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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

Turn an Obit Into A Story - Family History Writing Challenge

Do you find it difficult to begin writing your family's history? If so, watch this new series on the Write Your Family History YouTube Channel. Watching the drafting process step-by-step will help you overcome writer's block. Each month, one viewer's submission to the Family History Writing Challenge will be selected and I'll transform their genealogical document into a rough draft, in under two hours.

The resulting story will be available on the blog (grammatical errors and all) and the process video will be available below.

June's Submission

June Butka submitted the following obituary and challenged me to turn it into a family story.

Obituary for Mrs. Mary Etta Pease
"Mrs. Mary E. Pease." The Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine). 22 July 1955.

Newspapers are great for genealogical details, and obituaries seem like there isn't more to add. If you think that, then you'll be sorely mistaken.

In the accompanying video, the brief obituary is expanded to 735 words. This is just the beginning, as further explanations and research are required by June to complete the fleshing out of the draft.

Rearrange an Obituary to a Family Story Draft-in-Progress

To begin writing, the initial step is to transcribe all the details from a genealogical record. Following this, the next step involves rearranging those details into a coherent flow. This is particularly important when dealing with sources that only list facts.

Here's my attempt at rearranging the obituary.

Late Thursday night, 21 July 1955, Mrs. Mary Etta Pease died in her daughter’s home. The 88-year-old widow of George A. Pease took her last breath in Mrs. Edna Griffin’s home on 9 Griffin Avenue.

Sons Fremont A. and Charles Pease and brother Charles Wyman also mourned the passing of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Auburn member. At the time of her death, Fremont lived in Monmouth. Meanwhile, Charles is also in Monmouth.

Only one brother outlived Edna, Charles Wyman of Dryden and Weld.

Reverend Chester Staples conducted the funeral services on Sunday, 24 July, at 2 o'clock at the Russell's Funeral Home. Mary Etta’s final resting place is the Norcross Hill Cemetery, Chesterville.

Even my favorite grammar checker - Grammarly - is complaining about the story's syntax above. That's okay. The goal of a rough draft is to finish it - not make it flawless.

So we're off to a good start.

However, if you find it difficult to finish this step, then try using StoryAssist by Storied.

Notice, that after adding a few brief details, StoryAssist™ by Storied writes a few paragraphs with context and emotion. However, there are some pitfalls when using such tools. For instance, do we know that it was a somber summer day? Do we know that it was a tragedy?

You can try to use ChatGPT to write a family history. You'll have more success if you feed the prompt with details from an obituary and tell the tool to write a brief story.

Chat GPT Attempts to Write Family History
Chat GPT uses obituary facts to write a story

No matter how you start, turn the facts from the obituary into a narrative, and then it's time to improve the story.

Improve the Obituary Story Start

The next four steps covered in the challenge include:

  • Mark Up the Story Start

  • Add Familial Context

  • Map Things Out

  • Add Historical Context

Mary Etta Pease's obituary triggered numerous places to ask further contextual questions that led to the addition of familial context and mapping of various locations.

Watch the video linked above to understand a sampling of the suggestions I gave to June.

↪️ Do you want to write a family history book?

Grab your copy of this FREE Writing Guide:

laptop and writing notes with title Free Guide: 5 Steps to Quickly Write Family Histories

Rough Draft After Two Hours

After two hours, I have the following draft with numerous questions for June to resolve.

Late Thursday night, 21 July 1955, Mrs. Mary Etta Pease died in her daughter’s home about 50 southeast miles from her birthplace and four months shy of her 89th birthday. The 38-year-old widow of George A. Pease took her last breath in the home of Walter and Edna Griffin on 9 Griffin Avenue, Rockland, Maine. The steep-roofed two-story home sits on a corner lot with a porch with railings. Lattice covers the space below the porch and sets off the flower garden.

As a married couple, George and Mary had lived in Livermore, where he worked as a day laborer, 20 miles west of her birthplace. By 1910, they had moved 25 miles east to Oakland, where he became a cobbler who owned his own shop. A cobbler shop in Oakland was possibly a smart investment as the C. F. Hathaway Company, which manufactured men's and boy’s shirts, was located in the neighboring town of Waterville, Maine.

At the age of 59, George died after he and Mary Etta had shared 30 years of marriage. He joined the couple’s six children who had not survived childhood in death. They were Mabel Etta, Effie May, Netty May, George Winfield, Ralph, an unnamed baby girl, and Arthur.

Meanwhile, at the age of 50, Mary Etta grieved along with her four surviving children, three of whom remained in the home. Daughter Elizabeth, 28, was the wife of Harry Lambert. The Lamberts likely lived in their own home as they had three children - Roy, aged 5, Charles, aged 2, and Irene, aged 1. This left Mary Etta to raise Edna Viola, 12, Freemont Allen, 10, and Charles L, 6. By 1920, she moved 25 miles southwest to Monmouth.

Mary Etta lived in Monmouth until at least the 1940s. When Edna, Fremont, and Charles had grown, Mary Etta moved in with her daughter Edna. She did not have the option to live with her daughter Elizabeth Lambert, as she had died in 1944.

In 1950, Edna, aged 53, and Walter, aged #, were empty nesters. Edna’s children from her first marriage and her sons with Walter seem to have moved out of the house upon reaching their majority. Therefore, Mary Etta moved 47 miles southeast to the coastal town of Rockland and remained with her daughter for at least five years. However, her two sons, Fremont, aged 52, and Charles, aged #, remained in Monmouth.

Working as a trucker, Fremont and his wife Grace, were raising their children Helen (21), George A (20), Freemont Jr (19), and Mary A (10). Meanwhile, Charles was a relative newlywed, having married Mary in 1948. Fremont and Charles were neighbors in Monmouth. Mary Etta living with her daughter seemed more logical, even if her home was far from the town she’d lived in for the past two decades. Fremont had children left to raise, while Charles had recently married. Edna had grown children and space, so Mary Etta was likely not an imposition.

Besides joining her husband and six children in death, Mary Etta was preceded in death by her mother, Melvina. Mary Etta did not know the identity of her biological father at the time of her death. She was raised by her stepfather, Thomas Wyman, and joined him and her half-siblings, George, Emma Mae, and Clara Wyman, in death as well. Her sole surviving sibling was a 67-year-old brother named Charles Wyman, who lived in Dryden and Weld. He outlived Mary Etta by five more years.

Reverend Chester Staples, of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Auburn, conducted the funeral services on Sunday, 24 July, at 2 o'clock at the Russell's Funeral Home. Auburn was located over 50 miles west of Rockland and 25 miles south of the cemetery.

George and Mary Etta share a stone in the Norcross Hill Cemetery in Chesterville, Maine, along with six children. No other relatives seem to be buried in the cemetery. The cemetery is located about 60 miles northwest of where Mary Etta died and about 20 miles west of where she was born. It’s difficult to find as it has no address. To find it, drive 2.5 miles out from Chesterville Village to Ridge Road. At the Norcross Pond with the Public Boat Landing, a right turn leads up a road until racing the Norcross Hill Road on the left. Halfway up the hill, a cemetery with many unreadable, tipped, over, and broken stones is situated.

(Citations not included in blog post. June has them and can add them to her story.)

It is evident that the story lacks historical context due to the time limit of 2 hours that I had for research. However, I presented June with some resources during the video that she can use to enhance the story's depth.

Furthermore, the current draft needs to be revised to follow a more engaging story structure. This can be done during the editing phase. Currently, June has enough material to incorporate the suggestions and questions I provided.

If you have any further recommendations, please leave them in the comments, and we will ensure that June receives them.

As June has submitted her story, she will receive access to the fully marked-up Google Docs file, which includes additional questions that I raised for her.

Submit Your Writing Challenge Documents

Do you want to receive a rough draft with all the suggestions and edits, like June did? Would you like to see if I can turn your genealogical document into a family story?

Follow these submission steps:

  • If you're not on the writing email list, then click this link to not only get the guide: 5 Simple Steps to Start Writing About Your Ancestors, but also receive the email address to submit your genealogical document.

  • If you're already receiving emails about new video releases, then reply to any of those emails.

When you have the email address do the following:

  1. Put "Writing Challenge" in the subject line.

  2. Send me an image file or a link to the document online.

  3. Include a transcription of the document.

  4. Include a link to a public profile of the ancestor featured in the document. (The profile can be on Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, Findmypast, or WikiTree.)

Once those four steps are complete, send your submission. I'll select entries based on the order of receipt and variety of sources.

(FYI. Please don't send obituaries as I have plenty to choose from right now.)

You will receive a link to the annotated Google Docs file once the video is published. Feel free to use my draft to complete your story without attribution, but gratitude is appreciated.

Show Notes

Improve Your Family History Writing Skills

Links to Social History Websites

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