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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

3 Steps For Using Social History Make a Family History Better

If you attempt to share your published genealogy with your family that only has names, dates, and places, is it any wonder no one wants to read what you produce? To generate interest in your stories and have relatives asking for their own copies, wrap the genealogy facts with social history.

Social history details how ancestors lived, worked, prayed, played, and interacted with their community. When you add these insights into your ancestor's story, you can easily turn a dull manuscript into an engaging story.

The following steps will help you begin the process. Just remember to start adding social history to your rough draft. As you revise each draft, experiment with adding different elements of social history. If it works, keep it. If it doesn't, take it out.

But you won't know how awesome your story will become until you add the details about the daily lives of your ancestors.

1. Research the Historical Context of Your Family

As genealogists, we regularly research records to find evidence to identify our ancestors, events in their life, whom they are related to, and descriptions that separates them from someone else with the same name.

When we research social history, we do not look for resources with our ancestors' names on them. Instead, we research the locations, dates, and world around our ancestor.

For example, we research the following:

  • Towns lived in for customs, laws, amenities, geography, climate, newsworthy events, economics, transportation options, technology.

  • Schools attended for educators, administrators, activities, amenities, buildings, fellow students, and noteworthy events.

  • Religious observance for customs, beliefs, leaders, and buildings.

  • Occupations for skills needed, hours worked, financial compensation, products made or services offered, co-workers, and bosses.

  • Culture - entertainment offerings, taboo topics, behavior standards, courting practices, favored groups, stereotypes, negative group interactions, social ranking, fashion, ethnic heritage, language, associations, medical treatments, and care for the poor.

  • Governments - leaders, laws, social movements, political associations, criminality, military units, violent conflicts, taxes.

Often, this social history is gathered in books and periodicals specific to a location and a time. For example, county and military unit histories often curate data about all the social history topics into one resource.

However, the relevant resources for the above topics include history books and blogs, historic newspapers, diaries and letters for community members, statutes, religious decrees, and pamphlets. Lynn Palermo has a gateway of relevant resources to get you started in researching social history.

However, one of my favorite idea-generating resources is Wikipedia. Review the details about your ancestor's life and then research those topics on Wikipedia.

By so doing, I discovered that my Grandpa Lew was a huge Ohio State football fan and worked part-time as a stadium usher. While researching the football team and the famous horseshoe stadium, I discovered that construction of the facility began the year grandpa was born.

I then wove the history of Ohio State football, and the stadium, into my grandpa's story, and my relatives thought it fit perfectly.

While researching the context, do not overlook anything because you do not think it will fit. It's better to have too much initially and then not include it than to have too little and write a boring family history.

2. Integrate Social History Into Story

Two techniques will help you include social history in your ancestor's story.

Describe As You Go

This first technique deals with defining the unfamiliar, which includes:

  1. Terminology - such as slang, idioms, and words that describe objects that a reader doesn't use or has not experienced.

  2. Obscure events & places

  3. Customs & behaviors

For instance, when writing about a bobsled in my Canadian ancestor's story, we could write something like this.

While waiting for her cousins at the train station, a friendly gentleman arrived in a wooden wagon set on metal skis rather than wheels. He knew Catherine's relatives well and was heading in their direction. Since Catherine had waited three hours for her kin, she leaped at the opportunity to leave the cold and continue her journey toward her confined pregnant cousin. As she grasped the neighbor's hand and boarded the bobsled, she prepared herself for the bumpy ride across the icy snow.

Notice how I have defined a bobsled as a wagon with skis rather than wheels that cause a bumpy ride. In short, a bobsled was probably named by an engineer, "A sled (wagon) that bobs."

(FYI. The engineer reference is a debate that happens often in my home between my husband and me. He's an engineer, and I have a degree in marketing. Engineers and marketers always debate over the names of products. Engineers call things what they are - glovebox, bobsled, etc. Marketers will be responsible for brand names and 'creative' words like Cricut machine.)

Describe as you go invites you not necessarily to stop and insert a definition.

While waiting for her cousins at the train station, a friendly gentleman arrived in a bobsled (a wooden wagon set on metal skis rather than wheels that caused bumpy rides where folks bobbed up and down).

Instead, you weave the definition into the story to keep the reader engaged but informed.

Zoom In

The zoom-in technique works best for helping to describe the setting for events in your ancestor's life.

For instance, I often use headlines, pop culture, and world events to introduce a birth, marriage, death, or major life milestone or change.

Thus, I will start at a high level.

  • On the day Vladimir Lenin’s would-be heir, Leon Trotsky, was banished by Joseph Stalin.

Then I'll zoom in closer.

  • On the 20th anniversary of the Grand Canyon being declared a national monument.

Then I arrive at the scene of my ancestor's life event.

  • A daughter joined the home of 34-year-old Jessie Alfred Tame and 30-year-old Elizabeth Orton.

Notice how I start at the global level, then to the regional, and finally into the home of Jessie and Elisabeth Tame.

After zooming in, you can now describe the scene as you continue identifying the name of the daughter and more about her birth.

The weather was probably around 37°F for the babe's arrival. Newspapers blocked the windows of her family home. The headlines for the Salt Lake Tribune screamed “Groesbeck Sentenced to Prison Term” while also encouraging readers to follow the 1928 election season in that paper.

What headline would an editor craft had they known Elizabeth's secret that she hid from her best friend and her entire community?

Now, as we revise the story to improve the flow of the story, we might rearrange when we include the weather, the newspaper-lined windows hiding a secret birth, and the couple's identity.

But do you now see how you can leverage the zoom-in and describe-as-you-go techniques to incorporate social history into a birth story?

If you can, use these techniques in your family history and tell me how much they transform your genealogy books.

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3. Don't Presume

Many writing educators invite you to consider your ancestors more typical than unique. They are special to you, but they likely participated in behaviors typical of the time and place they lived.

The advantage of this advice is you can then incorporate historical events, customs, clothes, household items, and so forth into your ancestor's story, even if you do not specifically know how they behaved, what they worked, or what they owned.

However, never infer what your ancestor possessed, believed, wore, or did. An extreme example would involve assuming your ancestor condoned slavery simply because they lived in the Antebellum south. It's possible that a child of a slave owner was an abolitionist.

Without documentation proving the fact, we can neither confirm nor refute that possibility. But we can also neither confirm nor deny that they were wholly invested in the practice of slavery either.

On a smaller scale, don't presume they did what everyone else did. They may have baptized their children in the same church, but that doesn't mean they believed the religious tenants.

Perhaps that church was the only one for miles around, and your ancestors believed in the ritual of baptism. In short, close was better than 'correct.'

Try It Out

Once you write a rough draft about your ancestors, enhance the stories with social history. You don't have to be a creative or talented writer to add context to your story. But by adding details about the world in which your ancestors lived, your stories are more meaningful and enjoyable.

You can do this!

Continue Learning Social History

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