Sunday, May 19, 2013

Sterile Facts vs. a Person’s Story

Angel asks:
”I have a question that may elicit some controversy, so it is not my wish to create drama on your blog. I am simply interested to see what the majority of your readers will reply. If you choose to answer privately, that's ok, too. Your blog on Maggie [see
Eating Their Young] made me think to write you, as I have been pondering this for a while. I have made a personal choice to 'do my own thing' but wonder how deeply ingrained these stigmas go in the world of genealogists.  My question is: Is it better to follow the established route of doing genealogical research and presenting your facts, or create a lasting memorial that reads like a story? I realize that the first choice is essential to having accurate facts, but it seems to me that people either follow one route or another. I noticed with interest that the topic of 'telling your story' seems to be the latest thing, and I think its because people do research for a while, all fired up and then lose interest and nothing ends up being communicated. What are your thoughts on this? Should a family history read like an encyclopedia or be a mix of creativity and facts?”

Reducing an ancestor to a list of vital statistics is doing the ancestor an injustice.  Of course you want to find the exact places and dates for all of the events in a person’s life but that is merely the skeleton of the story.  You need to dig deeper into that person’s life.  You said, “Should a family history read like an encyclopedia or be a mix of creativity and facts?”  I don’t believe in “creativity” to the point that you are making things up.  You can give an opinion about something but you need to label it as such.  There are words such as possibly, probably, likely, and most likely that will help you out with this.  You can also make some general assumptions if those assumptions are clearing coming from your deductive reasoning and not written in such a way that your reader will be lead to believe you are stating hard fact. 

For example, let’s say I have an ancestor that was listed as a farmer on the census records.  Instead of just mentioning it I would want to also look at the land and tax records to find out how much property he had and I would also want to look at the agricultural schedule to see what crops and livestock he raised.  Being able to give specifics about the farm makes the story so much more interesting.  I wouldn’t write everything I found in a list format but rather in a conversational paragraph style.  I want you to be able to visualize the farm not just view it as a list of how many cows and horses he had.  You could go so far as comparing this farm to the surrounding ones.  You could talk a little bit about the neighbors (also found on the census records).  Maybe throw in some general information about what farm life was like in this area during this time period.  There are all kinds of books out there that can give you this sort of background information (cited of course!)

You can also add some details about what was going on in that area during that time that would give your reader some idea of the social and political climate.  Was there a war going on?  An epidemic?  A drought?  This would give them a sense of what sort of things your ancestor was having to deal with.  All of these details bring your ancestor to life.

Another thing that readers like are photographs.  Even if you don’t have a photo of the ancestor you can put a photo of their grave marker or a scenic photo of the area where they lived.  You can put images of the obituary or any other interesting documents like maybe a hand written letter or a piece of their Civil War service record.  You can also draw out land plats showing where your ancestor lived in relation to others mentioned in your report.  The goal is to make the report so interesting that people can’t help but want to read it.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. Great answer and thank you for the detailed info, Michele. :)
    Just to clarify, when I mentioned "creativity" I meant graphics, audio, video, etc. not making things up...ack! the death knell for those of us slaving away at the census rolls

  2. I think photos and illustrations jazz the report up and give it more interest. I have never went so far as adding audio or video though.

  3. Michele,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!

  4. You put it all together, Michele: including facts, spicing up the story with docs, photos and history of the times, but not overdoing it. A dry list of factual data can make for a very dull report but excess art, graphics etc., to pad a weak story is not the answer either. A combination of facts and graphics, woven into the family story are what make people want to read it and perhaps find out even more. Great post on this topic!