Last Saturday, I gave a four-hour presentation to an enthusiastic group of genealogists who belong to the Santa Barbara County Genealogy Society. The 75 who attended want to reshape their genealogy data into a story so it will be more accessible to their family. They know that pedigree charts and family group sheets are primarily interesting only to genealogists. If our children and grandchildren are to understand and appreciate who they came from, they’ll learn far more from a family history that has transformed all those names, dates, and places into an interesting story. My goal Saturday was to encourage them in this endeavor and share some techniques that could help them along the way.
As I explained to the group (who meet at the beautifully appointed genealogy library pictured right), it takes a different kind of skill to write a family history. For some, it’s far more difficult. It takes a combination of research (in both primary and secondary sources), combined with imagination and the skills of a storyteller—skills that can be learned, incidentally. In addition, it takes what I call “Bum Glue,” that particular focus, passion, and tenacity that keeps you glued to your seat and writing.
Many of those who attended my seminar are already engaged in interesting projects. I always enjoy hearing the myriad ways people approach and create family history. Some who talked with me afterward told me they often tuned out during my lecture when something I said gave them an idea that got them daydreaming about its application to their project. Two others showed me several pages of writing they had worked on while I was speaking. Apparently, they felt inspired and driven enough to commit their ideas to paper right there on the spot. I have to admire their impulse to get started, though I would have found it disheartening when I was speaking to know about all the tangential mental activity going on among what I perceived as a rapt audience!
The president of the organization, Art Sylvester, sent me an email the next day and included a quote from Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s wonderful book The Little Prince that he felt applied to my ideas about developing the people in our stories. Here it is for your consideration:
“Grown-ups love figures. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, ‘What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead they demand: ‘How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?’ Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.”
The author has a point. Often what makes people interesting and memorable are the personal likes and dislikes that distinguish their individuality and humanity. The next time you try to develop a “character” in your story, focus on the odd quirky trait or preference that opens a window into a person’s heart and soul. For example, there is a lot I could say about my Scottish grandmother: mother of six children, organist in the Baptist church, widow at 48–all details that describe her. The following information, however, shows a personal side of her that makes us feel a more intimate connection with her: “Even though it was the middle of the Depression, Grandma splurged on a bar of English Lavender bath soap. She only used it on Saturdays–for her ritual Saturday-night bath. After bathing, she carefully re-wrapped the fragrant soap in its crisp packing paper and slipped it into its floral cardboard box for safekeeping for another week.”
Now you try it.