Saturday, 11 April 2015

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

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

Have you identified a theme that would be useful if you wrote a family story?

For this discussion I am going to assume that you have gathered a considerable amount of family history information, including social context material such as obituaries, wedding notices, newspaper clippings, family letter or journals, and so forth; not just the bare bones vital statistics. You may have even written sketches of some of your ancestors, perhaps even other family members and friends… these would be nonfiction writing, of course, assuming you ‘stayed with the facts’ in writing them.

If you now had a desire to save some of these family stories in fiction form, one approach would be to look for themes running through one or more of the stories. [Actually, you would also want to do this if you wanted to write a good nonfiction family history, as well!]

Theme is defined as a main idea or an underlying meaning of a literary work that may be stated directly or indirectly. [Source:]

For example, in my “The Homeplace Saga” series of family saga, historical fiction stories, the theme is: “it is critically important to retain the family farm, in one piece, in the family.” It was the theme of the original novel, and the theme runs through all four novels, two other books, and hundreds of short stories that have been written in the series of stories (see: <>).

In looking at the stories, and specifically at the stories of individuals and of families, can you identify an overarching theme or idea that binds certain of the stories together? Are there perhaps two or three? You may want to choose one that you can identify and then limit your first fiction story to tell to the people and families that best share that particular story/theme. Perhaps follow-up stories can be developed from the others.

Once you have identified that first story arch/theme to work with you will want to begin to identify the main character or characters that best tell that specific story. Honestly, this is where the fun of writing fiction really begins, to me. Just writing this gets my creative juices flowing wanting to stop writing this and DO IT! … Sorry, I digress. Part of the ‘fun’ here is that you can pick and choose who is included in the story and who is not. You can take a main protagonist, perhaps, who is a man in real life, and create a female in your fictional story to play that role. You can have three interesting characters in a family rather than the four or five ‘not so interesting’ members in an actual family. You can make a composite of the characteristics of three actual people into one really complex person perhaps. I have done each of these, from time to time. Other fiction writers have done each of these. A few examples come to mind, that might be instructive. 

Laura Ingalls Wilder c. 1894

We all know Laura Ingalls Wilder, of the Little House on the Prairie series of books, and of course, the television series adaptation of her stories. Her original writings have gotten much detailed review in recent months, and some interesting examples come out of that. For example, her stories have Ma and Pa and their three girls, in the early stories (books). There was actually a young brother, but Laura intentionally left him out because he didn’t really fit in with the story she wanted to tell. Her work ‘feels like’ nonfiction (autobiographic, even, but it is not entirely that, of course), but it is really fiction, of course. For another example, Nellie (that we all love to hate, as portrayed in the television series, especially) was actually a composite person, in Laura’s books, of three actual friends from her youth. Laura’s biographers have learned these facts about her fiction writing from examining Laura’s manuscript, an actual autobiographic story, which was never published until recently, “Prairie Girl.” Comparing that story with her fiction books has become a ‘cottage industry’ in itself, in many ways.

How do you feel now about creating a fictional story to tell about some of your family history research? Does this get you excited to go DO IT, or does it turn you off at the whole idea? I’m sure there are some of each, among my readers out there. Each of us must make our own individual decisions, of course. What I am trying to do is provide some very interesting options that you may not have even considered before. If I have made you think about the process, even just a little bit, I will feel pleased that I did my job.

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-DepthGenealogy" 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 never knew that Laura deviated that far form the real story! I thought she had a brother that died at birth. Anyway, I think this is good advise that I will keep in mind as I begin to gather my "facts" and turn them into fiction.

    1. Kristin, thank you so much for your visit and comment. There is so much still to learn! ;-)

  2. Love reading your stories Bill. You are a great writer.


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