Flesh Out Your Family History Stories with Historical Context
When you’re trying to write about an ancestor but there are holes in the story, what’s the best solution? 2018 RootsTech presenter Laura Hedgecock, from Treasure Chest of Memories, suggested digging into historical context surrounding the story to fill in the gaps.
“For instance, you can explain how people looked, and dressed, and behaved based on your research. You can talk about their community life, what the town was like, how prosperous it was, [and] what social classes were represented,” Hedgecock said. You can also include details about schools, culture, religious culture, occupations, etc.
Hedgecock shared a story example from her own family history, which was missing important details. Her great-uncle Buddy was killed in a mining accident early in the 20th century. Shortly after his death, his wife Carrie remarried. A hole appears in the story when the two children belonging to Carrie and Uncle Buddy ended up in an orphanage following Carrie’s remarriage.
According to Hedgecock, “Buddy and Carrie’s descendants might well look at Carrie as a heartless woman for giving up her children to have another family with a second man,” but Hedgecock decided to look for context surrounding the story. She studied Virginia and West Virginia laws and discovered that women didn’t have any rights over their own children if they were married. Men had all of the rights—even if they were not the biological father. Layering that information on top of what Hedgecock discovered in her grandmother’s diary—the mention that Carrie had remarried a cruel man—has the potential to drastically change the story.
“We don’t know whether Carrie was heartless, spineless, or a covictim … but what it tells me,” said Hedgecock, “is that tying up our stories in nice little bows isn’t what makes them compelling. It’s when we engage the curiosity and we expose the mysteries—that’s what makes people sit up and want to read a little bit more.”
Another example Hedgecock shared came from a simple photograph of schoolchildren in front of a school in Virginia. Hedgecock pointed out that her uncle was sitting on the front row. He was the only child not wearing shoes. This small detail provided important context regarding the financial situation of the family.
“We can’t just present lists and charts and dense text of encyclopedic facts and expect our readers to stay enthralled,” said Hedgecock, “and especially if they’re not genealogically inclined. So we have to weave the facts a little bit into the story.” She then described what she called the “secret sauce” of successful family history storytelling: “When you can find out not only what was going on in history, but you can find some evidence of how your ancestors reacted to that historical event or thing.”
Hedgecock mentioned the name of blogger Margaret Crymes, from kinvestigations, as a great example of someone who knows how to work interesting facts into a sketch. Crymes wrote about an ancestor of her husband named Richard Crymes, who also happens to be an ancestor of Hedgecock. Hedgecock shared the following excerpt that Crymes wrote about this common ancestor. It’s a helpful illustration of how to bring otherwise lifeless facts to life for your readers:
“So Richard was a member of the company of haberdashers, whose guild hall was a block or two away from the St. Lawrence Jewry, where Richard was a parishioner. Haberdasheries in Tudor England were quite unlike the modern purveyors of men’s clothing. In Richard’s time, a haberdashery was more like a late medieval five-and-dime, selling everything from swords to fabric notions. In 16th-century London, haberdasheries were extravagant businesses, often brightly and fabulously decorated, over-the-top and ostentatious enough to encourage customers to part with their money, not unlike today’s upscale department stores. I like to think that Richard was as over-the-top as the store he might have run.”
After reading Crymes sketch about Richard, Hedgecock mentioned that she couldn’t help but do a little research of her own on haberdasheries. Her interest had been piqued. She then made the important point that once your readers are invested in the story, they’ll almost always be open to learning more.
A few other helpful tips from Hedgecock help successful family history storytelling:
- Find a balance with the sensory details you choose to share. “We can overdo it,” said Hedgecock. If you share too many details, you’ll bog down the imagination of your readers.
- Visual appeal matters. “Leave white space on the page,” and employ “judicious use of paragraph breaks.” Your text should be easily digestible.
- Consider using sidebars and appendices. Hedgecock calls this “facts at a glance.”
- Provide snippets of pedigree charts as illustrations. This will allow your readers to quickly see who you’re writing about without disrupting the story and their imagination.
- Remember your ethics. Always provide attribution for the sources you intend to use in your stories. If you’re not sure about using a piece of information, just ask. You’ll be surprised by how many people say yes.
- Use images whenever possible. It will help make your story digestible.
A final thought from Hedgecock: “As you research and sift through the details, and write, you can connect. You can connect with your history. You can connect with your family, your family’s history, and you can connect with your readers, and even your future ones. So you can make this an exercise that is very fulfilling for yourself as well.”