Some custom family history books begin after a key family member - grandmother, grandfather, or great-aunt- has died. I have had the opportunity to work on custom family history books about people who have died. Here are a few things I learned.
As a newcomer to their stories, I started with asking about life details, early childhood experiences, work and hobbies, and more (interested? I share these questions here). And in both cases I’ve found that I really “get to know” the person I’m writing about. I develop a feeling of connection and familiarity with the person, beyond what might seem possible for someone so long gone. I’ve gotten to know a mother, grandmother, and wife who died 10 years ago; a grandfather, entrepreneur and scientist who died 20 years ago; and a brother, uncle and son who died 75 years ago at the end of World War II.
Whether you’re working with NextGen Story or doing your work independently, here’s a few things that I have found most helpful in capturing the spirit of those who have passed
Letters: There is nothing like a personal letter to reveal how a person processed and made sense of their own world. The content of the letters: philosophical, factual, or social/relational? The signatures: affectionate, formal, or playful? In one of my favourite custom family history books, we took clips of the letters to highlight specific sections that reveal the spirit and character of the subject.
Cultural references: One letter mentioned, as a side note, that British Movietone were coming to town. A bit of research revealed a whole wealth of content about the historical newsreel company, which would have been then a bit like CNN or Global are today. The letter’s excitement reveals a confident, extroverted self: “watch for me!” he says with glee.
Contemporary significance: Some familiar clubs or groups have shifted significantly over the years. For example, one subject became involved in the Scouts as a child in the early 1900s, and eventually worked for the Scouts as a staff person. Further research revealed that the Scouting movement first started in Canada in 1908: this subject would have been one of the first Scouts members in all of Canada.
Candid shots: No surprise here that while posed shots present one side of a character, it is the candid shots that hold the deepest emotional connection. Even in the days of the film camera, ‘selfie’ shots did exist. These, or ‘goofy’ shots with family and friends, help bring out the funny and loveable aspects of someone who is long gone.
A book is like a conversation with a friend. When I work with a family to create a custom family history book, my goal is to distill onto paper the essence of what matters about a person, to convey the story and spirit of family members into the future, for many generations to come.