Storytelling // Ancestry

Continuing a series of posts on storytelling and some solutions for when we don’t really know the story.

scrapbook, scrapbooking, memory keeping, ancestry, tips, black and white photo, old photo, photography

One challenge I have come across through ancestry research and putting together an ancestry album is all of the unknowns. Any attempt at trying to record history seems to be filled with unknowns. It can be frustrating.

I have some old, wonderfully cherished photos, which are hard to come by in my lineage. But one thing that has continually struck me as a memory keeper is not knowing the story.

It has encouraged me to be a better present day memory keeper and record more stories, writing as much information as I can in my scrapbooks and other journals.

Initially it is discouraging, but as I’ve worked through it, I have come up with some ways to make it work and give more context.

I’ve taken some ideas from creative writing education and other journaling techniques I’ve come to learn and use over the years.

I have a love affair with characterization and tend to pull towards authors who have a strong game here. There are endless resources on characterization, including exercises where you answer questions about a character that may not have anything to do with the story, but that helps deepen the familiarity with that character. Some of the same techniques can be applied to real life people when sharing their story. For instance, going through a typical daily routine schedule for that person, what would it look like? What would they do? Think about if it was before inventions like the television or automobile. Instead of being disappointed by the unknowns, I try to focus on what I do know about the person and develop from there. This leads to…

Stories can be told by posing questions. I don’t have all of the facts, but I use various clues and information to make educated guesses about what may have actually been going on. I pose these ideas as questions. For example, my Grandmother was very smart, skipping grades throughout school, but in her time she could only excel to be an Executive Administrative Assistant. I don’t know much else about what she did, but I can ask: Did it bother her that she was maybe smarter than the men she worked for? Did she want a more professional role? These questions speak more to the heart of the person and give a greater picture of someone, versus a snapshot of her standing in a hat & dress.

Using other voices to tell the story can be helpful. I don’t have a lot of information, but I listen closely when my relatives speak about their parents or grandparents and I try to pick up on the subtleties. How their eyes and faces look when they recall a memory. I can use pieces of the stories they tell in their voice to add to the bigger picture, and take cues from their tone and facial expression to inflect the appropriate emotion. A lot of times people tend to recall a good meal the person cooked (which is one reason I try to feed my people well – it may be all they remember!)  Another creative way to use voice is to give a voice to an inanimate object. Maybe a house that was lived in by generations or some type of heirloom passed down through family members.

Sentence Fragments
Using sentence fragments or bullet points or short phrases is not grammatically correct in writing, but is a good way to summarize somewhat disjointed ideas. I use this technique often in my scrapbook journaling separating ideas by dot dot dot (…) or two forward slashes (//). Another great way is to list ideas out with bullet points, which can be brads, stickers, or gemstones. I also like using small strips of paper cut up, a somewhat trendy look in scrapbook product right now. This works well in the typewriter because you can type onto various types of paper, whether it be pattern paper, journal card or a graphic paper bag.

I think the hardest thing with studying ancestry is I’m less interested in what they did and more interested in who they were. As I think most people would be. I’m amused by those who are obsessed with job titles and assets. Have you ever seen a gravestone transcribed “here lies John Doe, he was a lawyer and owned a 4 bedroom house with 3 cars”? Probably not. Instead, you see “beloved husband, father & friend” or “faithful servant.” When you pass away, no one cares what you had or your job title, they talk about who you were as a person. If someone was caring or cold, social or quiet, out going or recluse, giving or selfish. Those are the characterizations you hear about. And making sure that comes across in the stories I tell is important to me. Keeping it authentic and real.

Have you run into roadblocks when trying to research ancestry? What are your solutions for dealing with little bits of information?


4 thoughts on “Storytelling // Ancestry

  1. I’ve been researching my family history this past year and I’ve been lucky to find/build quite a lot of stories, even about people who are several generations back, who no one now living ever met. Some are so long and complicated that I can barely even conceive of how to fit them on a layout. (or maybe that’s just evidence of how my mind works – building connections even when the details are quite spotty; wanting to tell the whole story at once).
    I have vague plans to make a serial killer board/detective’s evidence board type of layout out of one of them (my 3rd great grandmother who had 6 children between her 2 marriages and 4 non-marriages/boyfriends, back in Gold Rush NZ in the middle of the 19th century!) with photos and newspaper clippings and string connecting all the dots. I haven’t had the guts to actually try to start marking it though. Actually I have another relative who also deserves a serial killer board – he ran off and got himself a new family in another country and their descendants recently tracked me down. (Ugh, now I wish I had a secret room where I could create massive walls of bulletin boards full of evidence and connections! lol)
    I think a lot of my journaling would be a mixture of questions and answers because, of course, there is more that we don’t know about these people than what we do know. (especially WHY they did these things they did). I think including the questions I have and the theories I have come up with says a lot about me and my life and my assumptions, which adds a lot of value to the pages.
    I think my failure to actually start creating pages about the people I’m researching is that I feel like I want to “finish” researching before I start making pages. I’m finding out more about these people every week or at least every month. I guess I’ll reach a point where I’m finding out less and less new information, and then maybe I’ll be motivated to get some of the stories into layouts.


    1. So interesting. Yes, I’ve been working on this for a few years now, it comes and goes in spurts. It took me forever to conceive how I would even tackle it into album form. As you can see, I’m still working on it, mostly trying to keep it organized. I have a notebook I am starting to use also, but am trying to plan out how to tab sections. I have a lot in, but sometimes I need a space to jot down a little note, so it’s trying to string all that together.
      I love your serial killer boards idea! And wow, you have some interesting characters in your story.
      I agree, its hard to figure out where to start. I think the thing that I want to do is always see how far I can go back and learn about those people at a distance. But after thinking about it, I keep telling myself I need to just start with layouts about my grandparents and the ones that are more familiar to me. Just start somewhere.
      I think mine is going to be somewhat digital or hybrid because I want the ability to be able to make copies for other family members. I am considering an album from Artifact Uprising because I think that would class it up a bit.
      As you can see still so much to think about, definitely more posts to come.
      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!


      1. Oh yes, I imagine it’s very tempting to go straight to the older ancestors and forget to document the ones in between, the ones we actually knew! And yes, just start somewhere. I like the idea of digital.
        My friend who is my genealogy mentor told me that it’s always best if someone is a bit of a black sheep because they leave behind more documentation. I’ve only got a couple, but they’re pretty fantastic stories.
        Keeping it all organized is definitely a challenge! 🙂


  2. I love the idea of this Patti! Ancestry research has already been intimidating to me. These are all great options to document stories/questions when you don’t have much beyond basic historical facts. ❤


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