A Genealogist’s Guide to Storytelling: Facts, Clues, and the In-Between Bits

If you love genealogy, you might spend a fair amount of time baffled at your less-interested relatives. Aren’t they curious about their roots, their heritage? Don’t they care where they came from? Isn’t it fascinating to find out details about their ancestors’ lives?

In a word, no.

Unless you’ve been bitten by the genealogy bug, dusty old photos and crumbly old gravestones are not the height of entertainment, I’m sad to say. If you want to engage the rest of your family, you’ll need to frame your family history as a story. In this series, we’ll use storytelling principles to enrich our family histories — and maybe even spark some interest in those glazed-over relatives’ eyes.

Start with the Facts

I get it. You have endless pedigree charts and family group sheets and person profiles. Maybe there are a few really interesting ancestors for whom you’ve compiled whole dossiers. That’s good – that’s the backbone of your plot.

However, that’s all it is – a framework. You’re going to need to put some meat on those bones.  Luckily, a list of facts will encourage us to look for relationships between those facts even if none is explicitly stated.

I can think of no example that serves to illustrate the point better than that of my 4th great-grand uncle, Hamilton Cornell. Here is a list of his facts, without any analysis. (Note: I have linked to Familysearch.org where most census images can be viewed for free, although my initial research source was Ancestry.com.)

  • Birth: Between 1810-1844. Many conflicting dates reported.
  • 1850: Lived in Troupsburg, Steuben county, NY with wife Chloe & five children.
  • 1860: Lived in Matteson, WI with wife Henrietta & three children.
  • 1865: Lived in Olmsted, MN with wife Eugenia & two children.
  • November 1866: Summons for a complaint filed at Shawano county, WI by Heneriett Cornell.
  • 1870: Lived in Oakland, Freeborn county, MN with wife Eugenia & four children
  • 1875: Lived in Freeborn county MN with wife(?) I. E. and three children.
  • 1880: Lived in Spruce Gulch, Dakota Territory with wife Eugenia, three children, and two boarders.
  • 1900: Lived in Inyo county, CA alone.
  • 1910: Lived in Anaheim, CA; enumerated twice. April 21-lived alone; May 4-lived with daughter’s family.
  • 1914: Died in Anaheim, CA. (Information at this link researched by Linda Cornell Reese.)

Do you hear a story roiling to the surface? Your job is to tell it, not as a list with an overflow of dates and places, but in human terms.

A word of caution here. Fiction writers can use the tendency to look for patterns to their advantage in constructing a plot, but it can be a pitfall for family history writers, because we have to maintain contact with reality. Include the right facts to avoid drawing erroneous conclusions, and where assumptions and speculations begin to fill the gaps between facts, be careful not to cast guesswork as truth.

Move on to the Clues

When you started your genealogical odyssey, the first thing you did was start asking questions and gathering clues. Details, memories, family legends, general impressions. In some cases, even the thing no one knows (or is willing to talk about) can be a clue.

Then you started your research, and if your experience was anything like mine, you probably saw that not every clue is 100% accurate. However, armed with your facts, you can return to those early impressions and let them inform your storytelling.

One of the family legends I knew going in was the story that we were related to Ezra Cornell, the founder of Cornell University, and supposedly, his descendants could attend school there for free. (The blog Ithacating in Cornell Heights has the scoop on that here.) Still, it was definitely a story to take with a grain of salt, especially since I couldn’t find the link between our family and his.

Then I found an entry for Hamilton Cornell’s grandson and namesake in a digital copy of Landmarks of Steuben County (link requires subscription access; originally published 1896). The short paragraph makes mention of the family’s connection to Cornell University. Not so coincidentally, it was also mentioned in Hamilton Sr.’s obituary, published in an Anaheim CA newspaper in 1914. When I finally found the family tie, I had to laugh. I won’t take the space here to explain it, but it was what you might call “distant” 100 years ago. Today, I’m as related to Ezra Cornell as I am to anyone who might happen to read these words.

That a rumor crossed five generations to get to me is a testament to something worth interpreting. It’s a clue, and it informs the story of Hamilton Cornell with the braggadocio and smooth talking that I’ll just bet he was famous for.

Fill in the Gaps

And another thing, too. I’ve never seen a picture of him and don’t know if one exists, but I’d venture to guess that Hamilton Cornell was one handsome son of a gun, and if anyone ever got the better of him, it was by exploiting his obvious weakness for greener pastures, wherever they may lie.

Your histories will also have gaps, places where you can fairly project and suppose. The in-between bits are the places where you shade in the colors and details, as much as you can, to create interest for your audience.

Next week, we’ll continue A Genealogist’s Guide to Storytelling by talking about Character, Conflict, and Cost.

Question for You

Have you ever tried your hand at writing down your family’s stories? What was your experience? Leave a comment below!

18 Replies to “A Genealogist’s Guide to Storytelling: Facts, Clues, and the In-Between Bits”

  1. This is exactly what I ran into. One year for Christmas I made up fancy notebooks with all the information I had gathered up that point. I thought maybe someone in my family would catch the “bug”. No such luck. Just lots of thanks and keep us posted. Oh, well. I look forward to more of your posts!

    1. I’m very blessed to have one family member who is always excited to hear about new discoveries and to share hers with me, but I decided to do this series because I always get the best response when I have an interesting story, and not just a timeline. Thanks for commenting, Linda!

  2. Researching the facts is a necessary part of family history research–but, like you, I find discovering clues and filling in the gaps to be the most rewarding part. I guess I’m a storyteller at heart.

    1. And I’m glad you are, Sheryl! Your glimpses into your grandmother’s life and modern commentary are fascinating. I will need to start at the beginning and catch up soon — so enjoyable. The lists of facts just form the outlines, which may be exciting to us genealogy geeks, but for ordinary civilians, the narratives are the good parts!

  3. I hope that you Brandy, lindatej or Sheryl have also started writing your life’s story and are not relying on some great granddaughter to interpret what you might have meant by such and such a statement that you made in your blog. Or maybe you’re thinking that in this age of paper trail they will be able to tell your life story by “just the facts.” Just like you find it frustrating or exciting to piece together clues from the past make sure that you leave a legacy of your life to your coming generation. What will little Cora really know about her great grandmother Brandy or Grandfather Jose who lived way back in 2013? While you are putting together your family tree keep in mind all the things you wish these dead people had left for you. Then make an effort to provide information for the coming generation. What is your address, what kind of car do you drive, what roads do you take to get to work, and what kind of work do you do. What kind of coffee do you drink, what news you heard on the radio, TV or iPhone. What is your favorite color, coat, shoes, and what was the weather like today. If you don’t write down these things for them then they will have to write “Great Grandma Brandy sure did like to write about other people but why didn’t she write about the little things she did.” “Great Grandma Sheryl sure left a great story about GGGGrandma Helena; I wish she would have told us something about her life.” Come to think of it maybe I should stop writing this comment and get to work on my life story. Nice writing Brandy. Thank you.

    1. I definitely cannot write my life story, because then future generations will know how much of my fiction was harvested from reality! (Kidding!… mostly.) You make a great point about preserving some of the details and stories of the present. I think the interest in one’s family tree correlates with a lot of other hobbies — for me, writing/blogging, photography and scrapbooking all occupy the same plain. When those future generations dig into “Gramma Brandy’s” old papers, they’ll find photo albums and wedding books, journals, letters and cards, Bible study notes… and considering that Tweets are archived at the Library of Congress, I suppose they’ll know what I thought about a lot of “little things!” Thanks for reading, mionsiog!

  4. Well, what a coincidence that we both blogged on this theme on the same day! As I said in my earlier reply to you, writing it down in a meaningful way for my family and descendants is something I plan to do, and I do agree with you that there is the danger for a natural ‘storyteller’ to spice it up! Thanks for this – enjoyed reading your thoughts.

    1. I thought so too! Here’s another coincidence — “The Armchair Genealogist” is hosting(?) February as “The Family History Writing Challenge.” They’ve held this Challenge before, but I didn’t know about it until after I decided to put together this series of blog posts! As for me, I am trying to wrap up a big project this month and don’t know if I want to take on another right away, but I do want to gather up the stories in an accessible format.

  5. Reblogged this on telling family tales and commented:
    There is so much great information out there and the main goal of my blog is to bring together in one place all the information you need to put together a great family story project. I haven’t been doing enough of gathering these resources but I’m going to make sure that at least once each week I link you to a blog or other website with great information to help you tell your families tales. This post by Brandy is right on track. To really share you family stories you have to have more than dates and other facts, story telling is the key. I’ll be watching Brandy’s series closely.

  6. Thanks for sharing this story it was an interesting one! I can totally relate to the other family members not being interested in genealogy! Thankfully I have found two relatives I didn’t even know I had who share the passion!

    1. Yes, I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have anyone to be thrilled with me on such momentous occasions as when Ancestry or Familysearch releases a new database! 😀 But the main thing I’m trying to keep in mind is that while records contain details, stories connect them — and us. Thanks for reading!

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