Every family has a story, but so often those stories become lost with the passage of time. The names, dates, places, personalities and dramas, the little details and the big scandals, the tragedies and the celebrations, slowly fade with the passing of each generation, and gradually disappear from the family consciousness. I’m in the business of rediscovering those stories and bringing them back to life. I write books about history, but my intention is that they should read like novels – I’m a storyteller. Fact is always more interesting than fiction.
For me, history isn’t about Kings and Queens, great battles and controversial politicians – it’s about ordinary people, like you and me, our parents and grandparents. It’s about coalminers and shopkeepers, dressmakers and millworkers, soldiers and kitchen maids, farm labourers and housewives, enslaved people, refugees and migrants. Your ancestors – and mine – were all history makers. They made you, and they made our world what it is today.
I’ve always been obsessed with history since I was a small child; one of my fondest memories is sitting down with my gran Lydia while she told me all about her childhood in Seaham in the 1920s. Her stories were a window into the past, a connection to people whom I never knew, but who always seemed so real to me, as if they were permanently in the next room, only just out of sight. I think we all have that innate curiosity to find out “where we come from”, to understand why we are as we are – what shaped us?
This article is not about “how to research your family tree”. There are thousands of websites and books and online guides on how to do that. Instead, it’s aimed at those of you who may already have done a little bit of research at some point, even if it’s just writing a few names that your mam or grandad mentioned, on the back of an envelope.
The further back in time we travel, the more difficult it becomes to find out about our ancestors’ daily lives. I will explain ways in which we can “put flesh” on the bones of our ancestors. I’m not going to tell you what to write, but I will give you some tips, and share some of the tricks I’ve used in my writing to bring the past to life. These apply whether you just want to write a couple of pages of A4, an article or a blog post, or a whole book.
Who are you writing this for? Is it just for yourself? Your children or grandchildren? Is it for a wider audience, for example are you going to post it online? Are you thinking about writing a book? If so, who is going to want to read it, outside your immediate family and your great aunt Gladys?
Make sure your information is correct. Have you done the research yourself or have you relied on other people’s research? Be careful – quite often other people’s research is wrong or is based on incorrect assumptions.
Be cautious about relying on the information you find online, especially on genealogy websites like Ancestry or Find My Past. It’s very easy to adopt and continue other people’s mistakes and assumptions. It so much better to look at the original sources yourself if you can. Looking at a copy of the original document – whether it’s a will or birth certificate or even a photograph – brings me so much closer to the person I’m researching.
“BUT I HAVE SO MUCH INFORMATION”
My house is full of notebooks, bit of paper and files, all containing endless lists of names and dates, and birth certificates, and photos of people I don’t know. What does it all mean? How do you collate those snippets of information and bring them together to tell your family’s story?
Three secrets to success
- Don’t be over ambitious – you might have a couple of hundred names. How are you going to write anything meaningful and interesting about all of them? Nobody wants to read, “…and then great grandad had three sisters. Mary married Mr Smith and they had three children, Susan married Tom Walker and they had seven children, and Annie got married twice and had 5 children. Mary’s eldest daughter married John Davies and they had 2 children…” HOW BORING IS THAT?
- So what do you do? You have to be RUTHLESS. What you leave out is as important as what you include. Pick a branch of your family tree, and cling to that branch! You need to be able to see the wood for the (family) trees.
- How do you choose? Pick one person – the one who intrigues you the most, the one you already have the most information about, your favourite ancestor. You might know family stories about this person, you might have letters or photographs, or even objects which once belonged to that person. Just choose the most interesting one as your starting point.
“BUT I’VE HARDLY ANY INFORMATION”
I’m going to show you how to flesh out what little information you do have to make a readable story of your family’s history. I had next to nothing when I started to write The Horsekeeper’s Daughter. I had 2 letters from Australia from the mid 1930s and a handful of photographs, and I managed to get 61,000 words out of that! Concentrate on what you DO have, and not what you lack.
WHERE TO START
Where does every good story or book start? NEVER AT THE BEGINNING!!
Don’t start with either your own birth or the birth of your chosen ancestor. It’s dull and unlikely to capture the imagination of the reader. You need to begin with something which will draw them in and make them want to read more.
Think about what it is you want to get across – for example, are you telling someone’s life story? Or are you approaching it from a different angle, and perhaps explaining why so many members of your family have the same middle name?
THREE WAYS TO BEGIN YOUR FAMILY STORY
- With a family object or heirloom.
The Horsekeeper’s Daughter doesn’t begin with a person or a date – it begins with an object. This is a great way to start – describe that object in detail, explain where it came from, why it’s important in your family, who it belonged to, what era it’s from. It could be a letter, a photograph, your grandad’s brass miner’s lamp, your great grandma’s ration book. It doesn’t need to be something valuable. Then launch into the details of the person you’re writing about and their connection to the object. For example, I have a ship in a bottle that my Grandad Jim made. This is how I would use it to introduce him:
“On the top shelf of my bookcase, between a small world globe and a silver photograph frame containing a picture of my old spaniel, there sits a small, greenish bottle, no bigger than a jar of jam. It lies on its side, with a coating of dust, and from a distance, appears to be empty.
Upon closer inspection, the bottle is stopped with a crumbling cork, and inside, floating upon a sea of white-crested papier mache waves, is a tiny sailing ship, with three masts, in full sail. Sixty years have passed since my grandfather painstakingly constructed the little vessel from pieces of matchwood, whiling away the long days of his convalescence after a mining accident which so very nearly cost him his life.”
How much more interesting is that than, “My grandad Jim was born on 26th August 1917 and was a coal miner.”?
A description of a place which is important in your ancestor’s or your family’s story is a really great way to begin. If it’s not a place you’re familiar with, do a bit of research! Have a look on google maps. See if you can find any old photos on line. It doesn’t have to be your ancestor’s house or street – just the town or village they lived in, a nearby geographical feature or landmark. Just describe what you see, then lead on to your ancestor’s connection to that place.
I’ll give you an example from my second book, Above Us The Stars, which is all about the Second World War. In the first extract, I’m about to describe an air raid on Leipzig, in which my great uncle Jack took part. Instead of beginning with him, I start with a description of the city:
“Leipzig was, and is, a beautiful city. Although the surrounds now bear testament to the brutalist architecture of over 60 years of Soviet control, the old town is a maze of baroque and medieval architecture, of alleyways and courtyards. The walls of the Thomaskirch echo with the music of one of the city’s most celebrated sons, Johann Sebastian Bach, who lies there still.
In a side street just around the corner from the white-gabled and red-roofed Rathaus, down a steep set of steps in beautiful arcade now filled with designer shops, you will find the 500-year-old Auerbachs Keller. Beneath its vaulted ceilings, in a dark corner behind the stone pillars, Faust plotted to sell his soul to the devil Mephistopheles, in the German writer Goethe’s dramatic re-telling of the legend. Goethe was a regular visitor to the keller while a student at Leipzig University in the 1700s, and the long evenings spent in Auerbachs provided inspiration for his writing.
Three hundred years later, it’s still a bustling bar and restaurant, serving typical German fare (accompanied by huge steins of beer) to hundreds of locals and tourists every week, its whitewashed walls now decked with Faustian imagery.
In the early hours of 4th December 1943, like many of the old town’s cellars, it was filled to bursting point with terrified German civilians, mainly women, children and the elderly. The air raid siren had sounded around four o’clock in the morning, and across the city families gathered up their children and fled, some down into their basements, others into the busy municipal air raid shelters.”
I then go on to introduce Jack and his RAF Bomber crew’s role in the story.
You could just as easily do the same when describing a pub or a church or a factory where your ancestor worked. Describe the place as it is now, then talk a little bit about its history, then bring in your ancestor. Just a few lines will do, you do not have to go into as much detail as I’ve done.
You can do this with each of the ancestors you decide to write about – it’s also a great way to “pad out” when you don’t have very much information about somebody.
This is probably my favourite way to begin a story about somebody. Relate your ancestor to some contemporaneous event. You can do this even if they weren’t directly involved, but were simply present (or even alive!) when something important or interesting happened. It’s a great way to grab the reader’s attention and introduce the person you’re writing about.
This is the opening passage of Above Us The Stars:
“The dust had already begun to settle when 17-year-old Jack Clyde arrived at what was left of Ilchester Street. Amid the sound of broken glass being removed from the shattered window frames of the terraced houses that still stood, the gurgle of water streaming from broken pipes, and the sobbing of women stood crowded around, there was the constant clang-scrape of metal shovels hitting brick and roof slates.
Every now and then the Air Wardens and the men assisting would pause, listening intently, to make sure they could still hear the baby crying. They came upon his young mother first, her body crushed and broken in her shroud of plaster dust.
Moving wooden beams, negotiating the remnants of the family’s furniture and possessions, and lifting brick after fractured brick, eventually the rescuers found little Michael Johnson, still in the arms of his dead grandmother. She was still sat in her chair; unable to reach the air raid shelter before the first bomb hit, she had used her body to shield the infant from the blast. She had been killed outright by a piece of shrapnel which had pierced her lungs. Dusty and still bawling, Michael had barely a scratch.”
I think I write another 2000 words or so before I even get to Jack’s birth and his family circumstances.
So – to summarise – never start at the beginning. Choose an event, place or object, relate it to your ancestor, and THEN introduce your ancestor’s birth and life story. You can work forwards or backwards from that point to bring in other family members.
FILLING IN THE GAPS
What do you actually KNOW about your ancestor? Unless they were quite famous, the answer is probably “very little”. You might have the basic details – name, date and place of birth, date and place of marriage, occupation, address (if you’re lucky) and date and place of death. How do you fill in the gaps and pad out the story?
There are several ways to do this, but the main one I use is CONTEXT. There are five aspects to context, and I’ll explain each of them, and how to use them to tell your family’s story.
Context is probably the most important part of my work, and it’s very easy to do if you follow 5 simple steps, and adapt them to your own family’s story. It will involve a little bit of work on your behalf, but it’s not in-depth historical research – it’s quite basic stuff. The more information you can include, the more interesting the story will be. You can include as much, or as little, as you like.
What’s going on in the world while your ancestor is alive? Is there a war on? Some natural disaster? A world-wide recession? Just a couple of lines on the major world events of the time can really set the scene.
What’s happening in the country where your ancestor lived? Has the King just died? Is there a Coronation or a Jubilee? A terrible winter or a great famine? Is there a General Election or some great political scandal? Perhaps a General Strike or Depression? How might these events have impacted upon your family? Don’t be frightened to speculate or theorise about your family’s connection to events if you don’t actually know!
What’s going on in your ancestor’s town or village? Have there been any momentous events which might have involved your family? An industrial dispute or some sort of disaster? Perhaps a Jubilee party or centenary celebration? It can be absolutely anything, an important event or just a tiny detail. For example, say your grandmother was born at the end of February. Check local weather records and old newspapers – what was the weather like? It’s much better to say,
“In the depth of winter, during a blizzard which caused snowdrifts five feet deep along the back lanes of Seaham Harbour, Dinah Lawson gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Annie, on the 27th February 1895”, rather than “Annie Lawson was born on 27th February 1895.” Always try to paint a picture if you can.
What do you know about your ancestor’s day to day life? If you’ve got a census record for them, that really helps, because it tells us not only where they lived, but who else lived in the house and who their neighbours were.
Quite often you will find several families living at the same address – one family in the upstairs rooms, another downstairs, and sometimes yet another if the house had an attic or basement, sharing an outdoor toilet and wash-house with other families living in houses around a shared yard. That information helps paint a picture of their daily living conditions.
Remember that historically, the vast majority of ordinary folk did not own their own homes, and rented or lived in tied cottages, owned by the local farmer, mill owner or colliery owner. If they were wealthy, and owned substantial land or estates or large houses, you should be able to find plenty of information about them.
Where did your ancestor work? What was his or her trade? Always include a description of what their job entailed if you can. If you don’t know where they worked, describe their trade instead. Have a look in trade directories – these are brilliant resources and will help you paint a picture of the town or street where your ancestor lived and worked, even if you can’t find out their exact place of work or the name of their employer. You can find many of these online or in local history units at the main libraries.
MILITARY SERVICE AND WAR TIME
Most of us will have had at least one relative who served in either the First or Second World War. You might not know much about them, but there are ways you can find out. Even if you have only the vaguest details, you can easily bring into your story information about particular campaigns or battles. For example, you might know that your grandad served in the Desert during the Second World War, or that your gran worked in an ammunition factory.
With just a little bit of research, you can paint a picture of what life was like for soldiers in North Africa in 1942, or what sort of conditions the girls worked in building aeroplanes or artillery shells. Don’t forget the home front, rationing and the Blitz.
You can go into greater detail if you want to. If your relative served in the Armed Forces from 1920 onwards, you can apply for their service record, which will show which regiments, squadrons or ships they served with, where they served, what sort of training they had, any injuries which befell them, any awards or medals they received, or any promotions.
Once you know his unit, ship or squadron, you can search the National Archives. They have records of all military operations – I’ve been able to find out what bombing raids my uncle’s squadron took part in, which aircraft were used, what their bomb loads were, which crew members took part, even what time they took off, what time they got back, and what happened in the course of the raid. For Army and Navy units, there’s something similar, with daily diaries kept for each unit and ship.
First World War service records are more difficult to come by, but if you know the regiment or ship that helps. Many of the records were destroyed in the Blitz. You can apply for basic records – I got my Great Grandad’s – there wasn’t much in them but it confirmed his unit and date of enlistment and I was able to work back from there.
How should you present your family story?
That depends on how much you want to write, and who your audience is!
If you follow the pattern I’ve set out for say, four or five generations of your ancestors, very soon you’ll find you’ve got quite a long story. Do divide it up into sections or chapters to make it more readable.
Don’t stress about all the people and branches of your family tree that you’ve had to leave out. That’s easily solved – all you need to do is to attach a copy of your family tree in diagram form to the story you’ve written. That way nobody gets overlooked and you can concentrate on the juicier bits of story.
Here are a few ideas for presenting your family’s history:
- Basic, brief, word document with photos – can be printed off and shared around the family.
- Spoken word – you can record the story on your phone or computer and upload it to Soundcloud, so anyone can listen to it.
- Blog – if you already have a blog, write a blog post on your family history; if you don’t, start one!
- Podcast – why not start a podcast for people of your surname, or you could do an episode on a different family member or theme every week? Other family members could contribute too.
- Get creative – journaling is all the rage at the minute. You can create a beautiful family keepsake filled with your family story, anecdotes, photographs, sketches and drawings, and decorate it according to your tastes, with paintings or collage. This makes a lovely heirloom to pass on to future generations.
- E-book – if you think your family history may have wider (and commercial) appeal, you can easily create an ebook. It’s cheap and relatively easy to do as long as you’re fairly IT literate. I used Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, which is free.
- Print book – for the really ambitious! I don’t want to shatter your illusions but commercial publishers will have ZERO interest in publishing your family history. Why? Because nobody outside your family will want to read it. However, you can still put your story into print by self- publishing. Here’s a link to another article I wrote on Writing and Publishing your First Book.
There are so many ways to write the story of your family, but I hope you’ve enjoyed this basic introduction. I’ve written a short e-guide for Amazon Kindle which explains the techniques I use in much more detail. You can download it here. Get writing, and good luck!
You can purchase The Horsekeeper’s Daughter and pre-order Above Us The Stars (estimated publication date July 2020) at the store page.