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Turn Dry Facts into Compelling Stories: Engaging Family History, Part 3

In the previous post in this series on writing family history books, we talked about adding colour to the stories you’ve collected about your ancestors. But what about those ancestors that you only have a few dry facts for and no story? Based on your genealogical research, you may only know when and where someone was born and died and what they willed to their children.

As we’ve helped many of our clients see, even in those situations there is still a story to be told!

But first off, you do have a choice: You could avoid this issue by only writing about ancestors for whom you have extensive stories. Focusing on ancestors that are particularly interesting, or who have a connection to an overall theme you have developed, is an effective way to tie an overall family history book together. If you don’t want to leave anyone out, though, you’ll probably face turning limited facts into something interesting for some people in your family.

Either option can be effective, and you can structure your family history book to support the choice you make.

Find the Uncommon

In one of the family history books we worked on, the author wrote a piece about an ancestor that included only dates, places, names, and items left in his will. The piece ended by stating that he died in 1816 at the age of 92. Nothing more.

Part of the feedback we gave the author suggested she focus on how old this family member lived to be. It seemed quite uncommon for the times.

In the next version of her manuscript, the author continued the piece by saying that 38 was the average life expectancy at the time. She stressed the point by adding that this ancestor lived almost two and a half times longer than average.

To really highlight the significance of the story she was telling, this family history writer tied her ancestor’s longevity to her theme (see the first post in this series). To do this, she finished by wondering if his hardiness was due to his self-discipline and pious Quaker lifestyle.

Here’s how these additions looked:

Since the average life expectancy for a man during this period was about 38 years, Joseph lived almost two and half times longer than average. He lived the longest of all the male descendants of Thomas Hoyt. Could his disciplined and pious Quaker lifestyle have contributed to this?

By identifying a potential point of interest, expanding on it, and linking it back to her theme, the author turned a simple number into a meaningful story.

Ask Why

Another suggestion we made for this piece was exploring why Joseph willed certain items to specific people. There didn’t seem to be anything special about bedding, a desk, or a clock, but asking ‘why’ gave a clearer picture of the family’s status for the time.

To us, desks are nothing special. Children sit at them in school, and adults work at them in offices. But the desk this ancestor had from the 1700s would probably have featured impressive craftsmanship and been a prestigious item.

Leaving such a treasure to his firstborn son now made sense.

This is the description the author inserted:

During that time period, desks were usually large, ornate and carved with embellishments. They were usually made for a country house library and were considered a luxury. It may be because he was the eldest that Joseph [Jr.] was the one who received his father’s desk.

Sometimes asking ‘why’ can lead to possibilities instead of certainties. To complete a story when only a few facts are available, making a guess is often the best you can do. Using words or phrases like ‘maybe’, ‘possibly’, and ‘might have been’ bridges the gap between telling a story and remaining faithful to the facts.

Do the Research

When transforming modest facts into intriguing stories, you will likely need to do additional research to gain a wider context. You might discover a significant event that happened the year an ancestor was born that probably affected their life. The character of the community they were born in could also be of interest, and this could relate to your theme.

By digging deeper and asking questions, you can find the stories behind the facts to connect your readers to your ancestors.

Get guidance and feedback at every step of writing your family history book. Call or send a message to our NextGen Story team today to get started. And want to read the book we're quoting from? Check out Puritans, Quakers & Witches: 500 Years of the Haight Family at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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