As family historians, we often confront the challenge of discovering the truth behind family stories. In Murder in Matera – A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy, we follow Helene Stapinski’s journey to unravel stories heard as a child about her great-great-grandmother, Vita. The book takes us along as Helene travels multiple times to her family’s hometown in Southern Italy. Through a series of fortunate events, she locates documents that tell the true story of her ancestors.
We’re reading Murder in Matera for our Family Locket Book Club’s winter selection. Join us on Goodreads to see past and upcoming books. Why this book? As family historians, we discover the facts behind the stories, and Murder in Matera provides an example of telling your own story as you discover that of your ancestor. How often have you been changed by learning something unexpected in a newspaper article or document? It happens to every genealogist at some point. If you have a shocking story in your own family, you’ll be interested to see how the author handles the complexity of revealing it to the world.
Murder in Matera weaves back and forth between Stapinski’s research trips to Southern Italy and a fictional telling of Vita’s story based on many accounts. Why this method? The author’s note explains more.
Vita was illiterate, so she left no diaries or letters, only stories passed down through the generations. Miraculously, the six-hundred-page criminal file exists, and provided me with vivid details of what transpired more than a centry ago. My historical re-creations are based on those pages, on archival materials, interviews with historians, residents, and experts on the time period, in addition to the work of those writers who came and researched before me. In Vita’s most intimate moments, I have used my own Gallitelli bones and blood to imagine how she would have acted and what she would have thought and said about the incredible events in her life.
Thoughts on Researching and Writing Family Stories
If we want to write our own family stories, what can we learn from Murder in Matera?
Do the Research
Regardless of the family story, we can’t write anything until we’ve thoroughly followed the paper trail all the way through. We can follow the Research Like a Pro process in setting an objective, analyzing available information, studying the location, planning the research, citing sources, logging the research, and finally writing preliminary reports.
Part of the process is researching the history and the geography and if we’re writing in-depth, perhaps visiting the sites in person would help us envision our ancestors in that setting.
Outline the Story
Once we have the facts clear, we decide how to tell the story. We outline the story using our preliminary research reports, moving pieces around as necessary. Will we include our research journey? Perhaps the research changed us somehow, and we want to relate that to our readers. Consider how to unfold the story. Will it be better to reveal the ending initially, or will it be better to take the reader on an adventure?
Perhaps the most challenging part of the process is starting the story. My advice is to start typing, working from the outline. Remember you will be editing and don’t try to get the writing perfect at first. Think through these questions before writing.
Who will read the story? Family members? Other researchers?
Will you use the first or third person?
Will you fictionalize part of the story or stick to the facts?
Use your outline, then begin writing. Leave it alone for a few days if you get stuck, then return. Often our brains need time to refocus.
Edit, Edit, Edit
Good writing doesn’t just happen. It results from much editing. Have others read the story and provide feedback. Take suggestions with an open mind and incorporate them into the work. Create a work you’ll be proud of.
Finally, publish your story. Upload it to the FamilySearch Family Tree for your posterity to view. Print copies and distribute them to family members. Start a blog and publish the story in chapters. Use one of the many book-creation online programs to print the story. So many possibilities!
Remember if you don’t write it, who will?
About the Family Locket Book Club
We read books about real people overcoming real challenges that inspire us to write our own family’s story of trials and triumph.
If you have a favorite book that we should add to our bookshelf, please comment below.
Best of luck in all your family history endeavors!