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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

How to Write About Ancestors When You Have NO IDEAS

"Writing prompts don't work!” proclaims Abbie Emmons, a popular educator about fictional writing, “Why? Because they are missing the most vital ingredient of storytelling: internal conflict."

This declaration holds true when writing your family history as well. Most family history writing prompts don't work because they require you to know the internal conflicts of your ancestors. Here’s the problem: few ancestors left enough documentation for us to know their internal conflicts.

Take a look at some writing prompts that I have found from various resources. I do not wish to cast a negative light on the person(s) developing the prompts, so I’m not sharing the original source of the prompts.

Abstract Writing Prompts - a word or phrase about a family history-related topic that gives no clear direction.

  • School

  • Favorite Discovery

  • Beginnings

  • Red

  • New Leaf

  • Theme

Factual But Specific Writing Prompts - a sentence or paragraph directing a writer to detail a specific family history-related event or fact.

  • What types of meals did your ancestor eat?

  • Describe a mealtime scene from your family’s history.

Fantasy Writing Prompts - a sentence or paragraph directing a writer to speculate about an ancestor or their world.

  • Choose an event from your family’s history and write an alternative ending to it. Perhaps someone made a different choice or didn’t survive something; how would that change the course of your family’s history?

  • Pick two ancestors from your family’s history who didn’t know each other, then imagine a scene where the two meet. What would they talk about, and what would their first impressions be of each other?

For some, these writing prompts start the creative writing juices flowing. For many family historians, these prompts are unhelpful. To understand why many such writing prompts fall short of their goals, let’s first define the intent of such prompts.

Purpose of Writing Prompts:

According to an article from the University of Connecticut, "The purposes of a writing prompt are to encourage the student's interest in a topic and encourage them to write about it in a thoughtful and creative way."

Several benefits that advocates of writing prompts suggest include:

  • Jumpstart writing when you're stuck - if you don’t know what to write, use a prompt to get started.

  • Get out of your writing comfort zone - if you fall into a repetitive storytelling rut, prompts can help you think about your story from a new angle.

  • Spice up boring writing - if a story is too factual or lacks interest, a writing prompt may help freshen up a story.

  • Participate in writing challenges - many writing communities and awards require writers to submit pieces based on a specific idea.

Writing prompts hindered my ability to write quickly without stress.

I didn’t know enough about my ancestors to respond to an abstract prompt like "new leaf" or a specific prompt like - "describe a holiday tradition." Instead of jumpstarting my writing, I cried because I had nothing to say.

When I started writing stories about my ancestors, I felt an extreme urgency. My last living grandmother had died. My mother's health was failing. If I didn't turn all the stories and facts that I had gathered in 15 years of research into text soon, our genealogy would be lost.

While writing a first draft, I rarely need to get out of my comfort zone or worry about how boring my story is. After I have written an initial draft, then I could review a writing prompt and see if it could improve my stories.

Finally, while writing communities are great, my ultimate audience includes my extended family members.

After years of trying to use writing prompts, I learned the negative side of writing prompts.

  • I often had to make a square peg fit into a round hole to force an ancestor’s story to fit the prompt.

  • Writing prompts distracted me from turning the stories I knew and the facts I had gathered into finished projects.

  • In the end, writing prompts frustrated me more than motivated me to write a family story.

Can you relate?

In my experience and from the many workshop attendees I have encouraged, writing prompts should help you improve writing well, think creatively, or offer motivation. Instead, they do not work.

Writing Prompts are Not Magical Solutions to Turn A Wish To Write into a Finished Family History Book

Helpful Family History Writing Prompts

However, some writing prompts may help us write small stories that we can piece together into a family history if we know our ancestors well enough.

However, there are some writing prompts that assist in our genealogy efforts.

Photo Prompts

The most successful but underutilized writing prompt is a photo or photo collection. Debbie Hodge wrote this gem of an article, 3 Steps for Photo-Inspired Storytelling, many years ago. These tips are the foundation of many of my photo writing successes.

Record-based Paragraphs

After giving photos stories, writing paragraphs by extracting details from records has never failed to generate support for an ancestor’s stories. String those record-based paragraphs together, and you can draft an entire book!

Ancestor or Location Descriptions

To enhance a story, I will then seek out descriptions of my ancestor and the places they lived or visited. Many authors know how to show and not tell a story. Descriptions help show what an ancestor looked like and place them in a time and place.

Social Context

Finally, I can not stress enough how history and customs play a role in the decision-making process of our ancestors. Knowing a failed revolution in Germany in 1848 plus a famine instigated a mass migration out of the Germanic states (that were not unified at the time) offers so much value to the stories of my great-grandmas and grandpas.

Prompts or No Prompts?

Few genealogy-related writing prompt lists direct us toward successful writing. Therefore, I advise you to either ignore the prompts completely or only use them after you’ve written the first draft of your ancestor's story. Then, if you want to participate in genealogy writing challenges, you have stockpiles of stories to draw from to submit.

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