Devon Noel Lee
Do Not Blame Sources For Your Boring Family History
Recently, a client, for whom I was beta reading their project, complained after I marked up their story. I repeatedly asked,
"Where's the source for this?"
"What is this based on?"
Apparently, I asked those two questions too frequently because the client retorted,
"I don't want to add those genealogy sources to my family history book. They make my story look stuffy, and no one will want to read
As a genealogist, sources are the backbone of our efforts. Without sources, we’re writing fiction. So at first, I was a little shocked to hear the client didn’t want me to question where she obtained her information.
But then, her question settled a bit, and I wondered what she was actually saying.
In short, she felt anxious about whether anyone would read her story if it overflowed with invitations like an academic thesis.
Is her fear of the story becoming a snooze-fest with so many well-founded citations?
Are These Books Boring?
Typically, when you want a page-turned, you pick up A Woman’s Place by Lynn Austin or The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan
The first is a historical fiction set during World War II and follows the lives of three women who are involved in keeping the home front functioning. One woman begins working in a factory to prove that women can do such work.
The second is a fantasy novel set in a fictional place that very closely resembles Ireland, Scotland, and Scandinavian.
The stories have complex characters, fleshed-out story arcs, and tremendous setting details. But they have no genealogical sources. Meaning perhaps these characters are based on someone else, but the actual individuals in the stories were not real. In short, these stories are wonderful reads, but they do not have ‘stuffy sources’ cluttering up their way.
Contrast that with Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S. C. Gwynne. This book falls into the non-fiction category and is an informative read about the last great Comanche war chief in Texas.
Unlike traditional genealogy books, this well-sourced book does not put footnotes at the bottom of every page or each chapter. Instead, the author has a Notes Section and Bibliography.
In the book, Three generations of descendants of Shapley Prince Ross: an early Texas pioneer, Karen Stein Daniel, uses superscript citations. Then at the end of the book, the sources are listed in a section called “Endnotes.”
While I prefer one book per person, like the two I have on my shelf, this compilation of several generations offers bite-sized nuggets to whet the appetite.
All in all, what results in a stuffy family history is not so much the placement or use of citations but how the author writes a story.
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Sources Prove Reality
While we should take counsel from Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday, who often requested, "Just the facts, ma'am," we do not have to present those details in an insomnia-producing way.
Knowing the sources from which genealogy facts originates ensures that we write non-fiction content rather than fantasy.
Sources help ensure you are writing about the correct details.
If you have a Gold Rush ancestor who documented his journey west, you need to know the difference between the Pinta Trail and the Gila Trail. A reference source, such as a map, can help keep those paths from crossing when they shouldn't.
Perhaps you're writing about an immigrant who passed through the port of Baltimore, Maryland, in 1855. You should know the difference between a frigate and a schooner if you wish to discuss the trials of crossing the ocean. You'll need a source to support your claims and differentiate your boats.
Quality references prove that we’re writing about real people. So, where does the boring nature of family histories lie if we can't blame the sources?
Choose the Right Format
A boring family history is the fault of the writer's chosen format or style.
The most widely used genealogy book format is known as Register Style.
In this style, you write a brief paragraph for each family member. The paragraph includes details about a person's dates and places for their birth or baptism, marriage, death, and/or burial. The paragraph might also identify the person's parents, spouse(s), and child(ren). All of these items are linked to proper source citations.
While this format earns many awards from groups such as the National Genealogical Society, does the average reader like this approach?
When I say average, I’m talking about the relatives who roll their eyes when you start talking about genealogy at family gatherings. Do they like this style?
But genealogists and family historians like this style.
Therefore, you have the decision to make. Are you trying to appease the academic audience or non-genealogist?
That’s not to say you can’t make a Register Style book more interesting, the key point is to go back to the conversation with my client.
She felt this format was stuffy and boring, which swung her opinion about using sources to the extreme of not wanting to include them.
Thankfully, family history writes have numerous format options. I discussed many of them in the post What Family History Books Should You Create?
Stop blaming the sources. Instead, choose the format that fits your intended audience.
Details, Details, Details
Joseph Lucas, born 17 March 1837 in Beaumont, Jefferson, Republic of Texas; died 4 February 1846 in Liberty County, Texas, United States. His burial place is unknown.
How often have you read something like that and thought, that’s a great story?
When it comes to enjoyable family histories, people want to read something more than bare facts. Readers want to understand the family in the context of their world, their choices, and their family members.
Why did a single man migrate from Baden, Germany, in 1853 to Columbus, Ohio?
What was it like to be a Jewish model in New York City in 1945 and have a photographer enter you in a beauty pageant?
What was it like to attend a leading music college in Paris at ten?
We can piece together the basic details that tell us what happens in an ancestor's life through school records, newspaper articles, passenger lists, census records, and more.
Let’s go back to Joseph’s story.
Notice that he was born in the Republic of Texas and died a year after Texas became a state. You can add historical context to his story to help us understand those changes.
Did you calculate his age at death? He’s about nine years old. How many siblings does he have at the time of his death who will grieve his loss? How old were his parents? How did he die?
Did you notice that his birthplace and death place are different? How far apart are these two locations? Did his family move there, or are they visiting?
He did in February. While Texas isn’t known for snow storms, February is cold, and winter often causes the spread of illnesses. Did weather or communicable diseases play a role in his death?
Also, what else happened to his family that year? Who else was born? Who married? Who died? Who moved away?
If we take time to answer these questions, we can turn two lines about a boy who died in Texas at the age of nine into several paragraphs. And I haven’t even added much more social history other than the fact that Texas became a state during Joseph’s lifetime.
If this is possible with such a short life, imagine what we can do with an ancestor who lived into their 60s. And you’ll also notice that the answers to each question will require sources to supply the answers.
Details make a story more enjoyable to read, so add them whenever possible.
For more tips on including details in your story, read Describing Your Ancestor's Physical Appearance and Adding Historical Context, or order my book A Recipe for Writing Family History.
Add the Citations
Going back to my client, with time, we worked through the process of deciding which format would meet her needs for approachable reading while being supported by references.
If you will turn your attention to how you will deliver and package your story rather than fighting sources, you will produce something that your intended audience will find enjoyable.
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