Sunday, 11 January 2015

Keeping Family History Stories Alive through Fiction - Part D

Keeping Family History Stories Alive through Fiction
Part D
"Dr. Bill" Smith

With the start of the new year, 2015, you may have already pledged to try writing some fiction stories based on the family research you have been doing. I’d like to take this opportunity to suggest some techniques you might want to keep in mind as you begin to write your stories.

Many of us enjoy reading about, and writing about, stories of our American pioneer families, especially in the second half of the 19th century… so let’s use that as our point of reference. I’ll focus on my favorite genre of fiction, the family saga <>. I’ve recently been writing a series of short stories set in a rural, Missouri, community in the 1870s, “The Kings of Oak Springs,” <>. It doesn’t take a lot of research on families of this period to recognize that many, perhaps most, rural families of this era had 8, 10, even 12 or more children. Are you prepared to tell stories about a family that large? Probably not. And, especially not if you want to involved some neighbors and friends in the community as well. Those relationships generate the best stories. The answer? Recognize that children came along about every two years, but, they didn’t all always survive. Infant mortality was high, accidents and disease were common, there were various reasons. For my King family in 1876-77, I used children aged 14, 12, 10 and 5… boy, girl, boy, girl. It worked well for my stories, as long as others in the neighborhood had other variations.

But, how many families can you handle in your family saga stories? Whereas most novela, including historical fiction, focus on a single protagonist, a single person, male or female, a family saga story would normally focus on one family. I did that with the King family, with their four children, plus Pa and Ma. As we move from one short story, in this case, to the next, I slowly introduced their neighboring families in one story at a time. These other families became ‘secondary characters’ although, once introduced, they could be brought into future stories in supporting roles, as well. Towns people were often introduced in occupational roles: the blacksmith, the store keeper, the telegraph operator, the school teacher, etc. Perhaps their families would be brought in, in later stories, perhaps not. This sequence soon become fairly natural, as you tell your stories and show what the family and family members are doing within their relationships in the community.

So as to demonstrate my proper understanding of the place and time about which I was writing, I used one other very important technique that I want to share with you now. I used census records of the place and time (nearby region) to choose both surnames and given names of each person in my family saga stories. I feel it is very important for my readers to really feel they are ‘living in’ that time and place. The names often provide a sense of ethnic origin and immigration issues, as well, of course. When I went back to 1833, shortly after statehood, for my recent short story collection book: “American Centennial at the Homeplace: The Founding 1833-1876,” I made sure that the four family names used as the first settlers were names that appeared in the 1840 federal census for the counties involved, as well as the given names of those first eleven people, of varying ages. This is one way to add authenticity to the stories, based on family history and genealogy research.

Finally for today, and more on this later, use the social history of the time and place of your family saga story to add context to your stories. You will almost surely, as I did, use a time and place with which you are familiar because of the research you have already done, the books you already have, and resources you don’t mind obtaining or reviewing again, especially for this purpose. I found this especially valuable when I realized that my time and place issues involved the Civil War. The towns in this area were totally devastated by competing raiding parties. What happened to my families, the town, the countryside, in this time and place? For the King family moving in, a decade or so after the war, what were the affects of the war that they still needed to face, more than ten years later? There are some good stories there, of course. Which will choose to write about? Start today.

See you next month! I love to read comments, so please leave one or more, including questions. 

Dr. Bill


"Dr. Bill" (Wm. L.) Smith can be found regularly at his genealogy blog, "Dr. Bill Tells Ancestor Stories" <> or his family saga blog, "The Homeplace Saga," <>. He is an original contributor, as The Heritage Tourist, to the "In-Depth Genealogy" blog with a monthly column in the "Going In-Depth" digi-mag. He also writes a monthly post for the Worldwide Genealogy Blog.


  1. I haven't written any fiction from my family stories yet, but it does seem like I should try at least 1 this year.

  2. Good idea, Kristin. Give it a try. Best wishes! ;-)


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