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Engaging Family History Part 2: Paint a Picture

Trying to make your family history book more engaging and interesting to your readers? Adding colour to the individual stories you’ve compiled is the focus of part two of this series on writing engaging family history books. Some of these stories you may have gathered from documents and others may have come your way through personal interviews.

By including vivid and specific details at key moments, you can make your family history and genealogical research both memorable and meaningful.

Step Inside Their World

Getting your audience to feel like they’re right there in the scene you’re setting is one way to bring your ancestors’ stories to life. One author we worked with did exactly that when she described her ancestors’ journey in the 1600s from England to America:

Onboard the ships were three hundred-fifty men, women, and children, one hundred-fifteen head of cattle, horses, forty-one goats, and some rabbits. These vessels were simply not designed to transport passengers for a two-to-three-month journey. Temporary makeshift cabins located between decks were installed to provide protection from the elements. There were no bathrooms, heat, or light. Women and children spent a good part of the voyage below deck.

In the story, the author calls attention to the conditions on board the ships. She notes that there were no bathrooms and no source of heat or light in passenger quarters on the months-long journey. By specifying the number of cattle and goats that her ancestors shared the vessel with, she provides memorable detail.

This vivid picture gets readers to imagine how they might have felt on this uncomfortable and lengthy voyage.

Underscore Your Point

Staying focused on the main point of your story will help you select where you take the time to add specifics. In a family history book we worked on recently, the author wanted to show how society has changed since the days of his grandparents in Mexico:

Wherever you went in town, at the ranch, the first thing they’d do was offer you a glass of water and a taco – wherever you went. And it didn't have to be lunchtime. At six in the morning, at seven in the morning, if you were there looking for someone, they’d say, “Come on in! Just a sec, we’ll serve you something while you wait."

Nowadays, young people don’t even want to say ‘hello’ when passing someone on the street.

Instead of stating his point outright, the writer takes us into his grandparents’ hometown of the past. At that time, anyone stopping into someone’s home would be welcomed in and offered a beverage and a homemade snack. He contrasts this with how now some people don’t even do the minimum of acknowledging each other when walking down the street.

This description shows in very concrete terms the author’s view that hospitality and the sense of community are being lost.

Highlight Personalities

Recreating dialogue of pivotal encounters can be an intriguing way of capturing the moment. It can also be an effective way of bringing out a family member’s character in the responses they give and the way they speak. One of our clients did this beautifully in a conversation he included about something that happened when his father had the family out for a drive.

One day I kicked you all out of the car because I sold it right then and there. I had a ‘for sale’ sign in the window and a man caught up with us at a red light. "Hey, how much is your car?" "It's this much." The guy really, really wanted it. He said, “And the papers?” "I have them right here." "Really?" "Yeah." "You know what?" he tells me, "Pack your things. I’ll take it."

This humorous account of the interchange between the author’s father and a stranger highlights how his father made spur-of-the-moment decisions.

By relating this story as a dialogue, audiences feel like it’s happening as they read and are just as surprised as the family – well, almost…

Make It Count

Remember that everything in your family history book should serve a purpose. For some writers it can be tempting to include all the details they can find, trying to organize and capture every bit of family history and genealogical information. For others, it can be a challenge to know how to add descriptions. A principle to keep in mind is to dive in when you want to leave your reader with a strong impression and avoid straying off the path of the larger family history story you are telling.

At NextGen Story, our personalized feedback on your writing will help you make important decisions like how to add colour to your family history. Get in touch with us today and tell us about your story.

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