Real People in a Real World
When writers write a novel or short story, they imagine a complete story world. That world is evoked in concrete, descriptive details, details conveying a sense of time and place and a character’s specific situation within that time and place. Whether their stories are realistic or set in a galaxy far away, writers must create convincing story worlds for their readers.
As a family history writer, creating a believable and humanizing life world around your ancestors is crucial. Those specific, concrete details and the historical and social contexts you create must be accurate, or your readers’ imaginations will not engage with your ancestors as real people living in a real world. Remember Lee Gutkind’s definition of creative writing? “Truth well told.”
Whether your tale is set in a real place or an imagined one, you need to establish your characters’ [ancestors’] world so that the reader can suspend disbelief and fully engage with their story.
– Chuck Sambuchino, Tips on World Building for Writers — How to Make Your Imaginary World Real
If you visualize, smell, hear, taste, and feel your ancestor’s everyday life world, you can recreate it in your readers’ imaginations. Use the most specific, concrete, image-producing sensory words possible, and you will draw your readers into the world and people you are recreating.
If you visualize, smell, hear, taste, and feel your ancestor’s everyday life world, you can recreate it in your readers’ imaginations.
The exercises and organizers below will help you collect everyday life world details. To bring your subjects to life within authentic and accurate historical and social settings, these concrete details are essential.
STEP 1: Research Relevant Historical and Geographical Contexts
While research takes place throughout the writing process, we recommend that you start by researching the historical and social contexts surrounding the people in your family history piece. Once you know your story’s time and place, research the local, national, and world events that occurred during the span of years covered in your piece. Collect them on a timeline or in a chart like the one below.
STEP 2: Research Your Subject’s Everyday Life World
Once you have placed your subject in his or her historical local, national, and world contexts, you are ready to excavate the elements of his or her everyday life.
The following criteria and prompts will help you unearth your subject’s outer and inner life worlds so you can write them to life for your readers. Respond to the prompts you can, marking the others for later research. Be aware that this exercise will yield different results at different times in your subject’s life, so if your piece covers varying time periods, consider doing several versions of this exercise.
- What was it like to grow up in your subject’s family?
- Using specific, concrete details, list the following as they relate to your subject’s family environment: ethnicity, culture, religion, socio-economic status, family mottos, languages spoken at home, common family activities.
- How many siblings did your subject have? What was the birth order?
- Was there anything unusual or outstanding about the siblings?
- Were they especially close or distant? Did they stay in touch as adults?
- If you have some knowledge or evidence (written words, photographs, diaries, letters, etc.) illustrating your subject’s relationship with his or her siblings, record them in a list for easy access when you are writing.
- Was your subject married or in a significant relationship during the time period for this piece?
- Who were his/her closest friends?
- Did your subject have significant work-related or community relationships?
- List any descriptions, relevant concrete actions, and direct quotes you have about these relationships.
A Day in the Life
- What activities was your subject likely to have engaged in or participated in most days?
- Describe a typical day in the life of your subject.
- How did your subject make a living?
- Did he or she have any specific talents or skills?
- What are some of the tasks he or she might complete at work during the day?
- What kind of house did your subject live in?
- List some concrete descriptive details from photos, memories, Google Earth, or Zillow.
Local Town or City
- What were some of the popular gathering spots, restaurants, etc.?
- What were the buildings like? Describe a few of the buildings if you have photographs or can view them on Google Earth or on a historic buildings website.
- List details to capture the essence of the town with an image or write down what you would see or notice as you walked down a central street your ancestor frequented.
Weather and Seasons
- What is the year-round weather like in your setting?
- List concrete sensory details to describe the setting.
- What is the season and weather on the day your story takes place? Consult a local paper archive or almanac if possible.
- List as many descriptive and sensory details as you can to bring the day, the season, and/or the year into focus.
- Did your subject grow up with music, art, theater, writing, reading, or other cultural interests?
- Did your subject play an instrument? If so, what were his or her favorite pieces?
- If available, list favorite plays, novels, or poems.
- Did your subject write? Draw? Sing? Compose?
- List your subject’s cultural and creative activities, and any specific examples and direct quotes you can provide.
Religion, Beliefs, and Values
- What religion was your ancestor?
- How often did your subject attend worship?
- What were his or her daily religious or spiritual practices?
- Was he or she a church leader? In what ways?
- Write religious or spiritual beliefs? Teach religion?
- What specific actions did your subject take that illustrate his or her commitment to these ideals?
- Did your ancestor have any religious or cultural prejudices?
- Did your ancestor have a favorite family motto? Is it still said in the family today? Why do you think the motto has “stuck” with the family?
- What values did your ancestor embody?
- What was the “meaning of life” according to this ancestor? Did he or she say something or write something you could use as evidence to illustrate this?
- Describe ways your subject’s behavior reflected his or her beliefs, values, mottos.
- Did your ancestor play a role in historic events?
- Serve in the military? In what roles?
- Serve as a state or national legislator? Where? When?
- Engage in political protest?
- What historical events affected your subject’s daily life?
- List any evidence you have related to these events.
Others’ View of Your Subject
- What did other people say or write about this ancestor?
- Collect any specific quotes or paraphrases from family members’ memories, letters, diaries, newspaper articles, etc. that reveal your subject’s character and list them here.
In summary, if you want to write your ancestors or family members to life, you need to step inside their shoes, their hearts, and their minds. Find out what their daily lives were like and explore who they were on the inside—imperfect, but fascinating human beings, people just like us.
To take this exercise one level deeper, we recommend you consult Katherine Scott Sturdevant’s Bringing Your Family History to Life through Social History (2000). You can still buy a used copy, and it is, hands down, the best book of its kind.
If you have some tips or prompts to help other family history writers create convincing life worlds, we’d love to hear about them in the comment section below!
Write a Family Member to Life Series
- Capturing a Family Member's Essence
- Writing a Family History Biographical Essay, Part 1: Select Your Subject
- Writing a Family History Biographical Essay, Part 2: Identify Your Resources and Research Questions
- Writing a Family History Biographical Essay, Part 3: Organize Your Writing Plan
Write Your Family History to Life Series
Write a Family Artifact to Life Series
- Discovering the Stories in Your Family Artifact