I admit the prospect of taking dry historical facts and turning them into stories that the rest of the family—much less the rest of the world—will find interesting is intimidating. It sounds like some literary alchemy or magic is called for.
Actually, it’s not really that hard.
Tips for transforming genealogical facts into stories
Here are a few tips to get you started morphing your dry facts into stories, using one of my great grandfathers as an example.
Don’t (necessarily) start at the beginning.
Joseph Arthur Savoy was born on April 10th in 1873, but for me that’s not the ‘headline’ or ‘hook’ of the story.
A great way to start writing about an ancestor is to explain why their story is part of your story. What does (or did) this ancestor mean to you? Family hero, loving grandpa, or enigma?
You can turn dry facts into stories by drawing your readers in. Explain why they should care about the facts.
Back to my great grandfather:
Joseph Savoy was the man who abandoned my grandma. He was the grandpa that my mother didn’t know.
My grandmother’s mother died in childbirth and Joseph eventually remarried. Each summer he brought Hazel down from Richmond VA toto visit her maternal grandparents for a couple of weeks. One summer he simply did not return for her. As a result, Hazel was raised by relatives—whoever had an extra bed or an extra seat at the table.
Of course, the upside is that we have many rich stories of the Clarks. Hazel knew them all well and wrote wonderful stories about them.
Start at the beginning
“Joe Blow was born on [Date] in [Place],” seems like a dull sentence. Actually, it’s fine; you’re not writing for a Pulitzer. That said, if you do want to make it more interesting, contrast it with historical context. You can quickly research what was happening during that time at sites like Historyorb.com. “Joe Blow was born on [Date] in [Place], the same day that [Something happened] or [Someone else was born],” adds texture.
Why does this help turn your dry facts into stories? Stories have settings. In this case, you’re simply giving your readers a jump-start into imagining the setting into which your ancestor was born.
Don’t Stick with the Facts
You can also combine facts with speculation. It’s simply a matter of adding a qualifier, such as “must have been.” Was your ancestor born at home? Was he or she the first child? Was he or she born into a busy household (as evidenced from Census records)?
Once again, you’ve helped your reader visualize the newborn, instead of reading facts.
In my case, Joseph’s place of birth is a point of mystery. On a marriage record, a clerk carefully wrote that he was born in New Bedford, Connecticut. The only problem with that is that the State of Connecticut claims there was never a New Bedford. It makes me wonder. He lived in New York for a while and his brother was born in Vermont. Perhaps he had a “yankee” accent that caused this place of birth to be misunderstood by the Virginian who wrote in the registry. Perhaps it was “Canada.”
The facts aren’t going to turn into stories on their own. The biggest hurdle is to start writing!