Wednesday, 11 March 2015

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

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


Is it possible to use a fiction story to get to know an ancestor better?

Yes, I believe it is. As a fiction writer of family saga-type stories, let me share a few thoughts on this. See what you think. I recently shared with my writing colleagues an experience with trying to write another novel in my series. One of the key elements of that discussion was that I had one ‘over-arching theme’ story I wanted to tell in that novel. When I actually started writing the novel, I realized that my characters were essentially “refusing to go along with that story.”

What does this have to do with our question? Some of you are asking…

Let’s take one step back, and I think I can explain. When I write, I first create characters, in a setting, and write backgrounds on each of them, including how they think, what their motivations are, how they relate to others around them, and so forth. I think this is critical to good storytelling. Much of this material never appears in published works, of course, but it is very useful to me to get to know each character, each family member, in my case, so I know how they will react to meeting new people and approaching new subjects. And, how they will act when faced with totally unexpected situations, of course.

When I started to write about how my main characters would respond to this new set of circumstance in the ‘over-arching theme’ I had chosen for the novel, I quickly became aware that they were taking my story in different directions than what I had ‘intended.’ What to do? This took some time for me to figure out, but I did come up with a solution.

My respond was to scrap the novel concept and get back to writing short stories about my characters, in their natural settings, and let them tell my/their stories.

Are you still with me?

When you research a family, in your ancestral line, you generally will gather more information than simply vital statistics (I hope, at least!). You may have an obituary. You may have news clippings about a wedding, an organizational honor, or family gatherings. Each of these tidbits of information can, and do, provide you with a little more/better understanding about how each family member reacted to certain situations in their actual lives. [We understand, of course, that these are not necessarily accurate portrayals of their behavior - but that is another story for another time!]

You can use these (understandings) like I use the ‘background’ materials I create for each of my characters. The more of this you have, the better your chances are of ‘getting to know’ that ancestor, as an individual. Agree?

Therefore, what I am suggesting, then, is that you can now, possibly, use fiction techniques to help you determine how that person would react to a situation you may know that they actually faced… but, you do not actually know how they handled it. My suggestion is that if you learn how to think like that person thought, you have a pretty good chance of writing a story about them in that new situation that would have a high probability of being pretty close to how they would actually have responded.

Let me use an example, from one of my favorite Revolutionary War ancestors. He went off and served in the Continental army at age 56, leaving behind a young nephew/son-in-law with new children (his grandchildren) to farm rather than go to war. The older man went so the younger man could stay with his family. This explanation fits the known circumstance and also seems to fit well with the kind of person he was (based on other things we knew about him). He was abandoned by his own parents as a child, and in later life, always sacrificed himself rather than placing burdens on his other, younger, family members. This may not be the best example, but I hope it helps you see my perspective.

You do need to remember it is fiction, of course, and not record it anywhere as actual fact. We must keep the two separate, no doubt. But, I hope you can see that this is my answer, one answer, to the question we began with ‘up above!’

What do you think? Does this make any sense to you? Will you try it, and see how it works, for you? Let me know. I love to get feedback on my articles, here, and to all my written stories and comments.
If you totally disagree, or find this ludicrous, I’d also like to hear that. I learn from both positive and negative feedback. I hope you do, as well.

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.


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  2. Hi Dr. Bill, interesting to find your concept, because i have recently written a fictional novel based on the true story of some of my ancestors. I have actually not attempted to try to publish it, because i am on the fence as to whether or not to publish it as fiction, or to rewrite it as biographical information. I have concerns both ways? Helen

  3. Helen, First, good for you. Getting something written down is often the hardest step. Second, you are absolutely correct, that this is a difficult decision. I just posted my April article in this series that does speak to one aspect of this. Check it out, on the 11th, and see if that helps. Best wishes, in any event! Thanks, so much, for the visit, and, your great comment and question. ;-)


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