by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, MFA, CG®
Death is the easy way out. A life ends, and so must the story. But is death really the last word? Or is there more after death that you can say about your ancestors to conclude their life stories?
The conclusion, more than any other part of our family history narratives, is probably the most difficult part to write. Almost every writer I know struggles with ending the story. So let’s take a look at some different ways to draw the final curtain on your ancestors’ life stories that leave the reader with more than an obituary.
You: My ancestor gave up everything to come to America in the early 1900s and start life over.
Your friend: Yeah, so what?
You: Well, he had to learn a new language, find a job, save money to bring his family over, and deal with a lot of prejudice from people already here.
Your friend: Sounds a lot like immigrants today. Why should anyone care about your ancestor?
You: Exactly! History repeats itself. What our ancestors experienced is no different than how we treat immigrants today. Don’t you see the correlation? My ancestor represents the same experiences as immigrants today. Nothing has changed in centuries!
You now have not only your conclusion, but a deeper level of meaning to your ancestor’s story. You are leaving readers with something profound to think about.
If you make an “ah-ha” discovery through this process, you might want to revise the body of your narrative, so it leads naturally to this discovery. End discoveries often happen after you have drafted the narrative and are reviewing it for universal themes, or when you are playing the “so what?” game.
Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
As you read other family history narratives or memoirs, pay close attention to how the author ends the story. Did it leave you satisfied? Did it leave you wanting more? Did you close the book and just sit for a moment, immersed and reflecting on the ending? Once you determine the impact the ending had on you, decide if this is how you want to leave your readers. If so, then analyze carefully that writer’s concluding techniques. That’s the ending you want to emulate.
No matter how you decide to conclude your story, remember, death doesn’t have to be the end. Your ancestors’ life stories will go on. But it’s up to you to make sure they survive beyond your conclusion.
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Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, MFA, CG®, specializes in editing and writing family histories. Along with You Can Write Your Family History and Carmack’s Guide to Copyright & Contacts, she is the author of two new books: Tell It Short: A Guide to Writing Your Family History in Brief and Inheriting the Gordon Hips, a collection of humorous essays, both of which may be ordered through Scattered Leaves Press. Sharon is on the adjunct faculty of Salt Lake Community College’s online Certificate in Genealogy Research and Writing program, where she teaches various courses in family history writing. Sharon can be reached through her websites, www.NonfictionHelp.com or www.SharonCarmack.com.