The Story is in the Details

Knowledge.While you may understand that your family history story requires setting, many writers do not use setting to its fullest potential.  Setting is the vehicle for building your ancestor’s world, but it can also relay to the reader so much more than just the time and place.  Once again we come back to the age old question how do I engage my reader? Setting is one more element in your writer’s arsenal. Through the use of setting, you paint a picture, with colour, textures, and emotion engaging your reader and pulling them in.

A setting breathes life into your story and is the sum of many parts and the more specific and unique these details, the more richness they will give your story. If there is too little sense of the period, or it lacks a sense of time your readers will be uninvolved.

However, setting is not just about describing the surroundings of an ancestor’s town. Beyond establishing the time and place and the circumstances of the story, setting can create mood of the story. Is your story set in a medieval castle on a stormy night, or a summer’s day in the fields of Ireland or a cold winter in the Canadian wilderness, each one of these settings creates a separate and unique mood for the story?

Your setting can also assist you in revealing your character to the reader.  Place your ancestor into each of these settings and the reader instantly gets a glimpse into their profile. However, by paying particular attention to the words you choose to describe your setting and having them mirror what you want your reader to be receiving emotionally from the scene, allows them to get inside your ancestor’s head. It allows your reader to feel and sense the surroundings as your ancestor.

Where to Find Setting Details

Through social history research and obtaining specific details you can re-reconstruct the world of your ancestors.  Seek out the following in your research, layer them in your scenes to capture the setting of your book and bring your ancestor’s world to life.

  1. History – world, regional and local events place a story in time and provide circumstances for your ancestor life and impressions.
  2. Senses – use the senses of smells, sights, sounds and touch to make a setting come alive
  3. Dress – understand what your ancestor wore, undergarments, hairstyle, hat, and shoes.
  4. Food – what food was local to the area, what was on the dinner plate each night, how was it made, harvested, prepared. Etc.
  5. Artwork and literature – what books, music and art would have been part of your ancestor’s life.
  6. Furniture and household furnishings – what did their bed look like, the kitchen table, and their favourite chair? Etc.
  7. Consider diseases and medicine that may have affected your ancestor’s life.
  8. Transportation – how did your ancestor move around, horses, walk, cars, buses, etc.
  9. Influences – How did these influences show up in their day to day life – cultural community, economic status, education level, occupational position, religious affixations, and spiritual affinities?


Where do you find these story details?ebook cover 1 smallpic

I would encourage your first stop to be the local historical society of the area in which your ancestors lived.  Some can be found online, while a great deal of local historical societies and museums can immerse you into another lifetime, that of your ancestor.  For instance, my local historical societies have many documents of my town from its earliest beginnings.  In addition, they have a museum full of artefacts of the days of the earliest settlers. The knowledgeable staff can easily offer me a great deal of detail about the lives of the people who lived in my area.  Do not overlook this most precious resource.

Other places that offer perspective and detail can be found in written social histories, gazetteers, local newspapers, and of course. do not forget pictures, journals, and diaries all are rich with tidbits of information. Seek out several resources; one will never answer all of your questions. Once these rich facts are intertwined in your setting, you will have enlisted one more building block to engage your reader.