Are you staring at the facts about your family – gathered from a variety of sources – and wondered how to write this in a fashion someone would actually read? If so, you are not alone. As family historians, we want to leave a legacy, yet turning dry facts into a compelling story is no easy task. Author Carol Baxter provides an example we can learn from in her biography, The Fabulous Flying Mrs. Miller: An Australian’s true story of adventure, danger, romance, and murder.
We are reading The Fabulous Flying Mrs. Miller for the Family Locket Book Club’s winter selection. If you struggle with writing, reading the type of books you’d like to write can inspire and instruct. Author Carol Baxter began tracing her own family history as a teenager. She worked for the Australian Biographical and Genealogical Record (ABGR), then the Biographical Database of Australia (BDA), processing many types of records: vital, military, emigration, and convict indents. She currently works part-time for the BDA project.
Carol began her writing career in 2004 and has published six historical narratives, The Fabulous Flying Mrs. Miller being her latest. Carol speaks regularly on writing family histories – sharing her hard-earned expertise. To learn more, visit her website, carolbaxter.com.
If you are a Legacy Family Tree Webinar subscriber, you can view two recordings Carol gave on the subject of writing family history: “Turning Dry Facts into Exciting Narrative and “Once Upon a Time: It’s All About the Story,” Descriptions for the two webinars provide a small taste of the content.
The literary world condemns most family histories as ‘fact-driven and tedious’ because they are uthsually little more than prose timelines. Yet the phrase ‘family history’ communicates the three ingredients needed to produce a piece of prose that is interesting to read: ‘family’ (the facts about the family), ‘history’ (the historical context) and ‘story’. This seminar focuses on the first two ingredients and shows how we can weave our facts together in such a way that the reader is keen to keep on reading. (Legacy Tree Webinars, “Turning Dry Facts into Exciting Narrative,”)
‘Facts’ send people to sleep; ‘stories’ keep them awake and alert and eager to learn what happens next. In this seminar, Carol shows you how to tell a gripping story within a family history, and by extension, how to write a gripping a family history. (Legacy Tree Webinars, “Once Upon a Time: It’s All About the Story)
Consider your audience and what they would like to actually read. The dry facts of birth, marriage, and death have real stories and historical context behind them. Discover those facts and use them to bring life to your history. Carol writes, “Every documentary piece of evidence represents a lived experience.”
Develop your own voice in writing and let it be heard. As family historians, we’re not writing an encyclopedia entry about our family. As we discover fascinating details about the time’s social history, we can weave that into our ancestor’s story.
Use the voice of others in the narrative. Do you have letters, personal histories, interviews, heirlooms, or your own memories that can be drawn upon to add life to the writing? Add snippets of these for depth and interest.
Find the story, structure the story, and develop the story’s ingredients. Carol provides an example of writing a scene from The Fabulous Flying Mrs. Miller. In the book, Chubbie and Bill, her flying partner, have embarked on their first flight together – hoping to set a record flying from England to Australia. To this point, Chubbie was a passenger, never having flown before.
Chubbie turned around in her tiny cockpit and gaped at him. Did he really want her to fly the plane? Already? Realizing that he did she detached her joystick form the cockpit’s side clip and slotted it into its socket, securing it with its pin. Grasping the knob firmly with both hands as if she would have to fight it for control, she pulled it towards her. The nose lifed and the plane shot up sharply into the fog-laden sky.
‘Put her down, you clot!’ Bill screamed.
She shoved the joystick forward and the nose dropped – too far. Graduallly, by moving the stick fowards and backwards, she managed level flight. She turned her head to see Bill’s reaction. He wasn’t looking. Face down, with his head under the cockpit rim,he was examining his maps.
She kept flying, making joystick adjustments when air pockets bumped them around, Bill had told the press she was a ‘natural’ and his lack of concern served as a confidence booster for her. As she felt the freedom of soaring weightlessly through the sky combined with the sense of power at being in control of such an extraoridnary vehicle, a change swept through her. By the time Bill had taken control again flying had taken over her soul.
As you can see, Carol has mastered the art of turning dry facts into exciting historical narrative! She has also written several how-to books on writing family histories. See her website for more information. If you’ve been wanting to try your hand at turning your family history into a story that appeals to all, there is no time like the present to begin.
Best of luck in your family history writing endeavors!