Some people have called me “the woman who knows too much.” My family archives collection comprises literally thousands of pages of letters and journals, not to mention hundreds of photographs and scores of documents. All have been saved for a period spanning the last hundred years. Surely there’s a book in there somewhere. But, alas, where?
Many family historians and genealogists have the opposite problem–not enough material, and they spend years doing genealogical research. But whether you’ve been handed much of your family’s documentation or must research it, we all have to dig––to find the story or stories we want to tell within all that information.
I’ve been struggling to narrow down what I want to write for the past several years, have written hundreds of pages, and am finally on the road to writing a cohesive story.
You may have a combination of family artifacts you’ve inherited and family history you have researched. To help transform masses of information into a story for yourself and your family, I’m going to share seven tips which I’ve gleaned from books, classes, and my own experience.
TIP 1: Reduce the scope
Which relative are you most passionate about or, which do you know the most about? Are there questions about one relative, or about a relationship that’s like a thorn in your shoe or an itch to be scratched? That may be the place to begin. After many false starts, I realized I want to focus on my parents’ relationship as the spine of my story.
TIP 2: Brainstorm your most compelling stories
Based upon your research, your memory, and your documents, do a brain dump. What stories have you uncovered or have been told that intrigue you most? Just start typing away and let the anecdotes and incidents flow into a basic list. When you look back over your list, pull out the ones that draw you to explore more.
TIP 3: Develop a Theme
Think about the thread that runs through your family story––or the story of the individual you’re writing about. Did religion influence family expectations and decisions? Was music critical? Did a person’s mental or physical illness have an impact on the family? A death? Humor? Loss of a job or moving a great deal? Is “place” (a farm, the West, a particular neighborhood) critical to your family’s history? Choosing a theme will help you winnow out what doesn’t feed it.
TIP 4: Make a list of characters
Make a list of each character and describe not just their physical appearance, but their personalities. What about them reveals who they were: their manner of dress? particular verbal or facial expressions? their influence on other members of the family? After you’ve created this list, it may help you see more clearly the role each plays in the bigger picture––and what he or she contributes to your theme.
TIP 5: Organize the information you have
I’ve found an Excel spreadsheet (or Numbers, if you use the Mac program) is an efficient way to keep track of details. I have one spreadsheet that tells me in which of twenty-five bankers’ boxes, specific documents, letters, photos, or articles are stored.
I also use a spreadsheet to track the contents of letters and diaries. I make headings of important topics that relate to my story and then enter very brief notes to jog my memory. Then I can go back and retrieve details easily. My dad traveled for weeks at a time, and he and Mom wrote each other from 1949 – 1962. (No phone calls back then!)My headings include:
City (where dad traveled to)
Mom & Dad’s relationship (anything they wrote about that revealed the ups and downs)
Tenants (we ran a rooming house)
Grandma, (my mother’s volatile mother lived with us)
TIP 6: Make a rough outline
Get down on paper the overall flow to your story. Once you’ve written to each section, you can always move the pieces around for a better structure (something I’m in the process of doing right now), but at least you’ve got a starting pattern.
TIP 7: Turn to your blog for completed stories
If you’ve been blogging about your family for a while, each post required you to write cohesively and succinctly about a family member, situation, or topic. I find I’m turning to the blog posts of my parents falling in love from 1941-1942 (as recorded in my mom’s diaries) as a resource for that section of the story of their relationship. (See the start of this series at Falling in Love 70 Years Ago)
Linda cut her journalistic teeth in the television business—researching, producing, and writing documentaries that have aired nationally on CBS, ABC, NBC, and PBS and have been syndicated on cable nation-wide.
Linda has published article in magazines, literary journals, and newspapers nationwide.
Linda is the Family Archaeologist, digging deep into twentieth century history as unearthed through her family’s letters, diaries, photos, and artifacts spanning more than a hundred years. Join her on a quest to uncover the joy, struggle, loss, and resilience her ancestors experienced—and the secrets revealed along the way. You may recognize some of your own family’s past in hers and learn techniques for investigating, organizing, preserving, and enjoying a genealogical treasure trove.
Linda’s experience clearly displays she understands the power of storytelling. You can find her at her webpage Linda Gartz and her blog, Family Archaeologist.