If you think you need to have colorful characters or glorious heroes before you can write an engaging family history, then you will never take the time to write about your farmers, bakers, milkmen, and day laborers. If you think your family tree is full of boring, ordinary people, then today, you need to realize their narrative is more interesting than you first believed.
Ordinary People Deserve to Have Their Family Story Recorded
Question: How can I write about my ancestor when they’re not very interesting?
When I ask people during genealogy conferences to tell me about one of their ancestors, they often tell me about their famous, criminal, heroic, or wealthy relatives.
During my writing workshops, people balk when I ask them to write about a recent relative, preferably someone they knew. Why does that stir such negative emotions?
Because often these relatives were farmers, bakers, milkmen, and day laborers. They lived. They begat children. They died. And there wasn’t much in between.
Oh, ye of little faith!
I have written before that ordinary people's stories make for extraordinary family stories that you should record. Children who know all of the stories about their ancestors have a better sense of who they are. So don't leave out the folks you think are too dry to document in paragraph form.
A Writing Workshop Convert
During a three-week writing workshop of mine, a participant named Pam felt her father would fit the criteria I set out. Unfortunately, Pam thought the next three weeks would be a waste of her time because her father was boring. He was so boring that her daughter asked her why she picked this dull dude to discuss.
Before the final class began, Pam was ecstatic. She had written two typed single-spaced pages about her drab dad. Not only that, she was surprised to see how interesting her boring father really was.
How to Write an Engaging Family History About a Dull Relative
If you want this same experience, follow these five steps and pick up my free guide, 5 Steps to Quickly Write About Your Ancestors.
Start With the Dry Facts
Add Personal Memories
Add Family Stories or Legends
Don't Whitewash the Past
Add Historical Context
Start With the Dry Facts
Let's face it, the first step to writing about any family member is to get the facts on paper and into sentence format.
On this blog, I have shared several examples of how to do this. You can read how I wrote birth, marriage, and death stories to draw inspiration. You'll find more writing samples listed at the end of this post.
I've also given several workshops on the topic. You can access two through the link Use MyHeritage Records to Quickly Discover and Write the Story of Your Ancestors and Write About the Stars in Your Family Tree.
Record by record, turn your facts into sentences and paragraphs.
If the story still feels dry after you follow my family history writing methods, don't worry. It's time for step 2.
Add Personal Memories
Since you want to write an engaging family history, you need to add details that a traditional genealogy narrative lacks. You need to add personal memories or family stories.
If you had personal interactions with the relative, include any memory you have of that person, no matter how small. Each dull, ordinary detail is a treasure to a reader. For instance, do you connect with the following scene:
Each night after tucking the children into bed, ma and pa would go down to the living room. They would turn on the record player and slow dance to their favorite tunes. After news arrived that her eldest brother Harry died while serving in combat in the Vietnam War, ma could not be consoled. While pa tucked the children into bed, ma sobbed on the living room couch. After saying the Lord's Prayer beside each child's bed, pa returned to the living room and turned on the record machine. The nightly routine comforted ma's heart as she and pa swayed for hours that night.
Do you have a similar small moment that you can add to the history you wrote in step one?
I have few memories of my grandma Helen. The one I vividly remember is her making an amazing baked potato casserole. For her picky-eating granddaughter, this dish was heavenly. After baking the casserole, she carried it from her galley kitchen to the table in the living/dining room. As she carried the dish, I thought she would drop it because she was wearing thick, orthopedic shoes and had shaky hands. Thankfully she made the short walk, and I got to eat the dish.
Although I have few memories of Helen, she becomes real in that one moment.
Many memories are less detailed than the ones above. Here are a few stories without a lot of specifics.
Grandma Beth was a woman who rarely spoke an unkind thing about anyone else. She quietly served where she could and cared for their home. Her kids didn’t realize think they were poor, though they went without many luxuries. She made the most of what she had. Her best dish was her delicious cookies!
Grandpa died when I was about ten, but the one thing I remember about him was that he shared his grapes with me.
The first example summarized character details that you won't find out about your boring relative in any genealogical documents. The second is no longer than one sentence. Both have value.
In fact, I love the grape memory because I never lived near my grandparents. I would have loved to have had that small connection to my grandfathers.
Personal memories immediately transform your dry, boring relative into a real human. What details can you add to your stories?
Add Family Legends
Please don't call the citation police on me, but I disagree with many of my genealogy colleagues one detail. They'll often say, "If you can't find a source for a legend, you can't record it. "
Family stories and family legends, no matter how wrong, are a part of our legacy.
The further back in time we're writing about a relative, the less personal memories we have and the more family stories and legends that abound.
Include the legends in your family history.
But wait. You might say, "I don't want you to push forward a narrative that the family legend is true when it's unproven or false."
Please add it to the story. Why? Because it's part of the heritage, those people believed and affected how folks interacted with one another.
In my family, we have a legend about how my immigrant ancestor Joseph Geiszler died. I have disproven most of the details, even though it was written in a Geiszler Family Scrapbook.
So how can you include the false account?
You use a few simple words, "The family believed" or "Family legend suggests." Either of these two qualifiers can help you differentiate between what is proven and what isn't. And then you can debunk the stories and legends.
Don't Whitewash the Past
It's so tempting to hide an individual's unsavory aspects when you're writing their family story. However, you do not want to offer a false impression to your readers. Suppose a man neglected his family by working, drinking, or spending too much. Add that to the account. If a person lied, cheated, stole, persecuted, terrorized, abandoned, or any other heinous details, include them in your history.
Often the stories of boring ancestors result from excluding the unflattering details and events in their lives. By including the details in their lives, you can reveal so much.
Grandpa Paul was a mean man who was better off left alone. He spent long hours at the office, went hunting in his free time, and watched TV. Does anyone wonder how he became that way?
Grandpa Paul's father had died after getting drunk and getting hit by a trolley car. Paul and his brother Frank were arrested for vandalism during a drunken rampage. Their arrest and punishment were documented in the local newspaper. After that, Grandpa Paul worked for the railroad and provided for his family. When he drank, it was only at home, so his property destruction days came to an end. His son Berton died during World War II. He had been so proud of Berton's service since Grandpa county serve his country during WWI because he was too overweight. Since Grandpa heard the news of Paul's death, he had spent most of his time working or watching TV, which his grandchildren preferred because when he spoke, he was almost always angry.
Notice how Paul becomes more than a mean man. If we only wrote the first two sentences, we wouldn't begin to suspect the reasons for his behavior and anger. While all the additional details can't explain away everything, we can catch a glimpse of his life and choices.
If they owned slaves, told racists jokes, or did anything that modern eyes would find oppressive. Write the stories down. Be as objective and unbiased as possible to see how the successive generations changed (or didn't). In the truth lies the stories of healing and hope for the future.
Add Historical Context
Our ancestors lived in a certain time and specific place. What do you know about that place? What do you know about the times they lived?
Imagine the mothers-to-be after two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in 2001.
What were they feeling?
What were their worries?
Was their child entering a drastically dangerous world?
How would they protect the younglings?
Would the babies sense the anxiety of their mothers?
I picked a modern circumstance because many of you will understand the event and how it impacted the news. The event affected conversations with family, friends, and strangers. Worship services focused on violence and stress. Anxiety was felt by many, but you can see how it relates to family history when you think about the life events personally.
When a couple married before, during, or shortly after a war, how did that impact them?
When a woman gave birth shortly after her husband enlisted in the Civil War, how did that play on her emotions?
When writing about your ancestors, examine the time and place when they were born, married, or died. Examine events when they had children or when they buried loved ones. When you examine the world around our ancestors, every person’s story has a new layer of interest. And that makes your forgettable ancestor more remarkable.
Your Family Histories Do Not Have to Be Boring
These strategies are not helpful until you complete the first draft of your family story. Then, you move on to the editing phase to polish up your manuscript. Did you know there are five steps to take your draft to publication? Within those stages are the audience, format, and themes.
The best way you can write a non-boring family history about an ancestor you think might be dull watching grass grow is to capture stories, no matter how small.
Think of it this way. As a descendant, wouldn’t you give great sums to know small details about your ancestors, no matter how small?
Discover More Family History Writing Tips and Examples:
There are so many more tips and techniques I want to share with you about writing family histories. Be sure to click on any of the links through this article or any blog posts and videos listed below. But also sign up for my writing newsletter and get the free guide: 5 Steps to Quickly Write About Your Ancestors.
Writing Example: Response to a Question