Writing Family History When You Can’t Know All the Facts

Missing puzzle pieceThis guest post is courtesy of Biff Barnes 

Family historians are researchers first. They must look carefully and thoughtfully for the facts of their ancestors’ lives, assemble them, and organize them into a narrative. Some researchers are more skilled or more fortunate than others, but the truth is that none of us will be able to gather all of the facts we would like to have about our ancestors.

What do you do when you want to write a family history, but come face-to-face with the fact that the historical record you have been able to discover is incomplete, even fragmentary?

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor Richard Todd offer some useful advice in their book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction.

  • First, accept the fact that a good nonfiction narrative is a limited record of the characters and events it portrays. As Kidder and Todd note, “We know that as soon as writers begin to tell a story they shape experiences and that stories are always, at best, partial versions of reality.”
  • Recognize the limits of the record you have available to work with. “…it makes you the one who has to explore the facts, discover what you can of the truth, and find the way to express that truth in prose.”
  • The result will be similarly limited. You won’t be able to create a completely factual picture of the ancestors about whom you write. “You strive to give the reader an illusion of a real person, and you have to make sure that the illusion is faithful to the truth as you understand it.”

Creating an “illusion of a real person” requires you to employ both your factual knowledge and a degree of artistry. You may not be able to document exactly what an ancestor thought or felt at a particular moment or what might have motivated him to act in a particular way. What you can do, however, is to speculate on these things. Based on the things you know, and what can you infer or deduce about your ancestors’ inner lives.

If you feel a bit more literary you might choose to employ things like scenes and dialogue in telling your ancestors’ stories. Our post on Creating Dialogue in Nonfiction About the Past looks at some of the ways to use the limited facts at hand to create realistic scenes.

When you employ any of these techniques of creative nonfiction it is important to play straight with your reader by telling him what you are doing, that what will follow is speculation by you as the author, based on your knowledge of the facts.

Biff BarnesBiff Barnes is a writer, educator, and historian who has published extensively about San Francisco. He was a William Robertson Coe Fellow in American History at Stanford University. His experience with historical research, oral history, and academic writing is invaluable to family history authors as they plan and organize their books. Biff Barnes is part of the Stories To Tell team of editors and book designers who help authors to create memoirs and family history books. They have worked with hundreds of authors to develop their fiction, non-fiction, and creative non-fiction books. As an editor, he helps to plan the book’s content, edits text and images, and design a professional, unique book for his clients.  Biff offers great writing advice in his Stories to Tell Blog