Today's post is courtesy of guest author Biff Barnes.
Biff Barnes is an editor at Stories To Tell, a company which helps authors of memoirs and family history books. As a historian, Biff has published extensively about
. He was a William Robertson Coe Fellow in American History at San Francisco . His experience with historical research, oral history, and academic writing is invaluable to family history authors as they plan and organize their books. Stanford University
Biff blogs at http://www.storiestotellbooks.com/blog/
A good story, like a good picture, is more striking with a frame.
Family history is more than a collection of facts gleaned from the vital records. When well written, it tells the stories of ancestors, giving their lives context and meaning. To you it is obvious: your ancestors’ stories are illustrations of a larger point. But will your readers understand that point?
A frame is a narrative device to help your reader understand. A thoughtful introduction and conclusion frame a chapter or story by adding levels of meaning that aren’t explicit in the story itself. The frame is like a magnifying lens. Your reader can get a clear overview of the themes revealed in the stories of your ancestors.
Let’s look at some examples of excellent family histories and how their authors framed them.
Isaiah Washington, A Man From Another Land: How Finding My Roots Changed My Life
Brox’s father had just died, and she had to decide what was to become of the family’s farm in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts. She framed her family’s story in terms of place. She described what her family had shared with all of the other people who had lived in the
: Yankee farmers, Henry David Thoreau, and most of all, the immigrants employed in the textile mills of Lawrence and Lowell. She used dramatic events like the 1912 Strike for Bread and Roses and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic to place their shared experiences in a historical context. Ultimately it was the sense of her family’s kinship with the valley and its people that convinced Brox to continue to operate her father’s farm. Merrimack Valley
Lalita Tademy, Cane River
Tademy, a Silicon Valley executive, left her job to trace four generations of women in her family back to their days as slaves in
. Her great grandmother died twelve years before Tademy was born, but she often heard stories about her. “My mother has said to me often, each time with a proud, wistful smile, ‘She was an elegant lady like Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.’ I always found this last statement impossible to embrace.” Louisiana
Tademy’s book is the story of how she came to understand the elegance, the dignity and grace, of her ancestors as they overcame the trials of slavery and its aftermath.
Introductions and conclusions can be powerful tools. Framing a family history permits you to insert your wisdom as researcher, author, and family member. Where do you find these themes or lessons? They are there already, in your family history. Pull them out and polish them, so that the significance of history will appear in sharp relief.