Keeping Family History Stories Alive through Fiction
"Dr. Bill" Smith
This series of posts began in October 2014 (See Part A) sharing the idea that we each should consider preserving the family stories we find as we do our family history and genealogy research, whether for ourselves, or for others, by using fiction as a tool to do that.
Then, in Part B, I shared my love of family saga literature and hopefully I got you to thinking about how your own stories could possibly be effectively told this way, using some of my own fiction stories as examples, and recommending some to you, for your review.
In December (See Part C), we looked at using a theme as the basis for good fiction stories. Since this was December, we discussed the “coming home for Christmas” theme. That was one of the stories at the heart of my “Christmas at the Homeplace” novel last year, and we examined ways to make that theme work in the novel.
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In Part D, in January, I shared a couple of specific fiction writing techniques, with examples, that allow you to adapt your fine stories to fiction without getting bogged down in too much actual history details. You want historical detail, but too much may very well be too much for a good story.
Today, in Part E, we want to share another totally different perspective that you might consider for turning the stories you have found in your family history research into meaningful, and enjoyable, fiction stories to share. This can be especially useful where there are significant gaps in the historical facts you have available upon which to base the stories.
As a point of reference, I’ve use this approach, to-date, to share 64 stories in my series, “Weston Wagons West.” I created the fictional Weston family beginning in the 1600s with three brothers moving from England to America, one to Virginia, one to Maryland, and one to Massachusetts. Not only do I tell their stories (based on related research of the context of the place and times), but I portray them as neighbors and friends of my actual ancestors and relatives in those times and places. I am very careful to only tell stories within the historical facts, events, and places, based on research. This framework is then “filled-in” with fictional elements. I use every historical fact of which I am aware, and weave my stories around those facts.
Let’s use one more recent, and one very early, example to illustrate how this can be done. The most recent story I published, tells of my great-grandfather, James P. Preston, as a 17-year-old, making his way to catch a wagon train to California as part of the Gold Rush, in 1852. That part is factual. I even have identified a news article of his departure from Council Bluffs, Iowa, in the spring, as well as one documenting his arrival in Sacramento, California in the fall.
The story I told in this particular episode was the journey across southern Iowa, from Illinois, of James, J.P., along with his friend, Martie Weston, earlier in the spring. The details of this journey (none of which were available from my research on him - just that he did it) were derived first from a diary of a person who actually made the trip a year or so later. I then looked up the history of each of the towns and activities mentioned in the diary, on Wikipedia, and other sources, to fill in interesting events and activities that they would have encountered in 1852. One river crossing would have been made only a few months after a tornado had ravaged the town and the ferry. The ferry they used (presumably) was one of the first things re-constructed after the tornado, of course.
The prior episode in the series of stories (about J.P. and Martie) is linked at the end of this story.
A very early story began in the spring of 1640, when 24-year-old James Weston arrive in Maryland from England. My wife and I actually visited St. Mary’s City, that has been reconstructed there. We loved interacting with the re-enactors, each of whom stayed in character of the time and place. It was the only city port in the state at that time, just a few years after the first European arrivals. This and the following episodes set up stories that involve my earliest Brightwell and Kinnick family ancestors. Because the actual recorded facts are so few and far between (though clear and detailed), creating a fictional family for continuity of story was essential. Within that family story, then, the interactions of my actual ancestors became relatively easy to weave in and through their story. This is the specific technique I used in all 64 episodes, to date.
Reconstructed ship similar to Ark II
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Each of the members of the Weston families, of course, are created so as to have persons who “show up” in the places and times my different ancestor families actually appeared in history. I used Weston occupations as farriers, blacksmiths, and wagon-builders so that they would fit in appropriately where ever their travels took them. There are still many stories to tell in this series, of course. I try to share sets of stories, in some sequence. However, the families are also set up so that a new branch can be added at any time, to pick up a new storyline, as they come available, and I choose to write them. One day, I hope to add my wife’s ancestors - who are really even more interesting than mine!
I hope you will read some of the stories and give me your reactions.
See you next month! I love to read comments, so please leave one or more, including questions.
"Dr. Bill" (Wm. L.) Smith can be found regularly at his genealogy blog, "Dr. Bill Tells Ancestor Stories" <http://drbilltellsancestorstories.blogspot.com/> or his family saga blog, "The Homeplace Saga," <http://thehomeplaceseries.blogspot.com/>. 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.