This blog post first appeared as a guest post at Romance University on 15 May 2015.
My fascination with my ancestors’ stories was ignited when I was about twelve and my mother gave me her mother’s diary. In it, my grandmother Lillie May Beck captured a brief six months of her life from April to October in 1915 when she was eighteen and nineteen—but what a six months! Even then, I appreciated the lovely story arc of the diary. It starts out as my grandfather Ferd Voith is trying to wheedle his way into Lillie’s affections, and ends with her admitting that she is in fact in love with him. She begins the diary because she’s finally been asked to the Easter dance by one handsome, charming fellow who ends up playing a very small role in Lillie’s daily records. Instead, from the first entry to the last, there is Ferd, proving that persistence pays off. “What a great story that would make,” my twelve-year-old self thought. Forty years later, that story formed the basis of my debut novel, Up the Hill to Home.
By the time I finally started writing, I had collected an impressive amount of original source material from several generations of ancestors. Items included my great grandmother’s far more voluminous diary, and letters from my great-great grandfather, a surgeon who served during the Civil War. In the middle of the project, I unearthed an inch-thick folder in the National Archives that added eye-popping detail to the lives of these ancestors.
Along the way, I learned some valuable lessons about what it takes to fictionalize ancestral stories successfully.
Wide appeal is the name of the game. If reading good fiction over the years has taught me anything, it’s that any story can be made broadly appealing: it’s all in how you tell it. But people forget that what makes a family story interesting to them doesn’t necessarily translate well outside of the immediate family. It’s as though the author is telling an inside joke and is surprised that no one else is laughing. My beta readers helped me to understand this when they protested my inclusion of large swaths of my great grandmother Emma’s diary. They were right, of course. While possibly interesting to her descendants and an historian or two, the diary got in the way of moving the story forward. I eliminated most of it, and carefully selected the entries that remain for the specific information they supply. For the people who might be interested in the entire record, I published the whole diary on my website.
Consider whether your ancestors’ lives intersect in some way with larger historical events. You may find that your family’s story is simply a good launch point for a wider-ranging narrative, and takes you in a direction you didn’t realize you were headed. Allowing the story to unfold organically is the path to writing appealing, engaging fiction, ancestors or not. This brings us to the next point.
Yes, truth is stranger than fiction. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction often makes the better story. This is a corollary to the point above. Often, people are motivated to write about their ancestors when they think, “Wow, you can’t make this stuff up. A book would practically write itself!” But it’s crucial to remember that you still need to structure your story using all the normal elements of good fiction: a protagonist who wants something, an antagonist who is blocking the way, an inciting event, rising action, a climax. So even though you know the story, you’ll probably need to step back and consider how to translate what you know into an effective story arc. It’s here that you sometimes discover that knowing what really happened—and sticking with that—can get in the way of discovering the better story that’s hiding somewhere underneath. Again, I learned this valuable lesson as I wrote my own book. At the beginning, I imagined that if I knew the “true” version of events, I would use that version. What I found as I spent more time inhabiting the story and getting to know the characters was that I needed to make a choice between relating a family history and telling a richly layered, nuanced story that wasn’t necessarily the way things actually happened. It didn’t take long for me to come down on the side of the better story. This was especially true of the story’s ending. Once again, it was my beta readers (bless them!) who made it clear that the original ending—whether or not it was true—was unsatisfying, and in fact undercut the story that had come before. I spent more time rewriting the last four pages of the book than I did on any other part of the novel, because I needed to discover the real ending, the correct ending, rather than the one I had carried in my head all those years.
You’re putting your ancestors in the public domain. Remember that your ancestors belong to more than just you, and not everyone may be happy that you’re writing a story about the family of which they are members also. Generally, the closer your story is to the present day, the more concerned you’ll need to be about raising hackles, and you should think about whether anything you’re writing might be considered libelous. In particular, if the story you want to tell “belongs” more to other people in the family than it does to you, tread carefully. Consult with them ahead of the project and along the way, and do what you can to garner their support for your effort. After all, the rest of your family may be a great source of additional information. My uncle had done extensive, well-documented research into our ancestry long before the advent of the Internet. Having that information gave me a starting point of factual data that saved me years of work. Most crucially, he was able to capture childhood stories from the last generation I was writing about. By the time I started my book, a number of those folks were no longer with us. There were nine children in that generation who then produced a legion of offspring—me, my siblings, and all my cousins—and I put out multiple data calls in order to collect up the photos, letters, legal documents, and other artifacts that had been distributed among all those kids, especially to those whose parents had died. Finally, a number of my cousins were beta readers of my book, which allowed them to be close to the project. Plus, it was wonderful to hear their perspective on the stories we had all heard growing up.
This takes more than Ancestry.com. Depending on the historical period and geographical setting, you’ll need to do a lot of homework to get the details of time and place correct. Historical fiction is very popular now, and fans are sticklers for accuracy. My own book covered almost one hundred years, which demanded a lot of fact-checking. I found that Wikipedia was my best friend for avoiding anachronisms when I needed to know when zippers were invented or when petroleum jelly started being called Vaseline (answer: that was its original name). The Internet is truly a boon for historical writers, if you use it prudently. Many historical archives are now digitized and available online so that you don’t always have to visit them physically. Online access to these original artifacts, like those available through the National Archives, as well as to information about different libraries, databases, historical societies, and other source material is the best use of the Internet for historical research. The key is to find original source material. I recommend against relying upon other people’s online interpretation of historical events without additional reliable verification. To the extent that you can, visit archives in person that may contain source material about your ancestors and the time period or events you’re describing. I am lucky to be writing about Washington, D.C.—a document-heavy town if ever there was one—and I live nearby so it was easy for me to spend a lot of time culling through original source material. As I mentioned, I found a treasure trove of information concerning my great-great grandparents from his Civil War records and post-war government records, and from her application for a pension from his war service. The most surprising discovery from the official archives? That their daughter, my great grandmother, held a patent for a device she invented early in her career with the Post Office. No one in my family knew that story before, but we all know it now.
What story about your ancestors do you think would make a great piece of fiction?