If you have been following our biographical essay series and/or you’ve completed our world-building exercises, you may feel you can accurately present your ancestor in a specific time and place. Do you still struggle to capture his or her perspective or who he or she is on the inside?

If so, you may need to go a level deeper. Getting to know and understand your ancestor or family member as a person often requires a different kind of writing journey. Pack all the life world and personal details you can about your ancestor for this journey, but also be open to the experience of looking out from the character, instead of looking in.

STEP 1: Engage Your Imagination through Creative Writing

At History Echoes, we are all about the accurate representation of people, artifacts, and stories in our family history writing. However, facts may not be enough if you want others to feel the people you are writing about.

Facts may not be enough to make you and your readers feel the people you are writing about.

Capturing your family member’s essence may require invoking your creative mind through specific, concrete imagery. The following imagery exercise will help in a way your research may not.

Capturing a Family Member’s Essence Using Writing Prompts: An Exercise

WRITING PROMPT: Picture your family member or ancestor in an everyday or typical moment in his or her life, engaging in a typical, everyday action. After you visualize this scene, write it out the way you saw it and felt it using as specific, concrete verbs, nouns, and phrases as possible.

Animate your ancestor through concrete imagery.

Create as many images as you can, following the criteria in the two columns below. At some point, you will become lost in the person and the scene and begin writing in prose. Whether you decide to list the details or just begin writing the scene as you picture it, jump in, suspending your assumptions and judgments. Get inside your subject’s head and heart and convey what you find as accurately as you can without leaving your imagination.

Though you may leave the realm of concrete fact, you will become intimately aware of the person you’re writing about. This will show in your representation of him or her.

Get inside your family member’s head and heart.

This can also be a good exercise to complete when you can’t decide between two people to write about. As always, there is no one right way; each time you do this exercise, it will unfold a differently.

When I recently completed this exercise, I decided to focus on my paternal grandmother, Kay. I immediately pictured her in an apron in the middle of her kitchen, and I took a few minutes to meditate on the scene. Once I had my grandmother’s perspective in my mind’s eye, I began writing a focused free-write, integrating all the details I had imagined and more.

Following is the descriptive vignette I wrote afterwords. My cousin Linda and sister Kathy claim it was “exactly like that.”

My grandmother Kay is preparing dinner in her kitchen in Ocean Springs, Mississippi on a steamy summer’s day in 1966 for nine family members who just arrived by car from California and Alaska with their nine pets in tow.

Kay’s thick, dark, but graying, hair is up on the back of her head, styled, and pinned up, and the front of it is straight up and curled back off her widow’s peak with a 1950’s sort of flair. Her skin is pale. Even though she is from Ohio, she avoids the sun like most Southern women her age do. Black cat-eye glasses, lenses splattered with flour and water, sit atop her nose.

Kay’s wearing a white apron with faded red flowers or maybe blue and yellow flowers. Red zig zag rickrack lines the edge of the apron. Underneath, she’s wearing a light-colored beige twill dress because she always wears a dress, and you wouldn’t wear a dark dress during the summer. Even on the rare occasion when she joins my grandfather out on his boat, which is parked in the bayou bordering their lawn, she wears a dress. In the summer, she puts on sunglasses and secures her hair by wrapping her scarf around her head and tying it at her chin tightly whenever she leaves the house unless they are attending an evening social event. On her feet, she is wearing her daytime slip-on shoes with tan crepe soles. Sensible, but presentable.

Flour carpets the floor and coats her apron. Kay is not a neat cook. A light sugary scent lingers in the air reflecting the angel food cake she is cooling on a metal rack. She begins tearing the cake into chunks and mixing it with chocolate and pecans, then molding it into a baking dish to make her grandchildren’s favorite, angel food refrigerator cake.

Kay turns to the left to put out the cigarette she’s neglected and turns back to wash her hands. She keeps moving because no matter what, we are going to have dinner when everyone expects it, and that time is probably 5:30 and not later than six.

My grandfather likes to head to bed at 8:30, right after his bowl of ice cream, so she works back from that time.

Her three oldest granddaughters are playing Monopoly on the kitchen table which is the “kids table.” The younger two girls are probably downstairs with their mothers. She tells us to start clearing the game, already in its second hour, off the table. Then she asks us to set the table, even though it is a little early. She knows we won’t quit playing if she doesn’t.

Kay crosses the square-shaped kitchen to the stove. She is boiling crabs we caught that day with rubbery chicken necks tied in crab nets we dropped off an old bridge into the brackish channel. We love crabbing. The crabs begin to boil rapidly, turning red and pinging the pot with their claws. I am a little horrified by this, but this does not faze Kay, although generally, she has a soft heart for animals and the underdog.

Kay is concentrating on making every single thing right for her family and that means we are going to have her delicious crab and caper side salad. As usual when we visited, Kay has gone “all out,” baking and making a dinner featuring fresh Gulf seafood and barbecued teriyaki steak. “Never anything less than the best for my grandchildren,” as my grandfather used to say.

My grandfather is in the next room with the dads, smoking and having a drink because it is cocktail hour. They don’t come in the kitchen, and Kay wouldn’t expect them to, but later, “the boys” and my grandfather Paul will barbecue the steaks. Kay begins cracking the crabs to get the meat out. We help her and are careful not to slice our fingers on the sharp shell fragments.

She smiles, happy to be with her grandchildren, but she is all business pulling this meal together. She knows everyone will compliment her, and this means everything to her, even though she is humble about it.

My grandmother Kay is preparing dinner in her kitchen in Ocean Springs, Mississippi on a steamy summer’s day in 1966 for nine family members who just arrived by car from California and Alaska with their nine pets in tow.

Kay’s thick, dark, but graying, hair is up on the back of her head, styled, and pinned up, and the front of it is straight up and curled back off her widow’s peak with a 1950’s sort of flair. Her skin is pale. Even though she is from Ohio, she avoids the sun like most Southern women her age do. Black cat-eye glasses, lenses splattered with flour and water, sit atop her nose.

Kay’s wearing a white apron with faded red flowers or maybe blue and yellow flowers. Red zig zag rickrack lines the edge of the apron. Underneath, she’s wearing a light-colored beige twill dress because she always wears a dress, and you wouldn’t wear a dark dress during the summer. Even on the rare occasion when she joins my grandfather out on his boat, which is parked in the bayou bordering their lawn, she wears a dress. In the summer, she puts on sunglasses and secures her hair by wrapping her scarf around her head and tying it at her chin tightly whenever she leaves the house unless they are attending an evening social event. On her feet, she is wearing her daytime slip-on shoes with tan crepe soles. Sensible, but presentable.

Flour carpets the floor and coats her apron. Kay is not a neat cook. A light sugary scent lingers in the air reflecting the angel food cake she is cooling on a metal rack. She begins tearing the cake into chunks and mixing it with chocolate and pecans, then molding it into a baking dish to make her grandchildren’s favorite, angel food refrigerator cake.

Kay turns to the left to put out the cigarette she’s neglected and turns back to wash her hands. She keeps moving because no matter what, we are going to have dinner when everyone expects it, and that time is probably 5:30 and not later than six. My grandfather likes to head to bed at 8:30, right after his bowl of ice cream, so she works back from that time.

Her three oldest granddaughters are playing Monopoly on the kitchen table which is the “kids table.” The younger two girls are probably downstairs with their mothers. She tells us to start clearing the game, already in its second hour, off the table. Then she asks us to set the table, even though it is a little early. She knows we won’t quit playing if she doesn’t.

Kay crosses the square-shaped kitchen to the stove. She is boiling crabs we caught that day with rubbery chicken necks tied in crab nets we dropped off an old bridge into the brackish channel. We love crabbing. The crabs begin to boil rapidly, turning red and pinging the pot with their claws. I am a little horrified by this, but this does not faze Kay, although generally, she has a soft heart for animals and the underdog.

Kay is concentrating on making every single thing right for her family and that means we are going to have her delicious crab and caper side salad. As usual when we visited, Kay has gone “all out,” baking and making dinners featuring fresh Gulf seafood and barbecued teriyaki steak. “Never anything less than the best for my grandchildren,” as my grandfather used to say.

My grandfather is in the next room with the dads, smoking and having a drink because it is cocktail hour. They don’t come in the kitchen, and Kay wouldn’t expect them to, but later, “the boys” and my grandfather Paul will barbecue the steaks. Kay begins cracking the crabs to get the meat out. We help her and are careful not to slice our fingers on the sharp shell fragments.

She smiles, happy to be with her grandchildren, but she is all business pulling this meal together. She knows everyone will compliment her, and this means everything to her, even though she is humble about it.

STEP 2: Make Meaning of What You Wrote After You’ve Read It

As I wrote the scene above, I began to feel my grandmother’s extreme focus when she engaged in doing any task resulting in an important end product — baking, making a meal, playing the piano and organ, sewing a dress, or playing bridge. I also felt her deep desire to please her family.

The essence of my grandmother truly emerges from this rough piece of writing, a piece that began with imagery based on specific, concrete detail. As well as I knew her, I hadn’t pinpointed the beauty and effectiveness of her extreme focus until this moment.

Separating Fiction from Fact

The scene I wrote is “true” although it is not one specific memory, but a composite memory. Nothing in it is false; it all happened. In a biographical essay about Kay, I could integrate this scene as a descriptive, extended example. I could also develop it as a narrative. But in the spirit of honesty, I would present it as a typical scene vs. absolute fact.

Conclusion

You may be wondering how to write your way into an ancestor you know little about.  In a future post, we will use the same guided imagery exercise to show how you might connect with someone you have never met and don’t know in an emotional and human way. It’s not impossible, but your imagination must fill in the gaps.

As always, we invite you to share your own family history writing strategies in the comments section below.

Cynthia is a twenty-year plus teaching veteran with expertise in teaching writing, literature, and research to students of all ages. In addition to her passion for teaching, Dr. Kiefer is an American history buff, artifact aficionado, and historical fiction writer and researcher.

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