In the last month, I’ve had the great pleasure of spending time with genealogists in Flagler County, The Villages, and Sarasota. Many of them have been researching family history for thirty years or more; one woman dedicated much of the last sixty years to discovering branches of her family tree. That’s a lot of names, dates, and places, but it takes more than facts to make a story interesting, especially to someone who isn’t a genealogist.

I think of a family tree or pedigree chart as a skeleton—the parts fit nicely together and form a solid foundation—but just that doesn’t tell me all I want to know. I need some flesh on those bones, and the flesh comes through story.

If we’re fortunate enough to have journals and diaries from those who went before us, they may give us the details we need to flesh out our genealogical skeleton. Maybe our ancestors were involved in well documented historical events, and we can glean information from the writing done about that time period. If they were wealthy—if only that were true in my family—you’ll probably have newspaper articles written about them, wills, real estate transactions, and so forth to provide some of those desired details. But what do you do if they were just ordinary people, trying to survive and provide for their families? What if they didn’t leave much of a footprint other than in our hearts and minds?

Don’t get discouraged. You can still write interesting stories by putting the information you have into context. What the heck does that mean? I’ll tell you. Many educated people have spent countless hours researching what life was like in bygone eras, what ocean travel entailed, what people wore, ate, did for entertainment, what their homes looked like, so we need to make use of this information. While it’s not specific to our ancestors, it definitely helps give us a sense of what their lives were like.

Where do you get this great information? Most importantly, you want to make sure the data comes from a reliable source. The internet is a great tool, but you can find some wacky stuff out there. Look for reputable sites, so you don’t end up referencing some sixth grader’s report of a book he never read.

One of the best sites to harvest background information for genealogical writing is Genwriters, Genwriters calls itself the “online source to add life to your family history,” and it provides links and other resources to help you do just that. Even though the site doesn’t appear to be updated anymore, the information that remains is excellent.

For example, if I want to know what an ancestor in the Civil War era might have worn, I can follow the links provided by Genwriters and read about characteristic clothing for men, women, and children of that day. In most cases, we don’t have images of the people we’re writing about, so to give some type of physical description, we can describe what they may have looked like based on ethnic characteristics, images we have of their offspring, and what people of that time typically wore. Using research we have against a backdrop of this general information can paint an interesting portrait.

So, tell me, how do you fill in the blanks when writing about your ancestors? What tools have you found helpful to give you background information?

If you’d like to learn more tips like this one and get concentrated help on how to write the stories of your ancestors, register for my Raising the Dead: Writing about Your Ancestors Workshop on Saturday, February 16th.

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