Framing Your Topic

Now that you’ve selected a topic for your family history piece, you are ready to choose a writing genre to help “frame” your topic. Simply put, a genre is a format or type of writing.

First, we suggest adopting creative nonfiction as the overarching genre approach for your family history writing. While it is true that family history writing is a non-fiction form, you may still use creative writing craft to engage your reader’s imagination. Hence, the term “creative nonfiction.”

As Lee Gutkind, creative nonfiction guru, puts it, the art of creative nonfiction is, at its core, “true stories well told.” History Echoes’ goal is to help you craft your family history into “well told” written pieces featuring your family’s people, artifacts, and stories.

Creative Nonfiction defines the genre simply, succinctly, and accurately as ‘true stories well told’.

                                                               – Lee Gutkind

Next, review the specific nonfiction genres listed below. Then, select those which will serve your overall purpose best and engage your reader the most.
Choosing A Genre to Frame Your Family History Story

Biographical Essay

A biographical essay is an article-length piece in which you present and explore a subject’s biography and characteristics to make a point or lasting impression on your reader.

If you decide to write about a group of family ancestors organized by a similar characteristic, life experience, or family motto, you could write a collective biographical essay.

You may write this genre in first person point of view from your perspective (I, me, my), or in a more formal third person point of view (he, she, they). In the third person point of view, you do not include personal references to yourself or your actions.

You may also write it in a blend of both first and third person.

Personal Essay

A personal essay is similar to the biographical essay, but it is autobiographical. Whether you decide to write about your childhood experiences, your coming-of-age, the lessons you’ve learned from life, your role in your family, the challenges you’ve faced, the successes you’ve won, the summer you gained insight into significant deeper truth, or how the significant mentors molded you, you do so to share a part of yourself and your life experience with your readers. Many of us write personal essays to make sense of our own life worlds and unique experiences as well.

For whatever reason we write them, personal essays intended for inclusion in family histories should convey a sense of the writer as a complex human being and offer a unique perspective. However, they should also have the potential to resonate with current and imagined future readers in some way.

Our diaries and journals are full of mini-personal essays in which we explore ideas, ourselves, and the people around us, so you may find intriguing personal essay ideas in them.

Narrative

Like any story, a narrative has a point and a clear beginning, middle, and end. Like a fictional short story, writing a narrative requires creating a “plot” trajectory, developing your “character’s” arc, adding tension, building to a climax and/or turning point, and ending with a satisfying conclusion. If you want to tell the story of a specific incident or series of events in specific time in your subject’s life to communicate a specific point or larger idea, the narrative approach is probably your best genre choice. Remember, you want your readers to feel like they have learned something meaningful, illustrative, or even powerful by reading your story.

If you want to tell a story set in a specific time or place in which your family member experienced a transformation or learned an important lesson, again, a narrative essay is a good genre choice.

When you write a narrative about someone else, the narrative is presented in the third person. If you participate in the narrative, then you will use both first and third person.

Sometimes family history writers will re-tell a story a family member told them, but for which few facts exist. In those cases, you will want to be especially careful to research and adhere to the facts so you avoid misrepresenting what actually happened. There is a difference between a narrative “well told” and a legendary family myth, and this needs to be clear to the reader. However, it is fine to re-tell your grandad’s whopper, if it is a story that serves the main idea or point and its truthfulness is clearly in question.

Personal Narrative Essay

A personal narrative recounts a personal experience or a specific time in a writer’s life in which he or she emerged with some greater understanding of or deeper knowledge.

Typically, the writer will focus on telling the story through a specific event taking place in a specific time and place. If you want to write about an important event or a defining incident in your life from your perspective and in your distinctive voice, the personal narrative is the right genre for you.

Personal narratives often read like mini-memoirs, crafted to engage the reader just the way you would with a fictional short story as detailed in the narrative description above.

Writing a personal narrative provides a storytelling context to share your experience, interior thoughts, and major insights with your reader in an intimate, reflective, and engaging tone.

Vignette

A vignette is a short, but well-crafted mini-narrative, example, scene, or description used to depict a specific incident and engage the reader through concrete illustration and sensory experience. Vignettes typically highlight a specific characteristic or point within a larger work.

Writers may use vignettes to begin and end a piece, to magnify a point, or convey the essence of a person, place, or time. Writing effective vignettes takes practice, but a well-crafted vignette often leads to a “true story well told.”

Biographical Essay

A biographical essay is an article-length piece in which you present and explore a subject’s biography and characteristics to make a point or lasting impression on your reader.

If you decide to write about a group of family ancestors organized by a similar characteristic, life experience, or family motto, you could write a collective biographical essay.

You may write this genre in first person point of view from your perspective (I, me, my), or in a more formal third person point of view (he, she, they). In the third person point of view, you do not include personal references to yourself or your actions.

You may also write it in a blend of both first and third person.

Personal Essay

A personal essay is similar to the biographical essay, but it is autobiographical. Whether you decide to write about your childhood experiences, your coming-of-age, the lessons you’ve learned from life, your role in your family, the challenges you’ve faced, the successes you’ve won, the summer you gained insight into significant deeper truth, or how the significant mentors molded you, you do so to share a part of yourself and your life experience with your readers. Many of us write personal essays to make sense of our own life worlds and unique experiences as well.

For whatever reason we write them, personal essays intended for inclusion in family histories should convey a sense of the writer as a complex human being and offer a unique perspective. However, they should also have the potential to resonate with current and imagined future readers in some way.

Our diaries and journals are full of mini-personal essays in which we explore ideas, ourselves, and the people around us, so you may find intriguing personal essay ideas in them.

Narrative

Like any story, a narrative has a point and a clear beginning, middle, and end. Like a fictional short story, writing a narrative requires creating a “plot” trajectory, developing your “character’s” arc, adding tension, building to a climax and/or turning point, and ending with a satisfying conclusion. If you want to tell the story of a specific incident or series of events in specific time in your subject’s life to communicate a specific point or larger idea, the narrative approach is probably your best genre choice. Remember, you want your readers to feel like they have learned something meaningful, illustrative, or even powerful by reading your story.

If you want to tell a story set in a specific time or place in which your family member experienced a transformation or learned an important lesson, again, a narrative essay is a good genre choice.

When you write a narrative about someone else, the narrative is presented in the third person. If you participate in the narrative, then you will use both first and third person.

Sometimes family history writers will re-tell a story a family member told them, but for which few facts exist. In those cases, you will want to be especially careful to research and adhere to the facts so you avoid misrepresenting what actually happened. There is a difference between a narrative “well told” and a legendary family myth, and this needs to be clear to the reader. However, it is fine to re-tell your grandad’s whopper, if it is a story that serves the main idea or point and its truthfulness is clearly in question.

Personal Narrative Essay

A personal narrative recounts a personal experience or a specific time in a writer’s life in which he or she emerged with some greater understanding of or deeper knowledge.

Typically, the writer will focus on telling the story through a specific event taking place in a specific time and place. If you want to write about an important event or a defining incident in your life from your perspective and in your distinctive voice, the personal narrative is the right genre for you.

Personal narratives often read like mini-memoirs, crafted to engage the reader just the way you would with a fictional short story as detailed in the narrative description above.

Writing a personal narrative provides a storytelling context to share your experience, interior thoughts, and major insights with your reader in an intimate, reflective, and engaging tone.

Vignette

A vignette is a short, but well-crafted mini-narrative, example, scene, or description used to depict a specific incident and engage the reader through concrete illustration and sensory experience. Vignettes typically highlight a specific characteristic or point within a larger work.

Writers may use vignettes to begin and end a piece, to magnify a point, or convey the essence of a person, place, or time. Writing effective vignettes takes practice, but a well-crafted vignette often leads to a “true story well told.”

Multi-genre Approach

A multi-genre approach blends the above (and other) genres. As Lee Gutkind explains, “In some ways, creative nonfiction is like jazz—it’s a rich mix of flavors, ideas, and techniques, some of which are newly invented and others as old as writing itself. Creative nonfiction can be an essay, a journal article, a research paper, a memoir, or a poem; it can be personal or not, or it can be all of these. (Italics are mine: Remember, there is no one right way.)

In some ways, creative nonfiction is like jazz—it’s a rich mix of flavors, ideas, and techniques . . .

                               – Lee Gutkind

Thinking Through Your Genre Approaches

An essay structure provides an effective and flexible “framing” format for your creative nonfiction pieces that explore an overarching idea or dig into a family member or ancestor’s character and motivations.

For example, you might choose to write a chronologically organized biographical essay with a few vignettes woven in to explore your great-grandmother’s creative spirit. You could present descriptions of her artistic works, stories she shared with her loved ones, and the poems and popular song lyrics she wrote down and reflected upon in her diary. Through research, you might find a review of her art exhibit in a local newspaper. You might show how her artistry evolved over time, or how she struggled to develop her creativity once she became a single mother, responsible for supporting her young family.

Collect the resources and artifacts you have at hand and ask yourself what overarching idea seems to “speak” to you through those items and memories. A multi-genre essay approach offers you the flexibility to best explore and illustrate a point or theme, whether you are writing about a creative great-grandmother, a man and his champion horse, your family’s challenges emigrating to America, or the personal sense of family history you derive from your treasured family heirlooms.

However, if your goal is to illustrate a person’s character through a specific event in which he or she was a key actor, then selecting a straight narrative genre makes sense. If the story is complete in and of itself and conveys a larger idea, you may not need external framing as you might do with a narrative inside an essay. Family history readers love narratives, but you want to make sure you have enough information about the key character (your family member) to make your readers care what happens to him or her and to turn a few facts into a riveting storyline with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Still not sure which genre to select? Try these sentence frames.

My suggestion: do some brainstorming and free writing to get an idea of the message you want to communicate to your present and future readers, and then choose the genre that will serve your purpose best. Also, completing the following sentence “frames” may help you narrow your purpose and select the most effective genres (writing “frames”) for the family history piece you really want to write:

I want to explain __________________ about __________________ to current and future family members because ________________________.

I want to tell the story of _________________________ to current and future family members because ________________________.

If you found the first sentence most reflective of your writing purpose, whether you are writing about a person, a characteristic, a concept, a group of people, or a family artifact or heirloom, an essay approach (biographical, personal, multi-genre) will probably give you the flexibility you need to fully explore the topic while keeping it focused on a central idea.

If you found the second sentence easy to fill out and most reflective of your writing purpose, you probably want to begin with a narrative storytelling approach (third person or personal or both).

Conclusion

Readers recognize genre patterns intuitively, so you do want to meet their expectations. Even so, if you keep control of your genres and switch them up smoothly as your “story” or main idea evolves, you will surprise and delight them. Keep in mind, many creative genres can work well for writing your family history including poetry, song lyrics, blended verbal and pictorial collages, video, and other evolving forms. With creative nonfiction as your guiding genre, you have incredible freedom to custom build your written piece by narrowing or combining your genre approaches.

To learn more about writing a biographical essay, read our Family History Biographical Essay series, beginning with Part 1: Choosing a Topic. If you decide to write a narrative, watch for our upcoming Family History Narrative series.

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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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