google-site-verification: google65e716d80989ba07.html Transforming a Dull Document into a Moving Narrative! | The Armchair Genealogist

Transforming a Dull Document into a Moving Narrative!

 Family History Writing Challenge - Day 10

From a genealogist's perspective, no document is dull, but unfortunately, not everyone will see it that way.  Therefore, we have to keep in mind when we write our family histories  it is our goal to show our family the story hidden in the document.

How do we do this?

 Three tools that I believe you can incorporate into your writing, to create just such a narrative.
1.       The details of the document. 
2.       The histories of the time and place.
3.       Any oral or written histories  of or by the ancestor

Details of the Document

My examining every word of a document whether it is a birth certificate, a passenger list or a census record you can find so much about a person and their life or the event in their life. That’s not news. However, many wonderful gems on a document translate well into a written narrative and give detail and meaning to your story.

Let us take my great-grandfather’s passenger list. On that document I learned the name of the ship, the day it arrived, the day it left, therefore how long the journey was and from what port he left and to what port he arrived.  I learned how old my grandfather was when he left his family, who he was traveling with, where he was heading, how much money was in his pocket and who paid for his passage.

That’s a fair amount of information that I can turn into a narrative.  Now I can take my cues from  that information and make it even more specific and more personal.  

 Histories of Time and Place
By researching and understanding the history of the time and place when this particular passenger list was recorded, I can really make my great-grandfather’s journey, individual, specific and moving. I can research the ship he arrived on, the port he left from, the port where he arrived. 

For instance, he arrived at Ellis Island in 1905. I can research how Ellis Island processed immigrants through this port at this time in history. What number he wore as he was processed? Was he detained for any ailments? What did he see when he first arrived? How was he processed, where did he head after he was allowed to enter the country? Whether through researching online or reading history books or by visiting Ellis Island in person,  I am able to re-create my great-grandfather's experience. By adding this research to the knowledge I gained from the document I can now layer my narrative with colourful and detailed information. 

 A passenger list with what may seem like standard information can be layered into an entire experience your reader can envision. By adding the details, the reader becomes much more involved in the story and feels much more connected, the more the reader feels like they are participating in the story the more it will resonate with them.

Oral Histories or Written Histories
If you’re lucky enough to be in possession of your ancestor's oral history, perhaps something your great- grandfather said about his journey or arrival then there is no better way bring your story home then to include some wonderful quotes, his impressions and feelings. If you’re in possession of a diary or journal, you now have some great personal information that will take your story to a new level.  

What may have started out as a few brief sentences pieced together from the bits of information off a passenger list has evolved into a beautiful narrative of my great-grandfather’s arrival at Ellis Island. 

By following this process with each of your key points you made in your story outline, you may find yourself well on your way to writing a moving narrative of your family’s story. 

2 comments:

  1. I love extracting the story from documents. I tried to do thevsame thing in my latest post about Samuel Dawson.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Excellent advice! I recently found my grandfather's manifest, which I couldn't find previously. It has a) misspelled his name (common) b) had his age off by 8 years! c) was a different ship from the name of the one he wrote down in his diary! No wonder I couldn't find his name! I'm now working on a new approach to the family story with a commitment to share at my writers' group on March 23rd. So I'm a little behind your challenge, but haulin' up the rear anyway.

    ReplyDelete