Turning Dry Ancestral Details into a Life Story

May 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

Genealogist and author Sharon DeBartolo Carmack weighs in on the Brevity Craft Pages with a smart, helpful discussion of how a writer should properly flesh out details when writing about distant ancestors.  She begins with a funny (but familiar) example of how it should not be done, before showing us what does work and offering a generous number of pointers on genealogical inquiry, speculation, and writing well.

Here’s an excerpt, starting with the “don’t do this” example:

Elizabeth Jordon was the youngest of five children born to Robert and Catherine Jordon. Elizabeth was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1893, the same year composer Tchaikovsky died and Hawaii was proclaimed a republic. In 1913, just one year after the Titanic sank, Elizabeth married George Anderson. World War I brought the birth of their first two children. In 1929, after the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, their last child was born. Elizabeth’s first grandchild was born on May 2, 1945, and two days later the Nazis surrendered. Elizabeth died in 1973 during the Watergate hearings.

As written, these events aren’t relevant to this family, so they have a comical cause-and-effect relationship. Unless Elizabeth married George because the Titanic sank, this historical event is not significant to Elizabeth’s story. And if the Nazis surrendered two days after Elizabeth’s first grandchild was born, then this was some baby to have caused the Nazis to wave the white flag!

Bringing ancestors to life on the page means researching relevant social history to blend with their life facts. Social histories examine the everyday lives of everyday people in a society, unlike traditional history textbooks, which focus on elite, wealthy, powerful, influential, famous, old, dead, white men.

Read the full entry on the Brevity Craft pages: Flesh on the Bones: Turning Dry Ancestral Details into a Life Story

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