Devon Noel Lee
Show, Don't Tell: How to Write Effective Family Histories
Stacey said her goodbyes. Talking about how she and the girls loved her and that they would miss her but that they would be alright. And when Beverly was ready to go, that it would be okay.
While this brief paragraph from my writing workshop participant is off to a good start, it could be better by following a simple piece of advice.
Show, Don’t Tell
The keywords for me as a family historian, particularly with personal history accounts, are sensory details.
In grammar school, we likely learned about the five senses: hear, see, smell, taste, and touch. We can use those senses to write compelling family histories.
What do you hear?
The first sense is sound. Sound can be created with incorporating what people said. Let us hear what Stacey says during the goodbye.
“Stacey said her goodbyes. “
“Jannie and Baby Clara love you. I love you,” Stacey's voice cracked. “I don’t want you to go. We’ll miss you so much. But, don’t worry about us. When you need to go to see your parents, we’ll be alright.”
Notice how we can hear not only the words Stacey says but also the tone of her voice. It's cracking!
You could also add other sounds if you remember them.
The beeping of a heart monitor.
The labored breathing of the person to whom Stacey’s speaking.
Perhaps the rain on the window or the laughter at the nurse's stations.
What Do You See?
Next, please show us what you see. In this case, was
Stacey talking to the person in a dimly, light hospital room with wires going everywhere?
Is she in the front room of her grandmother's home that had a floral chair, a bay window, and a four-poster bed?
These details provide the setting, but there are other intimate details that you can add as well. Notice how this one gets as close to Stacey's state of mind as she's saying these words.
“Stacey’s voice cracked as tears trickled down her face.”
What is that smell?
Often, smells can transport us to a time and place. For me, pipe tobacco and coffee remind me of my grandparents' house. What smells remind you of your grandparent's home?
In this example, what smells could we add?
There might be unpleasant smells - such as antiseptic - or pleasant smells - like flowers. In sad moments like this one, happy aromas often contrast with tragedies. Notice how adding a scent can enhance a scene.
"In a room full of roses and lavender, Stacey said her goodbyes."
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Can you add touch or taste?
Not every story lends itself to all of the senses. So if you can add these final too, take advantage of these senses.
Perhaps a hand feels cold and clammy.
Maybe the trail you trekked on felt rocky and uneven.
Touch is not limited to what your hands hold. Feet and skin can sense touch.
If you taste the salty air or can describe the sourness of a traditional dish, include those elements in your stories.
How Do Your Senses Improve a Historical Story?
When writing historical accounts, we might struggle to include every sense. I will share with you an example of how to add sensory details to a historical account.
What do you hear?
What if I asked you to describe the sounds of the port of Baltimore in 1854? Can you do it?
I can't because the sounds of Baltimore today would not be the same as at the height of immigration in the 1850s.
What do you see?
You can easily include sight in your stories. Photos, graphics, maps, and more enhance such tales. And some things haven't changed. For instance, the shape of Calderas in Los Alamos has not changed in hundreds of years. What I see today is very similar to what a New Mexican ancestor saw many years ago.
Our story starts like this:
"Richard Keverne immigrated to the United States on 12 March 1912."
"On 12 March 1912, nineteen-year-old Richard Keverne started his journey from Cornwall with two companions, his cousin John Harry, aged 18, and neighbor Thomas Eustice, aged 20."
We have added two characters to the story and their relative ages. If we have physical descriptions of these men, adding them to the account would enhance our sense of sight.
What do you smell, taste, or touch?
Unless you have artifacts you can touch, the remaining three senses are difficult to include in a historical account. Smells do change over time as technology impacts the way we do things.
For some stories, you may find adding a sense of sound, smell, taste, or touch challenging. However, for Richard’s journey to America, I found a possible menu for the ship he boarded. So, adding the sense of taste could be:
“Breakfast options likely included pickled codfish, mashed meat, potatoes, Swedish bread, tea, and coffee. Supper may have included gruel, biscuits, and cheese.”
For smell, I could describe a likely situation that would produce a variety of fragrances. But since we were not there, it would be wise to leave what the smells could be to our readers. Like so:
“At night, he had a room that he only had to share with 1-9 other people, which was luxurious for the time.”
Have you ever slept in a situation with more than one other person?
Naturally, smells will generate, particularly in a traveling condition with few amenities. Thus, we’ll let the readers decide how things smell.
Touch can be difficult to add.
So, what if we change the sense of touch to a similar but slightly different sense? We can add feelings and emotions.
A sense of feeling does not have to explicitly describe emotions like happy, sad, remorseful, anxious, etc. Instead, we can suggest likely sentiments like so:
"Two weeks before his 20th birthday, Richard likely visited his father’s and older sister’s grave before bidding farewell to his mother and six other siblings aged 30 to 10."
What feelings did we add?
Perhaps sadness for leaving behind his living and deceased family members. For some, this would be a feeling of good riddance. Notice I'm letting the readers decide how to interpret the
Here's another example:
"Richard’s home village, steep in Cornish history, was unusual. The village was built around a central square, uncommon for a Cornish town. The church’s tall steeple provided a landmark for ships for many a century. The steeple would be a beacon if Richard ever returned."
Notice that this description adds sights but also feeling. For example, the beckoning to come home of the steeple.
Where did I get that feeling?
I learned its nature from a historical book about St. Kevern, England. This book described how the steeple beckoned sailors to the town and was a guiding landmark. So all I had to do to add emotion was write in this steeple and connect it as a guide for Richard if he could ever return home.
Show With Your Senses
In summary, when writing personal or family histories, we should strive to show our ancestors doing things rather than tell what they did. We do this while maintaining historical accuracy by using our senses as much as possible.
Try this technique while revising your ancestor’s story, and let me know how it goes. And if you’re struggling, leave a writing snippet in the comments, and I will try to give you a few suggestions.