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Writing a Non-Boring Family History
By Hazel Edwards
So you've been asked to write your family history?
What do you do about Grandma's love letters? (They belong to the
descendants of the lover-writer) How do you write about family
secrets? What about illegitimate or "bland" ancestors? How do
you distinguish five generations named Elizabeth or John? What
if you've only got names on a shipping list? Or you've just
inherited a "box of bits"?
Recently, "family history" surpassed stamp-collecting as the
favourite hobby internationally. Many family historians did not
originally set out to write a book. Initially they enjoyed
collecting family letters, facts and memorabilia and then became
interested in preserving their family's past in a tangible way.
Since most historians are looking for "why?" things happened,
there is a personal satisfaction in assembling the answer in a
format which others will want to read.
To do justice to your intriguing ancestors, in a non-boring way,
is a challenge.
A few are interested only in assembling facts, before the owners
of those facts vanish, but there are techniques which can make
such compilations more readable. Other authors are interested
in ensuring that their "books" which have taken so many years
to research and write are not given just cursory glances and
There are practical ways of shaping your intriguing ancestors,
quirky anecdotes and data so that "his-story" or "her-story"
don't become just a "blandised" list of births, marriages and
deaths. Structuring themes, avoiding chronological boredom and
effective characterisation are some of the skills, even if all
you've got is a name on a shipping list.
Recipe for a Non-Boring Family History
1 cup of self-rising imagination
Thyme (endless spoonsful)
Sprinkles of ancestral curiosity
Pinch of opportunity
Flakes of serendipity
Intriguing title, cover and blurb
Zest of reader-researcher
Half a litre of language including mixed
Fruit of adjectives (use moderately)
Half a dozen embryonic ideas (egg-shaped)
Slurp of suspense, secrecy or drama
Dash of inspiration
Dash inspiration on all pages.
Mix all data and especially dry ingredients in computerised
container. Keep for an appropriate time. Heat emotions or
ice-over disputes. For special occasions, decorate and display
at reunion, anniversary or family gathering.
Historical readaholic or relative indigestion due to over much hot air.
P.S. Publishing a book is like creating a book child. There will
be criticism, but there will also be praise.
- Consider your prospective reader: If you say that everyone
will want to read this book, you're wrong. They won't! So who is
your prospective reader? Family and friends? Colleagues? Fellow
enthusiasts? Locals? Students? Special interest groups? Apart from
those mentioned in it, your "Great Family Saga" will interest
others only if it avoids chronological boredom. Does it offer
unusual insights into lifestyles, periods or personalities? Is
it aimed at the general reader, the specialist or just your family?
How could you broaden the appeal? Would it be relevant for tourists
visiting your area?
- Feature the conflict: What is the major conflict underlying
this family or period? Unless there is a conflict, which doesn't
necessarily mean violence, there is no drama. "Growing up" is
insufficient to enthral. There are three major areas of conflict:
within the individual, between individuals and between the
individuals and the society. Within your family's history all
exist. You just need to acknowledge them. For example, a teetotalling
family living in a hard-drinking community would show the conflict
between the individual and the society. Feuding brothers in a
civil war would indicate religious and political conflict. So
would pioneers in a drought or flood.
- Identify a theme: What is your book about? It is more than
just the story of "X" family. What are the common idea threads?
Were they a rebellious family? Visionaries? Inventors? Were
they always associated with an industry, an occupation or a family
business? For example, "Our book is about pioneering German
emigrants in the vineyards of the Barossa Valley of South Australia,
their struggles with the climate, the country and how to keep
practising their beliefs. Their persistence developed from their
stubbornness which was seen at first as a flaw."
- Characterise: Which character grabbed your interest?
Why? Probably because this character was spirited and came into
conflict with existing expectations. Design a dossier listing the
physical details and the personality traits of your major ancestors.
Make them live in your mind, then they'll live for the reader too.
- Structure: Avoid giving a boring collection of lists.
Order your material by themes or geographically by personalities
or places. Perhaps have three parts: The Old Country. The Journey
Out. The New Land. Use anecdotes or mini-stories to start chapters
rather than who was born on which date. Most interesting first,
second most interesting last, and then bury the boring bits in
the middle. Perhaps write your quest from your viewpoint as the
explorer-researcher trying to uncover the facts.
- Craft the Length: Make chapters approximately the
same length. Choose catchy titles rather than numbers for chapter
headings. Ten chapters of 3,000 words will give you a book of
30,000 words plus illustrations and photographs. Or calculate
minutes if making an audio or video taped history. Most histories
are self-published, so cost will be a consideration.
- Personalize: Readers enjoy the day-to-day details,
embarrassing moments and even four conflicting versions of
significant family events. Collect anecdotes. These are mini
stories. Use them to open chapters and introduce characters in
action. Use dialogue even if you have to "create" what you
think they might have said.
- Check: Arrange for a "naïve" and an "expert"
reader to check your manuscript. The "naïve" reader who knows
little about the subject will provide feedback on whether it
is a "good read". The "expert" checks facts.
- Design: Think about print size and shape. If
readers are elderly, don't try to save money by having small
print on fewer pages. Make the book a pleasure to handle.
- Choose Intriguing Titles: Use a common family
phrase, or a group of words like "Wheat, Wool and Whingers."
Avoid The Boring X Family.
Reprinted with permission
Writing a Non Boring Family History by
Hazel Edwards (Hale and Iremonger) 1997. Reprinted 2002.
Hazel Edwards also runs a series of
popular workshops about writing family histories.
Details on her website.
**Best known for There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof
Eating Cake (Hodder Headline UK), which won
the Leipzig Picture Book Bronze Award,
and subsequent books, video, stage play Hip Hip Hippo
and audio tapes based on the cake-eating hippo, Edwards also
writes adult non-fiction, teacher educational material, junior
and adolescent fiction and scripts. Her work has
been translated into Finnish, Braille, Japanese and Chinese.
She has been nominated twice for the AWGIE award for her
children's original scripts and adaptations.
Stalker, a Young Adult thriller, is her most recent novel for
Just in Case...You Visit the Children's Court created with
Michael Salmon is a new venture into factual cartoon style books.
In 2000, Hazel was a writer-in-residence in Antarctica at
Australia's Casey Station.
You can visit her website at