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3 Writing Lessons from a New Genealogy Blogger

Sometimes the best way to learn is by reading the works of other authors. However, there are so many books, blogs and newsletters filling our inboxes; it’s hard to filter through all the noise. Today, I would like to help you sort through that chatter by identifying for you a blog that I believe shines as an example of family history writing. A blog I think, you should subscribe to and read if you are interested in improving your storytelling skills. 

Earlier this year, when I started reading this blog it immediately captivated my attention and drew me in. I needed to know more about this author. I reached out to Michael Lacopo, the writer behind Hoosier Daddy? I asked Michael a few questions and being a natural writer Michael offered up some very insightful reponses. I thought it only approriate to share his words with you. Michael's perspective about storytelling didn’t surprise me and most certainly resonated with my own feelings on family history writing. From his answers, I found many lessons but here are three writing lessons we could all do well in remembering. 

First, a bit about Michael. 

 Michael began actively researching his family history in 1980 at thirteen years of age. He privately published his first book, a surname study on the Nowels family in 1985 after graduating from high school. He went on to Purdue University and became a veterinarian graduating in 1991. He continued his research never abandoning his passion.  Michael indicated to me that genealogy and veterinary medicine are very similar.

If you bring me a sick, skinny, old cat, I need to collect puzzle pieces: blood work, medical history, physical exam, radiographs, etc. I need enough pieces of the puzzle to see a coherent picture. The same goes for genealogical research.

If you apply the Genealogical Proof Standard to veterinary medicine: (1) a reasonably exhaustive search (or exam and diagnostics); (2) complete and accurate source citations (or medical records); (3) analysis and correlation of the collected information (or test results and other clinical findings); (4) resolution of any conflicting evidence (which is common in medicine) and (5) a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion (or treatment plan, surgery and/or medication).

It’s really all the same.”

Michael began lecturing in 2004 and he started to do client work at the same time and went to part time status in his day job to accommodate his schedule. In 2013, he turned his full attentions to genealogy after 22 years as a veterinarian.

Michael’s family history blog is a collaboration of research, creative nonfiction narrative and his personal reflections. His narratives come to life through action, description, dialogue and characterization.  One thing that Michael does exceptionally well is create tension and suspense for the reader. You know those books, the ones that when you get to end of one scene or chapter and the writer sets it up so beautifully that you have to turn the page and keep reading. Michael does exactly this at the end of each blog post. He sets us up, begging us to anxiously wait for the next blog post installment to arrive in our inbox.

Now on to a few lessons we can learn from Hoosier Daddy? and Michael Lacopo. 

Lesson #1 - While some experience and practice helps in writing your family history, it is equally important to understand your goal – to inform and entertain the reader. Know your reader and your purpose, so you can adapt and learn accordingly. 

Michael’s thoughts on his experience: 

“No, I do not have any writing experience. At the beginning of 2013, I left a 22-year profession as a small animal veterinarian. Short of writing very detailed medical records that my front office staff HATED transcribing, I have done nothing in the way of “creative writing.” At least there’s been no purposeful attempt to do so. But since I have been doing genealogical research pretty much all my life, I have done a lot of writing in that arena. Also, since I now do client work, I think it is very important to present information in both a scholarly and readable format. I want my clients to understand what I am sending to them, but I want them to understand both the research techniques I used, why I employed them and what they told me. Additionally, I think it is very important to put our ancestors in historical perspective. Like I mentioned in the last blog post, genealogy should be about telling a story! But in client reports, although I try to write a compelling narrative, I do make sure it would hold up to the scrutiny of my peers and all my reports are heavily sourced and footnoted. The fact that I am NOT doing that for my blog filled me with significant angst.”

You can read about Michael’s creative decision to not cite his blog in A Momentary Interlude. 

Lesson #2 - I love a good plan but sometimes too much planning can interfere with writing. Writing is a creative endeavour and a journey of discovery, let the writing and the stories be your guide. Don’t over think it. The path reveals itself with each step you take. 

Michael does such a wonderful job pulling us through the story, I was certain he must have a plan.  Has be mapped his posts long in advance?  Does he plan to turn his blog in to a book?

Michael’s reply:

“There was no plan for this blog, and there is no plan for this blog. I certainly had/have no plans to write a book, although that has recently been suggested by a number of people. I am not sure if the audience would be there for something so far-reaching. I had in the past considered writing a work of creative non-fiction based on the facts surrounding the murder of a relative in 1920s Chicago, so the allure of doing something of this nature has been simmering inside my head for a while. But as stated before, I think our families are chock full of stories, and they need to be written. In my many, many years of research I have been told stories of my long-dead relatives by people who are now also long-dead. And do you know what? Almost NONE of them are written down. I have been passed snippets of oral history that you will find in EVERY family, and even as a professional, I have put little of it in print. Why? There’s no space in our computerized genealogy programs for “Aunt Kate said her grandfather loved the bottle more than he did work.” It’s just filed in the back of our heads, and it will be gone when we are gone. I started research when I was 13 years old, and I pestered my older relatives with thousands of questions. There are thousands more I want to ask them, and they are gone.

As far as planning posts, I don’t. I follow the narrative into the direction I feel it is taking me. I like to intersperse action with reflection. If I refer to a person in a narrative, I am not content with saying, “she married Frank Strukel.” So who was Frank Strukel? If I reach a point where I am introducing someone new, people need to understand who they are. And so I anticipate moving backward and forward, mixing contemporary research with reflection and narrative.”

Lesson #3 – Place your ancestors in historical perspective. Your ancestors lived in the real world. Make history more personal and more meaningful for your reader by showing its affects in the daily lives of your ancestors.

Michael thoughts on marrying world history with family history: 

And by writing about people in my past, I find personally where I am missing pieces of information, have gaps in my research, or I don’t know the story. Frank Strukel’s war experience is a perfect example. He never spoke of it. So there was no oral history. When I started writing about the man Frank was, I knew from what I was told that the war affected him significantly. When I started putting it into writing, I had no idea why. I guess in my head, I always just thought “war is hell,” and I left it at that. That’s reason enough to be deeply affected, right? And although I read a great deal of historical non-fiction, 20th-century history is not my thing, nor is military history. My working knowledge of World War II is dismally basic. And I think the big picture of war fronts and battle lines and statistics and politics and the Roosevelt/Patton/Eisenhower/Churchill/Stalin/Hitler/Mussolini/etc. angle is exceedingly boring to the average person. That is why high school history classes are so dismally unpopular. But do you think Frank Strukel knew ANYTHING about the political dynamics of Russia and Germany in the 1930s? No. That is not what affects us as people on a daily basis - not now nor then. When you plop your grandfather into the story, it all has more meaning.”

I hope you join me in reading Hoosier Daddy? and following the family history stories of Michael Lacopo.  Be sure to start at the beginning, because it reads like a good novel and you won't want to miss a thing. You can also find Michael at his Facebook page Roots4U where he announces his lectures and events.  Michael specializes in German and German-speaking research, American research, with particular strengths in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest states, especially the Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois corridor. Michael has a deep interest in 18th century German immigration to Pennsylvania and beyond, as well as in Swiss Mennonite research in both Europe and America.