Did your ancestor live during an exciting time in history and share the experience? Maybe he or she made a noteworthy contribution to the community or society as a whole. If you think your ancestor has an interesting life story, now might be the time to tell it. Writing about a past family member can be one of the most rewarding and enjoyable projects for any writer. It can also be one of the most difficult to sell. Not only does your ancestor's story have to interest people besides you and your family, it has to be told in an interesting way. The good news is that pulling this off might be easier than you think. Here are a few tips to help you get started:
No matter how well you think you know your ancestor's life story, you will need to do a reasonable amount of research before you begin writing. Researching your ancestor's life will not only help you corroborate the facts, it will uncover new information that might be useful to you -- and interesting to readers. Where do you look for information? In the family, for starters. Take advantage of your living relatives -- especially the older generations -- and ask them to provide you with anything related to your ancestor.
Some useful resources include scrapbooks, photo albums, family papers, journals, and diaries. Look for unique details, like quirky personality traits, unusual hobbies, and newsworthy anecdotes. But don't stop there. Get your relatives to talk. Find out everything they remember about your ancestor, and don't take anything for granted. Even the smallest detail may have a place in your story. An interview with a relative may lead to more contacts -- neighbors, friends, or other acquaintances who know something about your ancestor. Follow up on those leads, too.
Besides researching your ancestor within the family, take advantage of all public resources that may have something to offer. Researching an ancestor's life requires some basic genealogy work. Historical libraries and government agencies can provide you with all kinds of factual information, including census records, church records, and birth and death certificates. Or, try The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, where a large collection of genealogy records can be found. Archived newspapers from the town where your ancestor lived are also a good resource. They can provide information on births, deaths, marriages, and interesting events that helped shape your ancestor's life.
Once you've gathered and studied your research, you'll have to decide what's the best format for delivering your story -- a book or an article? An important thing to consider is your audience. Although writing a book about an ancestor is an admirable undertaking, it may not be a practical one for targeting readers outside the family. Even if your ancestor lived a full life that included many achievements and honors, that may not all be captivating enough to hold the public's attention page after page. An article, on the other hand, allows you to focus on the most fascinating details of your ancestor's life and create a tighter, more enjoyable story for everyone.
Of course, if there's plenty to tell about your ancestor that would keep your audience interested through many chapters, a book, such as a biography or memoir, is the way to go. Biographies usually cover an entire life, whereas a memoir might focus on a certain aspect or time frame of the subject's life. Family history books are also popular formats; however, family histories usually include several generations of people and don't always attract public interest.
Whether you decide on a book or article, it's a good idea to research a number of magazine, newspaper, or book publishers that might be good prospects for your ancestor's story. Browse their websites, review their writer's guidelines, and study their works for style and structure. If you're writing a book, you have the option to self publish, which means you can write the book however you want. Just make sure you understand all the pros and cons of doing it yourself.
Some writers prefer to work off an outline; others don't. Either way, your ancestor's story will have a better chance of interesting readers if it's organized and written like an actual story -- with an engaging beginning, middle, and end. Not sure how to begin? Try NOT at the beginning. One way to draw in the reader is to get right to an exciting part of your ancestor's story. Open with a scene of conflict or suspense, for example. Then continue to engage the reader and bring the history to life with lively dialogue, vivid details, and action.
Fictionalizing, or adding imaginary details, may be necessary when writing your ancestor's story and can be a useful technique. Many biographers fictionalize parts of their stories to give them better readability and fill in gaps. But understand that made-up material still needs to be credible. Details that contradict the facts and dialect that doesn't jive with the time and place will give the reader reason to pause and question the validity of the story.
Just as fictionalizing can make a nonfiction piece more interesting and enjoyable to read, so can clear, error-free writing. Take the time and effort to check for proper spelling, grammar, and word usage. And watch out for clutter -- words and phrases that are redundant and don't add anything new to the narrative. Finally, avoid using the passive voice. Like clutter, the passive voice can make a good story drag on or fall flat for the reader.
One important word of caution -- and this is probably the hardest part about writing a family piece: If you want your ancestor's story to interest the public, it's going to have to be written without bias. A story riddled with favoritism or opinion can raise the amateur red flag -- and likely kill your chances of a sale.
How can you tell if your writing sounds biased or not? You probably can't, so ask a nonfamily member, preferably a distant acquaintance whose judgment you respect (another writer, historian, or educator perhaps), to read your first draft and give you some feedback. If you receive a comment like, "I can tell you're very proud of your great-great-aunt," well, maybe it's time to rethink (and rewrite) the piece. But keep in mind that writing without bias doesn't mean you can't write with feeling. Successful writers do both.
Pictures can speak a thousand words -- and help sell manuscripts. Although your descriptions may be thorough and vivid, they won't take the place of an actual image for the reader. And editors tend to be more interested in manuscripts that have accompanying photos than those that don't. But your images don't have to be limited to photographs. Diary excerpts, sketches, handwritten letters, and maps, for example, can all help tell your ancestor's story. Dig deep and be selective with your choices. Several good images will be more valuable than many poor quality ones.
When it comes to gathering images, the family collection isn't the only place to look. Check out history centers, local museums, and town libraries for photos, too. And don't forget to look online -- you never know what might show up. But before using an image, take care to follow copyright and reproduction policies. Most family photos require no special permissions or fees to reprint, however images from historical societies, online sources, or other public information centers often do.
Now that you know the basics of writing a sellable family story, it's time to get started. Writing about an ancestor is the perfect way to create an exciting tale that's unique and near and dear to the heart. And by following a few simple tips, you can interest an audience that extends way beyond the family.