By Pauleen Cass.
With the tsunami of genealogical data available online it’s tempting to just keep adding more and more facts and branches to your family tree. It’s also tempting to ignore the context of the data – to not look beyond the page you’ve landed on. Do you assess what you’re seeing, whether it’s a transcription or an image of the original document? All this data adds to what you know about your families but does it tell their stories?
I’m sure you’ve all seen the meme that does the rounds about gravestones stating birth and death dates, but that there’s so much more to an individual life between those dates. We understand that our own lives are not just about dates, rather the events and their circumstances, and what impact they had on us and our immediate or extended families.
For these reasons I’d encourage you to tell your families’ stories (and your own). Write them up, go beyond the basic facts. I was fortunate when I started my research over 30 years ago, that two women who I’d contacted via snail mail had both placed their families within a narrative context. Perhaps that’s what formed my own approach, combined with a natural inclination to write.
There are many reasons why writing up your stories is worthwhile for yourself, your research, and other family members.
It gives you the opportunity to place events in context – was it raining on the day your ancestors were married? What impact did it have when they were declared bankrupt? Is there any evidence or stories about how they coped with illness or natural disasters or the tragedy of losing a child or children? Were they “typical” of the place where they lived or did they differ in some particular way? These nuances add the pattern to your family’s historical quilt.
You can present your research findings, and perhaps the path you took to locate the information and how you assessed its merits. This not only helps you, but also gives your readers insights into your process, and how they might approach a similar problem. I know that with my own blog I now find that I’m going back to something I’ve written over the years, to revisit what I discovered, and my thinking about it at the time. It doesn’t mean that you can’t revisit or revise earlier thinking – you can add to what you’ve learned before, modify it if need be, and explain why and what’s changed.
Story writing reveals the gaps in your research. You’d be surprised how often the process of writing up highlights something you just haven’t followed up, or need to explore.
A story has more impact than a bunch of names and dates, though if I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked “how far back have you gone?”, I could pay for all my subscriptions! You can focus on particular elements and give them more detail with your story line. Most people like a good story.
WHO ARE YOU WRITING FOR?
The theory of writing is to do so with a focus on your audience. Yes, it needs to be interesting, but it also needs to satisfy a need for you, whether it’s to tell the story in and of itself, or to lay out your discoveries.
Mostly my focus is on the content of the story I want to tell, rather than whether Person A or B might be interested. This is for two reasons. Firstly, it’s my story of my research. Secondly, my target audience is very much my children and grandchildren. Even if they don’t get round to reading the stories for some time, I live in hope the stories will still be there.
WHERE DO YOU WRITE?
You can choose to write publicly or privately, via a blog, or in a document that you print off at Officeworks (or similar). Remember always to consider copyright and privacy considerations – they do apply even if you’re “only” printing 10 documents “just for family”. In your exclusively private documents you can write warts and all details, but again, you have to consider these key issues if you’re sharing any of it with others.
Blogging is a great way to put your stories in the public domain. It has several advantages:
- Sharing your research journey, discoveries and stories.
- Gaining a support group who can provide feedback or guidance, or “just” friendship…I’ve lost count of how many friends I’ve made through blogging.
- Sharing the stories with family – extended and immediate – the stories can make for great “cousin bait”
- Your blog may be archived in Pandora with Trove and hopefully be available long into the future. Just imagine yet-unborn descendants reading your words in decades to come.
- You can choose to make it public (available to anyone online) or private (just for family you invite).
- You can have your blog posts printed out into a book (Book2Print is an example)
WHAT’S YOUR WRITING STYLE?
My personal view is that your story writing should be true to your “voice”. You can “speak” informally or offer a more formal, perhaps academic or journalistic style. You can even change the tone depending on the topic you’re writing about, or an ancestor you knew, rather than someone you’ve never met. Footnotes help your readers follow your research path (and you, in case you forget). Some people subscribe to the thought that says short stories are best, I personally want to tell the story with the detail I want to include. Remember, you can add more than one “chapter” to the story if it’s a complex one.
“But I can’t write”, many will say. You’re not aiming for Booker Prize stories, you just want to tell your family’s story…tell it how you want, based on what you’ve discovered. Use the thesaurus, grammar and spell checkers in word processing programs if you’re not sure of these things.
WHERE DO YOU START?
You’ve got lots of stories in your head, where do you start? You don’t have to start by thinking about “War and Peace”. You can chew off small bites using memes that do the rounds on sites like Geneabloggers Tribe.
Some memes to kickstart your writing:
JUST DO IT
As with so many tasks, procrastination can be tempting, but just leaping in and putting fingers to keyboard, or pen to paper, is the only way to get going. I encourage you to take the writing journey – I’m confident you won’t regret it, and when family members show their appreciation for the stories you’ve told, you’ll feel an added glow of satisfaction from your journey.