Incorporating details from the past can bring your stories alive for readers. Before you yell, “BAHHHH Research” and run (or click) away, stay with me. Using this list of useful genealogy resources for memoirists and memory writers, it’s not as hard as you think. And the facts you gleam make a great way to “show, not tell” the settings of your stories and increase your readers understanding of your past.
Do research and memoir belong together? Counter intuitive as it sounds, the answer is yes. Though it is true that memoir involves writing about the episodes of your past that already exist in your memory, research can enhance your story. Adding researched details from the past can bring your story alive for your readers.
Working with family historians writing their ancestor’s stories brings this home. They not only provide the meticulously researched (and cited) facts for readers. When they write about their ancestors, they often include a rich background of historical and social context. They don’t do this to fill in the gaps between facts. They use their research to help their readers visualize the events of the past.
Any memorist or memory writer can use those same pieces of context to enhance their storytelling and to prevent an unintended tint of judgement from leaching into their stories.
How Historical Context Helps Readers
Many times, we write about circumstances that are difficult for readers to envision. If they were raised in a different generation, part of the country, or in a different faith or ethnic group, readers may not fully “get” your story. They may fail to grasp the nuances.
I had such an experience once with my five-year-old niece, who I had asked to be the flower-girl at my wedding. Her mother was (still is) an excellent seamstress, so we took Breanna to pick out a dress pattern for her dress. I was having a Christmas wedding and I wanted Brea to wear ivory.
It was soon apparent that Brea couldn’t envision herself in an ivory dress. Repeatedly, she’d point to patterns which depicted a flower girl wearing a pink dress. I’d ask her, “Would you like this dress just as much if it were white?” Of course, she wouldn’t. Her world-view said that beautiful dresses were pink. It wasn’t until she saw beautiful dresses that weren’t pink that she began to accept the fact that she could be happy in an ivory-colored dress.
Our stories need to make the same kind of break-throughs with our readers when we write about unfamiliar settings. If we leave readers to place the fabric of their own childhood over the pattern of our stories, their understanding of the story can differ from the one we meant to tell. And they may not ever get, how pretty a little girl can look in ivory, metaphorically speaking.
Research can Spark Readers’ Imaginations
I admit, there was a time in my life when I would have scoffed at the idea of research bringing anything alive. I thought of it in terms of index cards and foot notes and teachers taking points off.
But think about telling the story of your parents meeting at a dance in the 1940s. If you had a photo of your parents around that time, you’d include it. You’d want your readers to know how they looked and what they were apt to wear.
But why stop there? You can use your friend Google to look up what song was on the top of the charts that month. You can include what dance steps were popular. Technically, that’s research, but it’s anything but boring.
Research and Memoir: Using Lenses of the Past as Filters
Think about photo filters. They often correct lighting problems or highlight little details. Research can do that too. It can act as a filter. Historical context can it helps readers understand what may have happened fifty years (or more) ago, and can also shield the characters of our past from judgement. In many cases, that’s a good thing.
In a recent memoir class I conducted, a participant was reluctant to write about a hurtful episode of her past. As a young woman in the 1940s, her mother forced her to give up a scholarship to college. She had to stay home and work so she could help put her brother through college. She didn’t want to offend any family members by writing about the hurt of being told she couldn’t pursue an education.
In her case, historical context helps her write an even-handed account of her mother. Her mother wasn’t trying to be mean. She was doing what she thought was best. If she chooses to write about it, she can portray her mother as a product of her time, not as a villain.
A genealogist colleague named Sue Cromwell believes that we shouldn’t impose our 21st century values on the past. She explains, “Understand that there were any number of influences that affected the decisions and choices they made for themselves and their families.” She’s right. Sharing the context of previous eras leaves readers in a better position to form their own conclusions. Was a character in your story a neglectful father or was he a man working three jobs to put food on the table? Was a mother a religious nut or just like every other woman living in that community?
Research and memoir go together, illuminating the past.
Stay tuned for “Useful Genealogy Tools for Memoirists and Memory Writers”
Update: This contest is now closed. The lucky winner is Kim S.
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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.
I can only think of my great-great grandfather, VanBuren Field Clark, the way my grandmother described him. Longish dark blonde hair blowing in the wind, an irregular gait and blazing blue eyes. A vibrant, brave man with a gentle heart.
I wish I could go back in time and get to know him better. I say “better,” because I feel like I know him a little already, since my grandmother wrote stories about him.
Is nostalgia good for you? Or is it unhealthy to spend too much time looking backwards?
A few days before my last birthday, I watched myself learn to walk.
I had just received my digital transfers of VHS tapes and 8mm film from Legacy Republic (part of becoming an affiliate). I was excited to view the past. Memories I could no longer access were there for me to watch—including trying to blow out my first birthday cake candles under the watchful eye of my sister. Until she took over.
I couldn’t wait to show my 22-year old snippets of his first bath and a tape from my parents. Just three weeks before their deaths in an auto accident, they made a tape for their then 2- and 4-year-old grandsons, which ended in a cheerful “bye-bye.”
My son wanted nothing to do with my home movies. “I don’t want to get all nostalgic,” he said. I was shocked. He said “nostalgic” like it was a bad thing. Who raised this kid?
His words gave me pause. As I try to convince people to preserve their memories—to write them down and to digitize their media—am I asking them to let yesteryear take up too much of their now?
I decided to look into it.
No longer a dirty word
My son wasn’t the first person to think of nostalgia in negative terms. Back in 1688, Johannes Hofer equated the word nostalgia with home-sickness. According to Clay Routledge’s The Rehabilitation of an Old Emotion: A New Science of Nostalgia,” the Swiss physician considered battlefront sadness to be a cerebral disease caused “by continuous vibrations of animal spirits through fibers in the middle brain.”
Others, Routledge notes, theorized that nostalgia “resulted from damage… caused by the nonstop clanging of cowbells in the Alps.” Clearly, it was time to take a fresh look.
Twenty-first century research suggests that even when it evokes bittersweet emotions, thinking about the past can heal. (Whew!)
Why Nostalgia is Good
Doctors Wing-Yee Cheung, Constantine Sedikides, and Tim Wildschut published their study of nostalgia in the November 2103 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. They found that nostalgia can combat loneliness and “raises self-esteem, which in turn heightens optimism.” Dr. Wildschut explains:
Memories of the past can help to maintain current feelings of self-worth and can contribute to a brighter outlook on the future. Our findings do imply that nostalgia, by promoting optimism, could help individuals cope with psychological adversity. 
Chris Weller equates this with clicking a Viewmaster in our mind’s eye, reliving the feelings we had when it first happened.
Those good feelings multiply when we tell stories (or look at pictures) in a social or family setting. Our memories beget other memories. Storytelling one-upmanship ensues. As do laughter and feelings of love. So yes, I am helping people by persuading them to preserve their memories and family stories.
Most of the time.
Memories Don’t Always Feel Good
Several articles about the positivity of nostalgia end with wording that makes me cringe. Three weekly doses should be positive for all—except “neurotics” and “avoidants.”
Having a self-diagnosed neurotic moment, I read between the lines. If nostalgia isn’t making you happier, there must be something wrong with you. Right?
Not necessarily. The anti-nostalgic may not need to rush to the nearest shrink. In fact, maybe he’s doing well to know himself. When the memory we’re confronted with reminds us of a traumatic loss, it might be salt to the wound
Today, for example, would have been my friend’s birthday. Her funeral was just last week. It’s too early for memories to feel fond.
But there’s more to it than the linear progress of time. It has to do with the magnitude and circumstances of the loss as well as our personalities. For instance, in my son’s case, it might be a self-defense mechanism. If he doesn’t dwell on what could have been, he won’t feel sad. Besides, he was so young he has few of his own memories to relive. Perhaps the Viewmaster effect is lost on him.
Making Nostalgia Positive
In How to Use Nostalgia to Your Advantage (Instead of Getting Stuck), Thorin Klosowski points out that the research by Cheung, Sedikides, and Wildschut doesn’t recommend basking only in the past.
The glitch with nostalgia comes when we stop creating new memories because we’re too busy thinking about the past. That creates a cycle where you’re not doing new things, making new memories, enjoying time with new people, or learning new lessons… If nostalgia acts as a store of positive memories to call back on when you’re feeling down, you have to create new ones before that storage runs out.
Klosowski says that it’s all about how we frame reminiscences. He recommends focusing on reliving the past, not comparing it to the present. Especially if we’re not fond of the present.
So…. back to those memories you need to preserve …
 “Back to the future: nostalgia increases optimism,” University of Southampton, 13 November 2013, http://www.southampton.ac.uk/news/2013/11/13-nostalgia-increases-optimism.page.
 Chris Weller, “Nostalgia is Good for You: When We Reminisce, Life Feels More Meaningful and Death Less Frightening,” Medical Daily (blog), July 12, 2013, http://www.medicaldaily.com/nostalgia-good-you-when-we-reminisce-life-feels-more-meaningful-and-death-less-frightening-247627.
Do beauty and family stories go together? Should they? When we leave a photographic record for prosperity, we’re all smiles. Why not do the same for our legacy of family stories?
Most of us want to present ourselves in a positive light. Maybe not quite perfect, but normal. We want to cover the blemishes. We may not be the Cleaver family, but we keep mute about the family disfigurements, the bad times.
Remember the excitement of back-to-school? Getting your teacher assignments, supplies, figuring out if your best buddies were in the same class as you? Wondering if you’d like the teacher? Years (decades) later, we remember a few of those teachers who made a difference. For good or for bad.
That’s a universal experience. It bonds us—just like the memory of the smell of mimeograph paper and the feel of the paper-bag book covers for those of us that went to school in the 60s and 70s.
Culture Clashes. They happen among nations, ethnic groups, and generations. Sadly, culture clashes also occur among families. Heritages or upbringings collide. Differing values splinter relationships.
Personal memory collectors, memoirists, and family storytellers all struggle with whether or not to tell the unhappy, unflattering, or embarrassing tales.
We all have lessons that we want to pass on. However, we have also learned things that we never wanted to know. In the midst of a family tragedy, a friend texted me today with details on why some autopsies are done in the state capital rather than in her city. It’s a fact she never wanted to know. A heart-rending reminder of the surreal quality of shock and grief.
How poignant a method of storytelling to let loved ones and future generations know the things you hope they’ll never have to know.