage that …
- In the last chapter we focussed on George’s marriage to Jane. We now turn to his marriage to Ann ….
- Jane’s life took a different turn when she married George, and we will discuss that in a subsequent chapter …
The more you write, the more your own writing style will emerge. Trying to adopt someone else’s style can come across as artificial or forced, rather than genuine. Weaving family myths or stories into the text and explaining how these fared during your research adds authenticity to the finished work. Depending on the audience for your work, you may choose to exclude or limit information of a sensitive nature.
I recommended seeking feedback on your writing, but suggest you choose your reviewers carefully. Your work may ‘disprove’ some strongly-held family myths, beliefs and opinions, which can generate a negative reaction. Sometimes it is better to seek comments from those without a vested interest. You can take the comments of others on board, but at the end of the day it’s your work – you don’t have to change things unless they make sense to you.
|The end result?
A few final words. Writing a family history is a major task, not one that will be done over a weekend. If you take your time and enjoy the writing process you will take pride in the end result.
Until next time
Excellent suggestions that can apply to writing family history blog posts too, I shall try to keep them in mind.