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Write Your Family History Using the Tools of Creative Nonfiction

(Today Biff Barnes from Stories to Tell joins us to discuss the writing genre of Creative Nonfiction as means of writing our family history stories)

A lot of people think creative nonfiction is an oxymoron.

If you are writing a family history you are writing about things that have already happened. Your job is to recount the facts of those events. Where’s the creativity in that?

Best-selling author Tom Wolfe (The Right StuffBonfire of the Vanities) asked himself a similar question in the early 1960s, when he was a reporter for the New York Herald. He was struck, he said in New York Magazine, by the notion that “…it just might be possible to write journalism that would…read like a novel.”

The idea was to give the full objective description…plus something that readers had always had to go to novels and short stories for: namely, the subjective or emotional life of the characters.

So how do you employ the tools of fiction as a family historian while staying within the bounds of fact, as Wolfe said “…to write accurate nonfiction?”
Let’s look at three techniques that will help you bring your ancestors to life.

Break out of strict chronology.

Events may have happened in a chronological sequence, but they don’t have to be reported that way. Edward Humes, who won a Pulitzer Prize when he was a newspaper reporter and has gone on to write ten books, nonfiction narratives about crime and public issues, explains how he used the technique:

I hated the fact that Bill Leasure, the corrupt LAPD traffic cop in my second book, Murderer with a Badge, chose murder as his first crime. Only later did he segue into stealing a few million dollars worth of yachts. Chronicling events in that order would have been anticlimactic. So I abandoned any pretense of a chronological structure, and started the first chapter with Leasure aboard a stolen boat. The murders unfolded later in the book, in a section that dealt with an earlier period in Leasure’s life. Then the narrative jumped forward again to a time after the yacht thefts, when those unsolved murders were finally linked to Leasure by the police. That kept the tension in the narrative building, though structurally it was kind of messy—like my main character’s life.

One way to grab your readers’ attention is to begin your family history with a dramatic event or turning point. You can look at what led up to that moment and the consequences which followed later in the book.

Create scenes and dialogue

How might you go about writing dialogue for a scene when you have limited knowledge of what the speaker might have said or how he might have said it? If you are fortunate you have journals, diaries or letters that will give you some ideas about what your ancestor would have said and how they might have said it. But even if you don’t you know something about the situation the person is in.

Consider what the person might have been thinking and feeling and you can get a sense of what they might have said.

Let’s look at how Paul David Pope did it in his family history Deeds of My FatherThe scene is a cafĂ© next to a rutted dusty street in a small Italian village.

Generoso, Pope’s grandfather is seated at a table with a well-dressed agent for a shipping company which is offering passage to America. Pope uses narrative summary to supply facts about Italian immigration and the way people in the village might have viewed it. The only dialogue in the scene is as follows:

“How much is the fare for America?” Generoso asked.
“Ten dollars.”
“How old do you have to be?”
“Sixteen.”
“I can’t wait.”
“Look here.” [Generoso shows the agent a letter from his brother-in-law in NY offering to sponsor him when he arrives in America.].
“Would you like to see some pictures of New York?”
“Oh, yes! Very much.”

The scene works effectively at bringing to life this pivotal moment in Generoso’s life. But Pope hasn’t taken any great fictional leaps in creating the dialogue. What boy hoping to get on a ship would not have asked these same questions? He is simply describing the inevitable conversation that must have taken place. The dialogue is in the context of many known facts: the location, the people, and the events.

Speculate about people’s thoughts and feelings

Speculation can be tricky, but if you deal with only what you can infer from known facts and indicate what you are doing to your reader it can be very effective.
Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Stacy Schiff’s recent book Cleopatra: A Life offers a good model of how to do it. Let’s look at how Schiff dealt with the days after Julius Caesar’s assassination. She begins by telling her readers that there is no record of exactly what Cleopatra was thinking at that time, then speculates:

…whether she grieved personally [for Caesar] or not, she had cause for apprehension. Not only was there no one to intervene on her behalf in Rome, but she had now inserted herself dangerously into the blood sport of that city’s politics.
Next Schiff looks at the state of Egypt at that moment.

She returned to a kingdom that was prosperous and at peace…There are no extant records of protests concerning tax collections, no evidence of the kind of revolt that had greeted her father’s return. The temples flourished…”Home is best,” went the Greek adage, and so it must have felt to Cleopatra.

To illustrate that feeling, Schiff returns to facts in the historical record to show that Cleopatra was indeed happy to be home.

“She embarked on an ambitious building program,” says Schiff. “Under Cleopatra, Alexandria enjoyed a robust intellectual revival.” And Cleopatra’s people held her in even greater esteem than she had enjoyed earlier in her rein. As Schiff explains, “If Caesar had returned from Alexandria more royal than before, Cleopatra returned from Rome more godly. She vigorously embraced her role as Isis [the Egyptian goddess Cleopatra was supposed to embody] It did not hurt her that on the first day of 42[B.C.] Caesar was  - in a solemn religious ceremony – declared a god.”

All in all, Schiff provides a pretty good insight into Cleopatra’s likely state of mind.
Employing these simple techniques used by fiction writers to tell your family’s story will create a more interesting and engaging account of your ancestors for your reader. After all, isn’t that the point of creating a family history book?


Biff Barnes
Biff Barnes is a writer, educator, and historian who has published extensively about San Francisco. He was a William Robertson Coe Fellow in American History at Stanford University. His experience with historical research, oral history, and academic writing is invaluable to family history authors as they plan and organize their books.

Biff Barnes is part of the Stories To Tell team of editors and book designers who help authors to create memoirs and family history books. They have worked with hundreds of authors to develop their fiction, non-fiction, and creative non-fiction books. As an editor, he helps to plan the book's content, edits text and images, and design a professional, unique book for his clients.  Biff offers great writing advice in his Stories to Tell Blog

1 comment:

  1. These are great suggestions -- and very encouraging for me. I have been agonizing over how to write a nonfiction family history while missing chunks of material; so many people tell me to write a fictional version instead but I feel far more comfortable with nonfiction. I realized I have been employing some of these techniques you cite in my recent blog posts for the Family History Writing Challenge (thank you, Lynn!), so I am really heartened to learn I already feel comfortable with them.

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