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Writing Family History

At the end of a hot, humid week, it is wonderful to feel cool air once again. Earlier this week, I published my story Helen Goes Down the Hill loosely based on my grandmother's childhood. Today, I focus on using family history for inspiration.

Using family stories as a treasure trove of ideas is often beneficial to those looking for a quick story since through the nature of re-telling a story, the pertinent information is given in a short format. Others who have story-tellers in the family might have a longer story already created. Other locations to find family stories are through journals, newspapers, letters and other published or unpublished materials.

Once you have the stories collected you have a few choices how to use them. Some stories are at best sketchy - my ancestors arrived in the Colonies therefore we have little information about their origins or reasons for coming. Other stories are more common: eating breakfast at Mommom's house or baking Christmas cookies. Some stories are best not told in their entirety either because individuals are still alive or because the pain might be too great. Therefore, you can use family history in three possible ways:
  1. Verbatim - the truth in it's entirety. These stories are often narratives and memoires. Turning the stories around slightly, they can become more fictional stories. Think of this as a rose bush in a garden: the beauty and the pain are there in its entirety.
  2. Creative editing - the story is there, but aspects changed for the story. I chose this line in my short story, Helen Goes Down the Hill. Using the rose analogy, this is more like a painting or photograph of the rose bush. You know what is there, but not the reality of the bush.
  3. Essence - the emotional part of a story is used. Finishing the rose analogy, this would be a perfume of a rose - the scent is all that is necessary to bring the memory. Should I ever write about my family's arrival in the Colonies, I would follow this path. Taking the information from the story then applying my own memories of emotions to the story.
Depending on the purpose, reason and audience you can use all three means to develop a story. Using Helen Goes Down the Hill, the recounting of the story, as Grandma told it, would be used for a memoir of life in early twentieth century Canada whereas I can use the information and create a fictional short story (as I did). Lastly, I could use the story idea, then apply my own memories of sledding and create an account entirely different whether in another world (fantasy) or another time (historical).

As you gather your family stories, think of the various ways that you can use them to create new story ideas.

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