Family History Narrative

A little more than a decade ago, genealogists like me started to get the hang of nonfiction storytelling. This might not sound like a big deal, but it marked a significant change in the field: professional genealogy, after all, is dominated primarily by those of us who conduct research, provide clients with research reports and produce family tree charts. Until fairly recently, genealogists who published research results for clients or for themselves assembled facts into what we call “compiled genealogies”—tomes reciting only names, dates and places: “Delia Gordon was born 29 April 1860, Ardvarney, County Leitrim, Ireland; died 19 April 1925, Greenwich, Fairfield County, Conn.; married about 1886, likely in America, David Norris. They had the following children. . . .” These books were intended as references, so readability wasn’t an issue.

Then, in 1976, Alex Haley published “Roots,”a fictionalized version of his ancestry. Prior to that, having a genealogy traced was primarily for the status-conscious, those wishing to prove descent from America’s founding fathers and Old World gentry and royalty. Haley’s work sparked an interest in genealogy for the common person, descended from everyday, working-class folk. Haley also inspired genealogists to consider writing family history in the same storyteller fashion—while keeping the narrative true to the documented facts.

Early attempts in the 1970s through most of the 1990s often read like “Who’s Who” biographical sketches. Writers presented life events—beyond being “hatched, matched and dispatched”—chronologically: “Between 6 June 1900, when the 1900 U.S. federal census was taken, and the fall of 1901, David and Delia Norris and their children returned to Ireland. Then on 6 November 1901, the family came back to America on the ship Oceanic, sailing from Queenstown on 31 October 1901.” Readable, perhaps; interesting, no.

With more clients requesting compellingly told, factual family histories, a few professionals looked at what literary journalists and other creative nonfiction writers were doing. How were authors like Gay Talese, John McPhee and Joan Didion crafting life stories about people? How did they bridge gaps that remained after researching and interviewing? More important, where and how did they draw the line between fiction and nonfiction?

What emerged in the late 1990s was a genre a colleague and I dubbed “family history narrative,” a nonfiction story about ancestors’ lives. Rather than a cradle-to-grave approach, these narratives began with a dramatic event or life-altering decision in an ancestor’s life, such as leaving the Old Country or the death of a loved one. Some writers also used other creative writing devices—a narrative arc, scenes, imagery and metaphors—to bring an ancestor’s story to life on the page. These days, a few of us professional genealogists make a living turning skeletal names, dates and places into creative nonfiction narratives of ancestors’ lives. To attract clientele and to be able to show an example of their abilities, some professionals began by writing narratives about their own ancestors. This is what I did when I wrote “My Wild Irish Rose: The Life of Rose (Norris) (O’Connor) Fitzhugh and Her Mother, Delia (Gordon) Norris,” the story of my maternal Irish ancestry.

Most family histories are self-published, often with a limited distribution to family and to key research repositories such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, the world’s largest genealogical collection. Nowadays, many such histories are self-published through print-on-demand publishers and are for sale on Amazon or other booksellers’ Web sites. Most genealogical writers and their clients are not concerned about commercial publication or sales, though; their primary audiences are their families, not strangers. Even so, there is satisfaction in well-researched, compelling and fully documented narratives.

John Philip Colletta is another pioneer in melding sterile genealogical facts with creative writing techniques. In his 2000 book “Only a Few Bones: A True Account of the Rolling Fork Tragedy and Its Aftermath,” he turns his ancestors into “characters” by developing them through their actions as revealed in court documents, newspaper articles and other records. Using land records, county histories and historic maps, he writes descriptive scenes of a given place in time. He begins the story unconventionally, with a prologue that vividly imagines an 1873 event and draws in the reader:

I can see it now, the Ring & Co. store, blazing like a funeral pyre in the swampy desolation of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. Through the enormous flames lapping the walls and clawing across the roof, I see the outline of the two-and-a-half story building as though I were standing there, right in front of it, that Tuesday night, March 4, 1873. The heat sears my face and the smoke stings my eyes, though behind me the air is cool and filled with drizzle. . . .

Starting with Chapter 1, however, Colletta steps out of the story, reporting events and making inferences based on his ancestors’ actions and behaviors. He never enters the characters’ minds unless to speculate on what a person might have been thinking or feeling.

Because we genealogists often write about the distant past, with no living memory on which to rely, family history writing projects entail exhaustive research. We seek every potential document an ancestor, his family and his associates might have generated or created. This meticulous fact-finding enables us to write a fuller and more accurate account of an ancestor’s life and to feel comfortable recreating events we didn’t personally witness.

Even then, there is more historical background to uncover, more layers of necessary research. Colletta, for example, did extensive research on his ancestors as well as the historical context for his book, but discovered after it was published (isn’t that always the case?) that he had missed a few details. He painted this scene:

Attorneys, litigants and witnesses exit the courtroom, descend the long iron staircase and step out onto the portico. Lighting a cigar or pipe, or tucking a plug of tobacco inside the lower lip, the men watch the starlings poking in the rain-saturated lawn.

Sounds perfectly plausible, doesn’t it? But there’s a wee flaw. Colletta knew from the newspaper account that it had rained on and off during the proceedings. He had visited the Mississippi building where the trial had taken place and had seen starlings on the lawn. But he received an e-mail from an ornithologist who informed him that starlings weren’t introduced into the United States until 1890; the first sighting of a starling in Colletta’s setting wasn’t until the late 1890s, two decades after the event he describes. That is to say, most readers of narrative family histories expect a high degree of historical accuracy, not only with respect to the lives of ancestors but for the historical minutiae, too.

Like most creative nonfiction writers, genealogical writers draw an unbendable line between nonfiction and fiction. If a record or person hasn’t detailed an event that occurred or how something happened, we use speculative wording: perhaps, probably, likely, almost certainly. Peter Haring Judd, the author of “More Lasting Than Brass: A Thread of Family from Revolutionary New York to Industrial Connecticut,” used the qualifier probably, for example, when a person’s identity in records was uncertain: “In 1865, a William Clark was listed in the Minneapolis directory, identified as a grocer and flour trader—occupations in the family tradition. He was probably Julie’s first cousin once removed. . . .”

Genealogical writers also use supposition to fill in research gaps. Speculation isn’t produced simply for the sake of the story, however; there must be sufficient historical evidence to support the assumption that an ancestor likely did or did not do something. For example, in a family history I’m writing for a client, I don’t know for certain that the client’s ancestor Thomas Hillman was at the courthouse in Wise County, Virginia, on the morning of Sept. 2, 1892, for the widely publicized hanging of Talton Hall, a murderer, allegedly of 99 men. Because few in the area would miss out on such free entertainment, however, and because Thomas lived the majority of his life in Wise County and had regular dealings at the courthouse, recording land transactions, I’m almost certain he was there. From eyewitness accounts reported in the newspaper, I’m able to dramatize the scene and to place Thomas at the event, albeit using speculative language.

There are several types of family history narratives. They can be like Colletta’s; he reports as a historical literary journalist, employing numerous creative nonfiction devices: active verbs, scenes and a narrative arc. Or it can be a family biography, like Judd’s book. He writes in the style and voice of a traditional biographer, with less attention to making the prose pop on the page: “George was not an innovator like his father, nor was he mechanically minded. He slipped into the management of the family businesses and worked under his father for nearly 20 years. . . .”

Julie Foster Van Camp’s family history narrative, “Searching for Ichabod: His Eighteenth-Century Diary Leads Me Home,” might be called a family history memoir. She narrates her personal quest to learn about her ancestor: “The scent of freshly mowed grass seeps into my nostrils. Damp blades stick to my shoes as I walk alone, reading inscriptions, watching the September sunlight ripple across the graves in the pioneer section of Fairview Cemetery.” As a memoirist, she reflects and muses: “Rain pounds on my windshield, like the rat-a-tat of a hammer hitting small nails. Headlights blur my vision. My mind is a muddle. What do I expect to learn by driving across New York that I don’t already know about Ichabod? I feel foolish following his route. . . .”

Writers’ styles and approaches to the material may vary, but what almost all good family histories have in common is meticulous documentation. Genealogical standards require that every fact be cited in an endnote. The field of genealogy conforms to the current edition of “The Chicago Manual of Style” and to guides specific to genealogical records, such as Emily A. Croom’s “Genealogists’ Guide to Documentation and Citing Sources.” Because a genealogy is never “done”—there is always another branch or ancestor to explore—genealogists consider their work as springboards for other researchers. Tomorrow, next week or a decade from now, there might be more records available to supply additional information, or another writer may choose to take a different approach or write about a connected ancestral line. One thing is certain: There is never a lack of ancestors or material for writing family history narratives.

About the Author

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is a certified genealogist and co-owner of Warren, Carmack & Associates, a genealogical research, writing and publishing firm. She is the author of You Can Write Your Family History, eight additional genealogical guides and seven family history narratives.

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