It’s hard to know where to start writing your ancestor stories. Sometimes it helps to look at potential stories from different perspective. Instead of looking at the plethora of facts and deciding what to write, look at the following first lines for story ideas.
Which relative or ancestor do they remind you of? What stories could you tell about them? Choose a few prompts and try writing a vignette or two. If you were born before 1950, many of these will also work for your own memories.
Technology: First lines
The other day I heard a story of a family putting colored cellophane in front of their black and white TV so they could watch it in color. The early editions of common technology make great stories.
- “Back when telephone numbers were 4 digits…”
- “You had to use the phone differently when you were on a party line.”
- “Back in [add year or decade], if you wanted to talk to someone half-way around the world, you had to have radio call letters.”
- “When they needed to get the word out, the community relied on [NAME].”
- “You used to be able to tell an engineer by the accessories hanging off his (or her) belt and out of his (or her) pocket.”
- “Getting milk and keeping it cold during [insert time period] was an adventure, by which I mean a royal pain.”
Transportation Story Prompts
As Bill Loomis points out in the Detroit News Article “1900-1930: The years of driving dangerously,” cars were introduced to the American public without the benefit of “stop signs, warning signs, traffic lights, traffic cops, driver’s education, lane lines, street lighting, brake lights, driver’s licenses or posted speed limits.” Wonder what people thought as cars streaked through the cities and country-side! Of course, there were the inherent dangers of horse-drawn vehicles as well. Horses could spook and trample.
Try some of these first lines or make up your own…
- “For [Name], going to grandmother’s house meant a journey of [amount of time] …”
- “I used to love [or despise] riding in [model of car or mode of transportation]. Here’s why:”
- “Now you can make the trip from [Origin] to [Destination] in air-conditioned comfort, but …”
- “The route from [location x] to [location y] didn’t always run along the interstate. Instead you’d travel via….”
Upbringing: First Line Prompts
Advice to parents on how to raise happy healthy children varied by decade. How would your ancestor have raised his or her children? How would he or she been raised? What factors influenced that?
- “[Name] was a free-range child…”
- “The worst thing you could do in [Name’s] household was …”
- “Children were to be seen and not heard. The real trouble started when the kids were out of sight as well…”
- “The Great Depression changed the way [Name] raised her (his) children…”
Propriety and Etiquette
Reading through old etiquette books boggles the mind. We forget how many rules earlier generations had to learn to prevent social faux pas.
- “In my house (or town), daughters did not date. The gentlemen ‘came a-courting’…”
- “Not too many years ago, [woman’s name] was mortified to be caught wearing pants.”
- “Sunday dinner used to function around a bunch of rules that kids had to learn the hard way. ‘Seen but not heard’ and ‘elbows off the table’ were just the beginning.
- “She claimed it was her sense of propriety, but I suspect [Name] enjoyed her hats and gloves.”
- “What dreams [Name] would dream for her newborn child in the [time period] depended on the gender of the child….”
Rhythms of Life
When the family sits around the table telling old stories, the tales often reveal the rhythms of life. Which sisters cooked? When were chores done? Did the family fish together on Sunday afternoons?
- “On Sundays (or insert any day of the week) the kids didn’t have to decide what they were going to do. We already knew….”
- “You could tell what day of the week it was by the smells emanating from the kitchen.”
- “When I hear people complain about their childhood chores, I think back to what [name] had to do back in [decade or approximate year].”
- “We weren’t supposed to get attached to the animals on the farm, but …”
- “Waking up to a roster crow was a myth. __________ used to wake me (or Name) up every morning.”
Faith Hope and Other Indispensable Gifts
Use these first lines as prompts to capture your relatives’ vulnerable side. After all, that’s probably what they’d want their legacy to be made of.
- “[Name] attended church (or synagogue or mosque) to learn about his (her) faith, but it was [Name] who taught him to live it…”
- “I wonder how [Name] managed to keep her sanity after _________ happened…”
- “Here’s what [Name] would have learned in church.”
- “The lessons [Name] taught were never written down. She (he) lived them.”
This only scratches the surface. What did I miss? I’d love to hear your ideas.