Devon Noel Lee
Better Ways to Add Action to Family History Stories
Many genealogists believe they must have action-packed stories to entice their family members to read what they write. When we write about our heroic ancestors, this notion seems easy enough.
But how do you add action to the life of an average or boring ancestor?
What is Action in a Story?
According to Beth Hill from The Editor's Blog, action is "anything that happens in a story." For family historians, any documented event in an ancestor's life that we can place on a timeline is action.
All the more reason to make that timeline before writing your first draft. Aye?
Now, if you have written the first draft using a timeline as your outline, you may still feel like your story is boring.
If we again consult Ms. Hill, we would learn that "readers come to fiction to find something they can’t get in their daily lives."
I read historical romance novels to find something I can’t experience daily. But when I read a family history, what should I expect?
Truthfully, few people want to read a “based on a true story” book that is more fiction than facts. If it’s about their ancestors, they want even more facts than literary contrivances. They want to read a well-written story with elements of quality fiction that emphasize the truth.
This transcript is from this video.
Action in a Family Story
To learn what to include in our stories, let's look at simple memory to see if it has action.
I have only one solid memory of my Grandma Helen, which goes like this.
During a rare visit to my grandparents’ pipe tobacco and coffee-smelling ranch-style home in Blacklick, Ohio, in a shaky but friendly voice, Grandma said, “Come to the table!”
As I rushed to the table, I saw a stooped-over woman wearing thick orthopedic shoes carrying a glass casserole dish from the galley kitchen to the cloth-covered dinner table.
As Grandma slowly shuffled to the table with shaky hands, I wondered, ‘will Grandma make it to the table before she drops the only dish I want to eat on the carpet?’
Does this memory have action?
It doesn't have a car chase, but it does have movement. Why?
Notice that the scene uses ACTION verbs: visit, rushed, wearing, carrying, shuffled, etc. However, this story only has action because I experienced it.
If you were fictionalizing your family history, you could add some action by adding physical activity, dialogue, or both. For example, we can show a farmer plowing a field, a banker speaking to a customer, or a mother or father disciplining a child with words and actions.
Unless you have experienced these scenes, writing action into your story is tough.
So how can we write action into stories about an ancestor we’ve never met, who did things we've never experienced?
You Don’t Know Enough About Your Ancestors
First, you have to recognize what you don't know.
My great-grandfather Robert Walter Zumstein lived in Ontario, Canada. He was a farmer on Elcho Road near the Elcho United Brethren Church, which he attended.
I can’t tell you how he walked, rode a horse, swung a hammer, or pushed a plow.
Did he ride well or poorly?
Did he walk with a limp, slap his feet along the pavement, or skip in his step?
Robert was the son of a German-Immigrant to Canada. His son Robert Victor spoke English and German fluently enough to serve in the Canadian military as a translator during World War I. I know these facts but what I don’t know is,
How well did Robert speak English? Or did he speak with a Bayern accent?
Was he polite and refined, or did he speak with the crudeness of the lower classes?
Was he friendly, or did he bark commands?
Did he come across as stressed, anxious, tired, or lazy?
Since I can’t describe how either man walked or talked, how could I attempt to explain how they worshiped, farmed, or anything else?
In short, we need solid personal experiences or diaries documenting our ancestors to invent their words and actions if we fictionalize scenes to add movement to our stories.
However, we may describe our ancestors in such a way they wouldn't recognize themselves in our stories. What can we do instead to have more interest in our stories?
CinemaTherapy Tip For Family Historians
YouTube offers a wealth of knowledge in the strangest of places. For example, during an episode of Cinema Therapy, playwright Alan Seawright talks about how each scene in a good movie has to have a story arc.
"The scene must start in one place and end in another."
That’s great advice for family history authors!
To implement this strategy, we need to take our current draft and analyze each event in our ancestor’s life in connection with the overall theme of their story.
As a quick review, our ancestor’s stories often shape into a few common story types.
These include the journey, quest, transformation, rags to riches, riches to rags, romance, tragedy, and more.
For my ancestor, Joseph Geiszler, his overall story is a tragedy as he died young leaving behind a wife and three children under the age of 4 after moving to America from Baden less than a decade before.
What story arcs can you see using a timeline of events in your ancestor’s life?
Break Story into Smaller Arcs
Once you know the overall arc of your ancestor's story, it’s time to break down their life timeline into smaller arcs. For Joseph, here are just a few of his smaller story arcs:
Childhood in Baden
Journey to America
Marriage and Family
The Civil War
Dying as a Young Father
Each of these segments of his life have a natural arc.
Following Alan’s advice to start in one place and end in another, we would tell these stories:
Childhood in Baden - he began as a baby and ended as an adult.
Journey to America - he started in Baden and ended in Ohio.
Marriage and Family - he started single and ended up married with children.
The Civil War - he began in a land of opportunity without revolution and ended with his new country at war.
Dying as a Young Father - he started alive and ended dead.
Once you know the smaller arcs that will point you toward the overall theme, you revise your story to emphasize these actions.
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Incorporate Social Context
My final tip to add more action-based details to your story to make the mini-story arcs more successful involves leveraging social context when historical documentation is unavailable.
I need more documentation for Joseph's story to know
who he traveled with,
when he arrived in the United States,
and how he traveled from the coast to Ohio.
However, I am not without hope. Instead, I can talk about the following:
Talk about why a seemingly single young man from Baden would leave Germany in the 1850s.
Answers for the push factors came from researching the German Revolution of 1848 and the fallout in Baden after its failure.
Discuss the options available during that time for where he could move:
Did you know that Canada, England, and Australia were options?
Within the US, he could have gone to Ohio, Wisconsin, or Texas.
Such answers came from books discussing Germans who migrated to the United States and why they chose these locations.
After landing in one of many ports, he had several options to travel to Ohio.
I can discuss the most likely options for traveling along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
Books about migration routes and trails during the 1850s discussed each choice's various routes, rates, and hazards.
Then you can end the chapter suggesting that he would not seem to remain a single man for long.
Based on Joseph's marriage record, this detail takes me to where I want to end the story.
And now, I have added a story arc in the scene. Joseph went from point A to point B either physically, economically, or in terms of relationships.
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Did You Recognize the Story Arc You Read?
If you still doubt that story arcs and social context provide sufficient action, let me leave you with one final thought. This post was an example of adding action to a piece of writing.
First, notice the story arc that took place.
You started wanting to know how to add action to your family history.
You read how some methods do not work or change the nature of your final product.
I offered some ways to serve you better, no matter your talent for writing.
You can now go revise your family stories to have more action.
Now that you've learned everything I have to share, it's time for you to go write those stories.
Off you go!
Additional Writing Tips
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