How in-depth should we be when describing our ancestors?
Just how many details should we include in a family story? Is there such a thing as oversharing?
If you found yourself asking those questions, then you’re in line with a question submitted by Linda, who asked:
"How in-depth should we be when describing our ancestors? I'm thinking parents, etc.
Different traits they had, what they liked to eat, falling and breaking a leg, having cancer and being a survivor, even spousal abuse?"
I really want to say.
ALL OF IT!
However, let’s be more specific so that you can answer this question for your ancestor’s stories. Is there such a thing as “too much description?”
9 times out of ten, most genealogists have too little information to work with when writing a family history.
For example, I had four documents to work with about my 2nd great-grandfather, Joseph Geisler.
I turned that into a 90-page story (in a 6x9 format) with an appendix at the end of the book.
I have no photos or physical descriptions of my ancestor, but I expanded those four documents into an interesting story.
However, not every detail is necessary when telling a story about our ancestors.
In fact, some of our readers might not appreciate all the details.
How will you know how to strike the right balance?
Every good story begins with a rough draft.
Then that draft goes through the editing process where ‘how much is too much” is resolved.
Therefore write EVERYTHING and ANYTHING you can while you’re drafting your family story.
You will not know how which details matter most unless you give them a chance to shine in your story.
In this video, I explain how my father's leg surgery has a deeper connection to me four years later. Watch this video.
Revise For Your Audience
After processing everything and anything you know about a relative, set the story aside for a month or longer.
Before revising your story again, re-read it. Who would benefit from this story?
Adults with a casual interest in genealogy
Or adults with a genealogical background
Once you make THAT decision, you can use that audience as your goal.
Many details about an individual appeal to a child compared to a genealogist.
Once you’ve finished your rough draft, that helps you pick your audience. The audience then helps guide how much context is warranted and appreciated.
Also, keep in mind the story you chose to tell a specific audience also guides your content decision-making process.
For instance, Andy’s family has a large family history book focused on paternal grandparents.
There’s a story in here that would make an awesome children’s story.
It’s about his grandfather’s trip across the globe to deliver planes to China during World War II. There’s a lot of detail. This trip is full of mishaps that my children love.
If the original draft has details about spousal abuse or his favorite food, we should probably leave it out. And then extract that story into a smaller book, rather than this big tome to carry around.
For one thing, these details are off-topic of this journey around the world.
However, if he received a scar from one of the crash landings the planes had, or he doesn’t like loud bangs because they triggered memories from this adventure, we should include those details.
Because these details directly relate to the story. The reaction to the loud bangs could be a great opening to the story as well.
In the video mentioned earlier, I share a family history story in Andy's family that sounds like the Gift of the Magi but with Mexican food. Be sure to watch this video.
How many details are needed in this type of love story?
Any relevant examples of about the silly lovebirds. But this story shouldn’t necessarily go into details about war scars or traveling around the globe in broken-down airplanes.
Revise your stories to meet your audience and stay ‘on topic’, and you’ll have the confidence to share the right details.
↪️ Do you want to write a family history book?
Grab your copy of this FREE Writing Guide:
How Many Details Go Into a Sensitive Story?
Now, let’s talk about sensitive stories - namely abuse, divorce, alcoholism, neglect, racism, slavery, and so on.
Would you include a favorite meal in a story about an abusive ancestor?
No, and yes.
When you’re retelling a story about a specific abusive situation, unless food was involved in the interaction, leaving that detail out is ideal.
However, if you’re telling an overall story about someone who abused or was abused,
details about their personalities and interests, including favorite foods, scars, and so forth,
tells a more well-rounded story.
Additionally, since food can play into abusive stories, that detail might become insightful. Let me explain.
For instance, if an ancestor’s favorite food is brownies, but they don’t eat them often without feeling regret or remorse, you should discover the story. Perhaps they took a brownie once because they liked them so much and suffered a severe beating.
Food memories, including negatively associated ones, can offer gateways to the past and present.
Children of abusive parents learn, most violence isn’t constant. Instead, the trauma happens inconsistently between stretches of positive memories.
Therefore, including small details that can help show that a parent wasn’t always an aggressor would shine a clearer light on the instability of an abusive home.
“They seemed so kind and loving, so how could they have done that,” now becomes clearer through the extra details you provide in a story.
While this advice addresses small details in the stories of abusive families, recognize the suggestions apply to all sensitive stories that I referenced earlier.
Review the examples I shared and let that be your guide, no matter the topic you must address.
Test Your Story
After you have revised your draft toward an audience about a specific story, what other resources can help you decide the amount of details to include in your story?
Nothing beats sharing your story with someone else, so long as it’s the right someone else.
For non-sensitive stories, share them with your family members and gauge how they react to it.
For sensitive stories, family members aren’t always the best feedback source. Many want to omit or revise your story to protect the ancestor, the descendants, or someone else.
As such, seek out ‘beta readers’ who have handled such topics before. They might give you an outside-looking-in perspective, and they have no stake in the final version of the story.
To sum up, draft every detail available.
Select your audience once the draft is complete and revise it to serve them best.
Your audience and the stories you have to tell will guide your choices.
If you enjoyed this video response to a Write Your Family History audience member, consider sharing your specific questions with me below.
Now, go work on your stories. . Off you go!