Linda Clyde | Oct 22, 2018

Bring Your Ancestors’ Stories to Life with Compelling Details

This is the first in a three-part series on writing compelling stories.

Have you ever sat down to read a story of an ancestor and found yourself struggling to sift through dry facts or details that seemed irrelevant? You may have read other stories about your ancestors that kept you fully engaged, turning pages, and eager to learn more. So, what makes the difference between stories that either put you to sleep or capture your attention? According to RootsTech 2018 presenter, Laura Hedgecock, from Treasure Chest of Memories, it has everything to do with details and how they’re used in the story.

If you find yourself interested in crafting some ancestral stories yourself, Hedgecock shared many helpful tips in her presentation, “Choosing Details: The Secret to Compelling Stories,” that will help you get off on the right foot. Speaking of the potential of well-crafted family history stories in relation to our descendants, Hedgecock said, “We want to tell them memorable stories, relatable stories, compelling stories. In short, we want to take them back in place and time. And the details we choose to include in our stories have the power to do that for us. They have the power to immerse someone in another culture, in another era. They have the power to engage curiosity, to engage hearts.”

Hedgecock explained that the stories we write about our ancestors today are the lens through which future generations will see and understand their past. “Compelling stories have details that add context and texture to a story, things that add dimension, definition, things that make people want to look a little closer at the story,” she said.

As you begin writing about your ancestors, consider incorporating some of the following details to bring your story to life:

  • Engage the senses of your reader. For examples: “What did a sod house in Nebraska smell like? What did Ersatz coffee taste like? What was it like to ride out a storm in the bottom of a ship? Search out sensory details that will be memorable and engaging.
  • Build a solid setting around your story. The setting serves to orient your reader and provides historical, social, and economic reference points.
  • Gather as much information as you can to flesh out the characteristics of your ancestors and avoid portraying them as perfect. Each ancestor was a real person with his or her own set of strengths and weaknesses. Don’t be afraid to reveal your ancestors’ vulnerabilities. “We have to be really, really careful because we have, a lot of us, this urge to portray ancestors only in a good, positive light. But we need to avoid that bias for several reasons. In my list, the number one reason, is—perfection is boring,” said Hedgecock. She then gave the following example: “Grandma’s sharp tongue may have given you uncomfortable moments while you were growing up, but as an adult, she was the one you went to when you needed the unsugared truth, when you needed an advocate.”
  • Emotion is an important element of any family history story. Add details that will create emotional connections. Stories with an emotional element are memorable and will leave your readers wanting to learn more. “How many of you have read a story before and then gone out and done research on the subject?” Hedgecock asked.

As you search for compelling details and write them into a story, remember family members who will likely benefit the most from your work, the young nongenealogists. Throughout the research and writing process, keep asking yourself what details they will find most interesting. What will help them best connect to the story and to their ancestors?

“When we give people these surprises or we give them the facts that they’ve never seen before, we give [them] this ‘wow’ moment when they understand their history, their ancestors’ history.” Laura Hedgecock

Linda Clyde


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