We grow up with two myths about writing; the first is a belief that successful writers are born to write. The second myth we hold is that we cannot learn to write. Let’s begin this lesson on writing family history more easily by throwing these two myths into the wastepaper basket!
Anyone can learn to write. Not everyone will be a bestselling author. However, every writer can learn to write well and improve their writing by following a few easy steps.
Learning to write family history well requires curiosity, wisdom, personal dedication, self-confidence, planning, thinking strategies, emotional strength, good notetaking, organisation, interpretation, imagination, creativity, ideas, resources, editing skills, good writing friends AND A SENSE OF HUMOUR!
Having read most of the books currently available on writing, publishing and editing, I have benefited greatly from the advice of others. But, some authors are too ready to lecture the beginning writer, and their advice can be confusing and difficult to understand!
There is not much fun or clarity in advice such as '... the most evocative words create visceral or kinesthetic images ...' or '... the traditional well-made plot is an artificial thing ...'
If the beginning writer is looking for easy-to-follow or practical pathways to their writing, it is not found in this advice. Nor will they find much fun!
Writing should be a joyful, creative, enthralling experience. Over the last ten years I have led several family history writing groups, and their main aim was to improve writing skills but not, I add, at the expense of having fun.
To write good history there is no doubt you require all of the technical, language and creative skills you can muster. And you need passion, compassion and a sense of humour.
Who's writing this story?
I tell my students to write quickly at first without thinking too much about sentence structure or style. Do not worry at first about the exaggerated phrases, the wild generalisations, the turgid sentences, the disparate thoughts or the uncoordinated ideas that seem to flow so easily from the pen! Read this turgid long sentence from Memories & Dreams:
Still, her memories of childhood were dominated by her parent’s (sic) unending struggle, their battle with harsh, economic and social conditions; the unending struggle of her mother’s working life in the linen factory, the struggle of hard labour for men like her father in the rope factory and the struggle to keep clean and respectable in the filthy, flooded and neglected dock area of Bridge End, Ballymacarrett.
I am breathless now reading this sentence! It is long and repetitious. Given the chance I could rewrite as follows:
Her memories of childhood were dominated by poverty and hard times. Her parents were factory workers, their lives dominated by harsh economic and social conditions. There was, too, the struggle to keep clean and respectable in the filthy, flooded and neglected dock area of Bridge End, Ballymacarrett.
However, this is the beginning phase of finding your voice. You need to get the ideas, the stories and the passion onto the page. If the sentences are too long at first or there is unnecessary repetition, no matter for now. You can worry about fixing the sentences, and the syntax, later.
A family history can be written in any genre including fiction. Memoir and biographical approaches have become increasingly popular with family historians as they search for new and creative ways of telling family and personal histories.
Most family history will fit within what might be called an interpretive genre. You gather together all of the 'facts' and then interpret them. You make an assessment of how ancestors coped during economic depressions, what they did at work, how they responded to world wars or as settlers in a new country. You reflect on family relationships, family conflict, and the grief, joy and hope that people experienced each day of their lives.
There is no right way to write a family history. There is no specific genre that is best. If you prefer a traditional approach, that is fine. It is equally acceptable to write from your imagination or perhaps choose an approach somewhere between the two.
If you have difficulty thinking of what to write or how to write about a complex event or relationship, try to re-phrase your words and ideas in basic prose. Think about what it is you want to write, and use words that convey your meaning as clearly as possible. Keep your writing specific and straightforward. Use active words and write as you would talk.
I have found that some beginning writers take to dialogue very quickly. They have a good ear for the language of their childhood, and they can remember family conversations seemingly word for word. Other beginners prefer to write a traditional family history. They like a beginning, a middle and an end.
In some cases beginning writers value the emotional connection they feel for their stories and the characters. Their personal journey with the writing process is an integral part of the writing and the family history. But whatever genre or voice you use for your family history, ensure the reader understands what is 'true' and what is not. It is a simple matter to say 'I imagine that my grandmother said' or 'Uncle Arthur remembered that'. Or to write a preface informing readers that the dialogue in the book is based on stories told in the family and passed down through the generations and are not necessarily 'true'.