A few weeks ago, I gave a presentation at a local public library about “Sharing the Stories of your Ancestors.” I collected and sampled some great ways to uncover and share your family stories, so I’d like to share a summary of my presentation with you!
Perhaps you have already done some genealogy research. Perhaps you have some great family photos and heirlooms sitting in the back of your closet. Perhaps you have some cherished childhood memories, or stories passed down from your parents or grandparents. And perhaps you are passionate about genealogy, but your family is not as interested in hearing the old stories.
You likely have some family stories or photos that you are eager to share with others, but with so many options available, you may not know where to begin. This post series will be a basic introduction to help you get started sharing these stories. I’ll share tips for sharing the stories that you already have, uncovering hidden stories in your research, describe some basic storytelling elements to help you share the stories effectively, and talk about some of the various platforms for sharing your family stories. The options are endless, and include writing and oral histories, using photo and video, using social media, and more.
Why should we share our family stories?
There’s an African proverb that says, “When an elder dies, a library burns to the ground.” Be sure to pass the “books” of your own library onto others before your library burns. Preserving family stories is the most important reason for sharing your family stories. It’s important to capture the unique stories that we know, preserve them so they are not lost.
I’ve always felt that we don’t own our family history. Our history is collective history, and is meant to be passed down to future generations. Even if others in your family aren’t very interested in the stories now, in many decades from now, they will most likely appreciate that you’ve taken the time to preserve these family stories. You need to be the bridge between your past and the future.
Knowledge of one’s family history builds strong family connections, especially with children. You may also connect with extended family or distant cousins through sharing these family stories. And, your family didn’t exist in a bubble. Their actions and their stories may involve neighbors, organizations, military history, local history that will overlap with others. You may build connections with others who share a similar history.
What stories do I want to share?
You may already know which of your stories that you want to share first. However, if you are having trouble deciding on a project or choosing a set of stories, ask yourself these questions:
- What stories do I already know well?
- Which stories are the most important to me and my family?
- What is my goal? (Is it to make your children or grandchildren interested in family history? Is it to simply preserve these stories for others? Is it to connect with distant relatives?)
- Who is my audience? (Your immediate family? Extended family? Distant cousins? The genealogy community online? The local community?)
- What is my scope? (Do you want to share stories from just one branch of your family, just from yourself, or your entire family history?)
You can’t share all your family stories all at once. When you’re first starting on a storytelling project, pick the stories that are most important to you, and that fit with your audience, scope, and goal.
Finding stories to tell
Every family and every individual has amazing stories that they can tell. However, if you’re stumped at where to start, start with yourself! What makes you you? Or, start with stories that you know very well. For example, I knew my maternal grandparents very well, because I saw them nearly every day when I was growing up. Many of their stories are my go-to stories, such as the story of my grandmother in the Navy WAVES during WWII. (I’ve shared this story several times on this blog!)
If one of your goals is to share your family history with your close family, make connections between them and their past. For example, do musical talents run in your family? Does a living family member share similar characteristics to their ancestor? Is there a shared interest in a hobby, occupation or sport? Did family members attend a similar school, or participate in the same school activities?
You can also get inspired by family treasures that you already have. Look through family albums and photos, heirlooms, family recipes, letters, diaries, or yearbooks. Think of special family traditions or make connections to current events. Talk to family members to see what they’d like to learn about the family, or swap stories to trigger old memories. You aren’t going to have a story to tell about each and every one of your ancestors; you may only have lots of stories about one relative. That’s okay; tell the stories that you know, and that mean the most to you, and would mean the most to your audience.
Digging a little deeper to find the hidden stories
If one of your goals is to share family stories from further back in your family tree, you may not be able to rely on living memory or family artifacts to bring you the story. You may need to do a little more digging to uncover more of the story or to confirm details.
First, take account of what you do know. A story needs to be more than reciting birth and death dates, but you can start with those kinds of facts. What facts do you have about a certain family? This includes birth, marriage, death information, their occupation, where they lived, who lived in their household, which church they went to, and anything else you know about them. Talk to other family members if possible to see if they remember different bits about the family. What tidbits or stories do you know about them? What do the facts themselves tell you? What kinds of things can be inferred from the facts? What questions still need to be answered for you to find a story?
Then, do a little bit of research to provide more context to your story. Learn about the area in which the story takes place. Learn more about what kinds of clothes they wore, what kind of house they had, what tools they used, traditions that they had, where they did their shopping, and what they did for fun. Brand new stories or previously unknown details can be found in newspapers, letters, and other written treasures. Photographs, maps, and everyday antiques may help support your story. Contact local libraries, historical societies, museums, and archives to see what you can learn. At your local library, I recommend asking for this book to help guide you with your background research: Bringing Your Family History to Life through Social History, by Katherine Scott Sturdevant.
Storytelling for Family History
Whether you decide to share your family stories out loud, in writing, using images, or another way, it’s important to use the basic elements of storytelling to craft your stories. These elements will help you make your story interesting, engaging, and more powerful. To learn more about storytelling, visit the website of my UIUC storytelling professor, Kate McDowell. I gained some essential storytelling skills in her course during my last semester at UIUC.
A storyteller first needs to understand the three players of each story: the storyteller, the audience, and the story itself. As a storyteller, you need to have a clear idea of your audience and how they will receive your story. They make take the story and decide to retell it on their own, taking the story to a new audience. You also need to know your story well, and be able to adapt it to fit your audience. As a teller, be sure to tell the story in your own words, and use your own voice. Most of the time, a story in a voice other than your own will seem forced and inauthentic, or take away from the power of the story.
By knowing your story well, you will need to lay out your story using the three basic elements of every story: character, setting, and plot. Be sure to describe the characters and setting enough for the audience. Who is part of the story? What are they like? How do the characters relate to each other? Where and when does this story take place? What is it like there? Use engaging details that you learned from doing a little bit of background research to make the story come alive. Think of questions that your audience may have about the characters and setting, and then try to provide answers to those questions ahead of time within your story.
All stories should have some kind of plot and story structure. What are the characters doing? What is happening in the story? All stories should have the basic structure of a beginning/introduction, climax and ending. You’ll set the scene and introduce the characters in your introduction, and introduce the situation that the characters are facing. All following actions and details should eventually reach a climax or turning point. What is the most important event in the story that made an impact on your characters? After the climax, the story should quickly wrap up in a resolution. How was the action resolved? What happened as a result of the actions of the story? In the conclusion, the audience should be able to tell, Why is this story important? What is the point of the story?
Whenever I’m writing or recording a story, I think of these basic story elements to make sure that my stories are focused and interesting. Am I providing enough detail so that my audience has a clear picture of the characters, setting, and plot of my story? Am I focused on the story, or am I getting lost in the details? Do I have a clear beginning, climax, and ending, or am I rambling?
Getting prepared for your project
Once you’ve decided that you’re going to share some of your family stories, you usually need to do a little prep work before you dive into your new project. Be sure to choose a project or method that matches your own goals, audience, scope, preferences and skills. You can start with a smaller project that you feel very comfortable with, and then take on more challenging projects later. Many projects benefit from visuals, so gather photos, videos, etc. that go along with your stories. Get them scanned if needed. Talk to family members and recruit them to help you with your storytelling project. They can contribute their own stories, memories, photos, or expertise. Be sure to keep track of your sources, even if it’s your own memories. Make a short plan of your project, and then, take the plunge! Get sharing!
My next post will be full of ideas for sharing your family history stories! Stay tuned!