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Portrait of a Relative
by Ruth McHaney Danner

Return to Creative Nonfiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

A police detective shouldn't investigate a crime involving his cousin. Neither should a surgeon operate on her own daughter. And certainly a judge wouldn't preside over a trial in which his father is the defendant. In all these situations, feelings can get in the way because the people are too close to the individuals involved.

Is a writer any different? Can you do objective work when it involves someone close to you? Can you write a profile without sounding like a proud dad, a doting aunt, or a loving spouse? If you can, you may find lots of material for articles under your own roof, or at least under the larger roof of your extended family.

Building a Family Dossier

To write about a loved one, several steps must be followed. First, consider possible subjects. Begin a file folder on siblings, parents, grandparents, cousins. Next, list accomplishments, awards, and other interesting facts about each. Does someone have an unusual hobby? Step back a moment and look at family members through the eyes of a stranger. What about the aunt who makes rag rugs or sourdough bread? Especially interesting might be a person whose skill is traditionally considered the realm of the opposite sex, such as a male quilter or a female auto mechanic.

Maybe you have a relative whose ordinary hobby has an unusual twist. Do you have a handicapped relative whose everyday activities are extraordinary because of his limitations? Consider a hearing-impaired niece who plays piano, or a blind uncle who enjoys gardening.

Don't ignore older relatives when you're making your list. Think about someone with an interesting story in his or her past. A grandfather may have a special remembrance of a wartime event. A great-aunt may have been the first woman in town to work in the war plant. At your next family reunion, take pencil and paper (or tape recorder) and be ready to conduct on-the-spot interviews.

Ask Permission, Not Forgiveness

Be sure you have permission from the relative before you proceed further. Grandpa Bob may enjoy telling you about his joining the Navy at age 15, but he might balk at seeing the story in print. If your topic is of a sensitive nature, such as alcoholism or domestic abuse, you'd be wise to get written permission from your family members. Don't assume it's all right to publish the article just because you're a relative. An even easier route might be to disguise the identity of the people involved by changing their names and a few details in your article, such as home state or occupation.

Finding Homes for Your Relatives

Now, study the markets. Where will you publish an article about Aunt Betty and her knack with flowers? Consider local periodicals such as daily and weekly newspapers, along with regional magazines. Also look into specific hobby magazines -- regional and beyond -- such as gardening, cooking, quilting, or music.

Usually, when I query about an article involving a relative, I don't tell the editor I'm related. Otherwise, the query could sound like a gushing family member who wants publicity for a loved one. I have no intention of deceiving the editor, but I do think I can write an objective article. My relationship to the subject is of little importance in the query.

Gaining Perspective

Once you get an editor's go-ahead, do some research. Don't rely on memories or nostalgia. If your cousin is an artist, for example, study the art world. Attend a show, visit a gallery, talk with various artists about what's selling. Look at your cousin's work. What style is it? How does it compare with others of the same style? Look in newspapers and journals for reviews of your cousin's work.

Include an interview with your relative. When you meet, try to see her from something other than a family perspective. Ask about what she's doing, her likes and dislikes, how she conducts her business. Get as many quotes as possible. Conduct the interview as a professional. Plan your questions and keep small talk to a minimum. If your interview dissolves into a family gab session, you'll not get the information you need.

You'll also want to interview others for a broader perspective. Talk with co-workers, neighbors, people outside the family who know this person well. You may discover attributes of your cousin you never knew about.

Once you're ready to write, detach yourself from the subject. Don't use personal references such as "my nephew" or "my favorite cousin" in the article. You're writing a 3rd person profile, and you shouldn't be in it at all.

Hook the Reader

Want something unusual to hook readers in the first paragraph? This is where family insight comes in handy. If a little-known fact about your relative has stuck in your mind over the years, it's likely to catch the reader's attention, too. Avoid embarrassing your cousin, but try to think of an incident to complement the theme of your article. In a newspaper story about my niece, a prolific novelist, I began with an account of her plans at age three to take the cat to church. I then tied it in with her ability as an adult to make definite plans when writing her books.

Of course, you could try the opposite: something very usual for the hook. I once wrote a piece about my sister-in-law, a composer, and I opened with a simple description of her three older brothers and their interests in math and music. Then, I told of her following in their footsteps. Such a hook worked well in the hometown newspaper where the article appeared.

As you write, discipline yourself to be as professional as possible. Keep your focus tight by using a workable outline. Even if you don't draft an outline in other types of writing, try it here. Otherwise, you'll be tempted to include the family's favorite account of Uncle Ed's prize-winning trout, even though it has nothing to do with your focus.

When you finish, get an objective critique. This may be the most important step. Have another writer who doesn't know this relative read your work. He or she will help you eliminate syrupy phrases, family verbiage, and other words that don't translate well outside your household.

If you can avoid the doting grandmother or proud parent syndrome, you may be amazed to discover how many articles you'll sell about your relatives. Change your perspective a bit, keep an emotional distance from the subject, and write as if you're meeting that cousin for the first time. If you do, your readers will want to meet her, too.

Find Out More...

How to Tell -- and Sell -- Your Ancestor's Life Story, by Susie Yakowicz

Local History: A Lucrative Niche Market, by Patricia Fry

Making Your Future Out of the Past: How to Break into the Burgeoning History Market, by Sean McLachlan

People and Steeples: Writing Church Histories, by Wendy Hobday Haugh

Writing for Family History Magazines, by Rosemary Bennett

Copyright © 2000 Ruth McHaney Danner
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Ruth McHaney Danner is a freelance writer and professional quilter living in Spokane, Washington. She's had over 100 articles published in magazines and newspapers, and her book of inspirational stories for quilters, What I Learned from God While Quilting,was released by Barbour Publishing in 2000.


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