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The following is from


[Editor's Note: The following article is excerpted from Sharon Carmack's book, YOU CAN WRITE YOUR FAMILY HISTORY. In this article, the author gives you a few simple pointers for writing a family history that brings to life the time in which your ancestors lived. This article describes the many considerations that go into making a good family history narrative and how any one of us can produce one with the aid of a book like Ms. Carmack's.]

I was born in Port Chester, New York, in 1956. That's enough information, right? That's all you need to know about the time and place into which I was born. From that information alone, you know exactly what Port Chester is like and what the year 1956 is all about. No? You need more information? From reading some family histories, you'd think that's all a writer needed to do to give the story its setting. Ah, if only it were that simple.

Where does your family history take place? What's the time period? You'll need to know a lot about both to describe them for your reader, but, as Noble says in "Writing Dramatic Nonfiction," "the emphasis is on 'sense,' not place." If you state in your narrative that an ancestor lived in Philadelphia, you have identified the place, but you haven't conveyed a "sense" of it. What was it like to live in Philadelphia in your ancestors' day? If you write, "The year was 1850," you've identified the time period, but not a sense of what life in 1850 was like.

Instead, describe what Philadelphia in 1850 looked like. Remember, your readers may have little or no knowledge of the way people lived then and how the city looked. Also, bare dates lend a dry, academic textbook style that you are trying to avoid. Show us the time period through the typical clothing people like your ancestors wore, the forms of lighting used in houses and on city streets, the types of furniture people had in their houses, and the modes of transportation--the social details.

Don't overwhelm your reader with description, however. When we tour Philadelphia, we don't have a bird's-eye view; we see the city piece by piece. Show readers the setting little by little in your narrative. Readers don't want a geography lesson or to feel like they are reading an almanac. Let the reader visualize the setting by describing social life in detail:

"Philadelphia was a bustling metropolis when, by 1849, the Zesingers made the area their home. The city was in a state of constant change during the mid-nineteenth century. Philadelphians were tearing down old buildings and replacing them with imposing new structures made of red sandstone, granite, and iron. More than one hundred miles of gas lines fed the city's 1,718 street lamps. Iron water pipes replaced wooden ones, so that indoor plumbing was commonplace for better housing. In poorer districts, families received their water supply from public hydrant pumps. The only way in which Philadelphia lagged behind other urban areas was in its transportation. Citizens were not in favor of introducing streetcars for fear of 'increased congestion, noise, and accident hazards.' In the 1850s, people traveled by hacks, cabs, and horse-drawn omnibuses. During deep winter snows, people used large, open sleighs drawn by four-horse teams."


Remember those county and local histories I suggested you revisit back in STEP 6 [of YOU CAN WRITE YOUR FAMILY HISTORY]? To describe the setting, you'll be using the notes you took on topography, climate, buildings, and community. Here are some items to consider adding to your narrative:

- place (describe the countryside, town, community; topography)
- time and season (describe the climate and seasonal appearance)
- architecture (describe the interior, exterior, and landscaping of homes, public buildings and outbuildings)
- artifacts (describe household furniture and objects)

If the story involves a setting where you have never been, the best case is to visit it and walk the streets, fields, and neighborhood. If that's not possible, research it. Interview someone who has been there. Remember, you don't need to break a leg to know that it would hurt; likewise, you don't need to visit an area to be able to write about it. But you do need to do thorough enough research to make sure you have accurate information. Some things you just can't experience first hand--like crossing the Atlantic in the 1600s on a sailing ship from England to America--yet you can still convey the sense of the experience by researching historical accounts of people who were there and experienced the things you want to write about.

You'll find many sources beyond county histories that will give you the type of material you need to give your readers a sense of the time period and place:

- historic photographs of the area in local history collections and in the vertical files of libraries and archives
- genealogical sources (land and tax records, city directories, agricultural schedules, manufacturing schedules, family stories)
- social histories
- travel guidebooks that offer historical information
- books on historic homes, architecture, and antiques
- books on an area's geography and topography
- maps (Sanborn fire insurance maps, topographical maps, bird's-eye view maps)
- farmer's almanacs
- newspapers

For more information about Sharon Carmack's book, YOU CAN WRITE YOUR FAMILY HISTORY, please access the following link:

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18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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