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Family History Writing Challenge - Establishing a Setting For Your Story

Day 14 – Congrats to everyone we are at the halfway point! Keep up the great work. Today’s post will facilitate you in adding the element of setting to your family history story.

Often we are caught up in the facts of the documents, although important, we can often overlook an abundance of information that lies outside of a document. These details can enrich our writing and add layers to our story. 

Setting is one of those elements. Knowing the setting of your ancestor’s lives is equally as important as the ancestors themselves. Their location was key in finding your ancestors and that location remains important in  writing their story.

What is setting?
Setting can be as general as the country, province, and town where your ancestors lived but as specific as the bed they slept in and the shoes they wore. The more detailed you can be, the more the reader will relate. 

A setting breathes life into your story, it is a sum of many parts and the more specific and unique they are the more richness they will bestow on your story. Setting can also be found in a social context, such as social trends, political ideas that influence our ancestor’s actions and thinking. 

If there is too little sense of the period, or sense of time your readers will be uninvolved. Setting is not just about describing the surroundings of an ancestor’s town, but building the world your ancestor lived in.
Below are some things to consider when building your ancestor’s world for your family history story.

  • Describe the street,  farm, or property where they lived.
  • What season is it when you are telling your story; this would change what your ancestor’s were wearing.
  • Were you aware of any extreme weather changes, a drought, a snowstorm, a heat wave?
  • What laws, historical events that may affect them and their actions in a particular area?
  • Where did they work, what was their workplace setting like? Where they a farmer, a miller, a merchant? 
  • Describe the house they lived in, what was it made of, indoor or outdoor plumbing, running water, how was the house heated, what did they cook with, what kind of furnishings did they have.
  • What kinds of crops did they grow, what kind of fruits and vegetables were indigenous to the area?
  • Did they fish in a nearby stream, hunt in a nearby forest?
  • Was there a local schoolhouse? Church?
  • What kinds of food did they eat? A favourite dish they cooked. 
  • What was the mode of transportation?
  • Entertainment?
  • What kind of clothes did they wear?
  • What season was it during your story? Spring? Summer? Fall? Winter? 
When seeking details for setting remember all of your senses, not just sight. Often we forget sound, smell and touch. Did Grandma here the church bell ringing every Sunday morning, or could Grandpa smell the horse barn from the house, or the cabbage rotting in the field? 

All these details will aid in creating a setting, which will bring a sense of realness of time and place to your ancestors.These details weaved into your families story will give depth and offer your reader a rich and detailed picture of your ancestor’s life.

How will you answer all these questions?
I would encourage your first stop to be the local historical society of the area your ancestor lived. Some resources can be found online, while a great deal of local historical societies and museums can really help you immensely if you visit them in person. For instance, my local historical society has many documents of my town from its earliest beginnings.  They have a museum full of artifacts from the days of the earliest settlers. The knowledgeable staff can easily offer me a great deal of detail about the day to day lives of the people who lived in my area.  Do not overlook this most precious resource. 

Other options include written social histories, gazetteers, local newspapers, and of course do not forget pictures, journals and diaries, all are rich with tidbits of information. Seek out several resources; one will never answer all of your questions. However, once these rich facts are intertwined with your ancestor’s history, you will have the makings of a great read.

As important in any family history story as a sense of place is also is a sense of time. As you tell your story you will pass through time, from days, weeks, years, decades and centuries, what makes each period of time and the moments in history that happen in that time different from the last. The details. 

A sense of the period can be established through minute items, hemlines, product names, car models, slang vocabulary, songs. They can be injected into your story and act as cues and markers to the times.
If you’re really good, the times can be equally revealed through the attitudes of your ancestors and neighbours, friends and family. Look to your ancestor’s actions, their family stories, journals and diaries to uncover clues to your ancestor’s attitude during a specific time period or event.

Gathering all this information into an outline makes your writing time much more productive. Having everything just where you need it when you need it is efficient. However, I have often found that  sometimes when I am in the writing process I realize I need more information on a specific setting. Rather than disrupt the flow of my writing, I insert a comment into my writing as a note to myself. Later, I look back to my comments, I create a list of what further research I need. I will then acquire the needed research and when I return for a rewrite, I will insert any missing pieces. 

Details, details, details is the secret ingredient to making your setting good and your story great.

3 comments:

  1. I love the idea for this project. When I was a teacher in NYC, I worked on a Historical Fiction unit, and a lot of the tactics you mention were parts of my instruction.

    Are you going to publish the pieces on your blog?

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  2. Thanks gelinasmike, much of my knowledge about writing family history is a culmination of writing classes, mostly creative as well through my own 3 year project of writing my family history. I really felt like I had to develop a process that was unique to family history, other genres just didn't work. As to publishing on my blog, not my own, I have published a book but to family only, but I am currently working on story I hope to publish publicly. Some of the participants are publishing on their own blogs. Check them out.

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  3. hi Lynn

    Great post and very helpful. I found that our local writing society just didn't/doesn't think that family history is "real" writing. Most aggravating. It involves many of the challenges of creative writing but requires further challenges of accuracy, privacy, respect, etc.
    I also use the (follow this up) comment strategy when writing. BTW you might be interested in my recent post on a writing roadblock I had re setting. Pauleen

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