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Why Should You Add Historical Context To Your Writing?

Family History Writing Why you should add historical context

Your relatives lead boring lives, right? Do your dead ancestors have nothing worth writing about?

If you answered yes to the first question and no to the second, I have two words for you.

Your ancestor’s life sketch or biography instantly becomes more fascinating when you add a little historical context to the mundane facts for their existence.

Book cover for A Recipe for Writing Family History

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In my book A Recipe for Writing Family History, Step 6 focuses on adding Fun Facts to the documented details of an ancestor’s life. Historical context, such as weather, local and world events, pop culture references, and economic averages add flavor to an otherwise bland retelling of the genealogical details.

Good stories have a clearly defined setting, but if you can’t describe the physical view of a location, what’s the next best thing?

Many of us cannot describe the landscape, sounds, and seasons pertaining to our ancestors. We can’t visualize what they saw, heard, smelled, or tasted. We certainly can’t imagine what worried them or excited the local town chatterboxes. But if you add the historic events from their lives to your writing, your stories magically transform.

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Imagine if your ancestor was living in England when Napolean escaped from Elba. Do you remember what year that was? Did you know it’s the same time period of General Andrew Jackson and the campaign against the American Indians? Oh, and it’s the continuation of the War of 1812 between America and Britain. It’s also about the time that Jane Austen published “Emma”. Suddenly, your ancestor’s wedding or the birth of their child in America, France, or England has new depth and dimension?

Our ancestors lived on Earth at a time and a place. That time and place impacted the decisions that our ancestors made and the lifestyle that they lived.

Don’t believe this to be true? Let’s use an example.

Who was Elvis Presley?

If you said “The King of Rock and Roll,” either you grew up listening to him or hearing your parents talk about him. If you said, a famous singer, then you’re a little too young to remember who he was BUT Google and YouTube have you covered in learning more.

Once you can picture Elvis’s music, hairstyles, and clothing, you have a reference point. You can now connect movies and fashion trends to that time and place. Granted, you need to define whether you’re talking about Jailhouse Rock Elvis (the younger years) or Moody Blue (his last album) but once you know the time and place, you can then picture the other controversies surrounding his days.

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In his early years, he appeared on black and white television attempting to shake his hips. Part of his body is cut off during the broadcast because hip-shaking was so frowned upon by older members of society.  Those two facts tell us a lot about the society that our ancestors lived in at the time of Elvis. Would your ancestor likely be a hip-shaker or a parent who said the youth of the country are losing their souls (or some such thing?)

The Moody Blue Elvis wore disco, skin-tight white jumpsuits with sparkles. He seemed depressed, and so did the country as it was finishing its engagement in Vietnam, and the drug culture was on the rise (as it took his life).  Would your ancestor be involved in these cultural fads or be impacted by them?

See, one piece of historical context and you can help someone know the time and place and the current events in the minds of your ancestors? See how knowing the past events might help you understand why a migrated to another country?

Historic events also help you picture the technology of the day and how that technology impacted your ancestor’s lives. Imagine how the cotton gin began to transform the southern states of America. Imagine how the railroad changed the landscape of England or continental Europe. Imagine how the invention and use of rifles and pistols changed military campaigns throughout the world. But the invention of the washing machine, microwave, or radio also had dramatic impacts on your ancestor’s lives as well.

Adding historical events adds multiple senses to your ancestor’s lives

Identify what happened during a day or year, identify who the leaders were, and what technology was spreading throughout the land.  These factors add drama to your family histories. Don’t forget to add local, national, and global context.

YOUR TURN: What historical context do you like to add to your stories? What resources do you have for finding the context? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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