For our Tuesday blog posts this month, the Paper Lantern Writers will be sharing some things that make us grateful. I’ll start with Ancestor Stories.
Like many historical fiction writers, I’ve found inspiration in ancestor stories. These stories have shown me saints behaving badly and scoundrels embracing their better angels. They’ve given me confidence in my inherited tendencies and warned me not to take myself too seriously. Finding out more about who and where I came from has ultimately given me hope for where I’m going.
These stories have also provided great material for writing projects.
The challenge for any writer sharing an ancestor’s story is to avoid a tired recitation of “Great-Grandpa Jeb was born in____, married Great-Grandma Alice, worked hard, lived a good life and died in ____ (yawn)?
So, how do you tell an ancestor’s story in a way that an unrelated reader would want to read it? Here are three things I’ve learned about successfully retelling an ancestor’s life.
First – Drill Down. Concrete details create a unique story. For example, in The Casket Maker’s Other Wife, my protagonist starts her journey in a small village outside Zurich. She will soon emigrate to America for a number of reasons, but one is the appeal of a new, unblemished country. In my research I discovered that Switzerland, like much of 19th century Europe, was struggling with the downsides of the industrial revolution. Rivers would often run a murky red from all the textile factories’ dye runoff. I don’t know if my ancestor or her husband’s family had something to do with these factories, but they were certainly affected by them. As a fiction writer I could use the polluted water detail to engage a modern reader.
Second – Think Big. Determine universal themes that transcend the particular historical period or individuals. For Maude & Early, my current work-in-progress, a major theme is accepting our hidden identities. One character is a closeted gay woman, the other comes from an undisclosed mixed-race ancestry. Their interactions threaten to expose their secrets. Both these secrets would have had major consequences in the early part of the 20th century. But they would have consequences today as well. A small ancestral story inspired some occupational details for one of these characters, but family records don’t reveal their actual secrets (though I believe everyone has them). Again, as a fiction writer, I can use that void to explore big themes that are relevant today.
Kathryn created an All Souls or Day of the Dead Altar to honor and connect with ancestors she’s written about.
Third – Move Beyond the Family Tree. Most tedious family history stories are often just a recitation of the family tree. And as I’ve described, small details and big themes are the elements that will help bring an ancestor story to life. Research will provide both, but I’ve also found it useful to step away from the computer from time to time. That way I can get to know my ancestors without reading or writing about them.
This past weekend, for example, I created an All Souls Day or Day of the Dead altar on my dining table. To incorporate natural elements, I gathered bay laurel branches from the open space across from my house along with fallen acorns from my yard that had escaped the Steller’s Jays. For color, I added sunflowers and marigolds from the supermarket. Once the stage was set, I laid out photographs of selected ancestors along with small dishes of food I either recalled they liked (if I’d known them in their lifetime) or knew they would have eaten (and hopefully liked) in the place and time they lived.
Immersing myself in this physical exploration of their lives, rather than reading or writing about them was both calming and enlightening. Over the last few days as I’ve revisited this display I’ve felt an added dimension to our connection. Of the four women I chose to focus on—two great-great-grandmothers who inspired my novels and the two grandmothers I knew in this life, none were big storytellers. But they do have stories to tell . . .if only a descendent will tell them and tell them well.
Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.