Perhaps the hardest part of writing your family history is putting everything together. Most “books are not written but accumulate” (Atkinson). Each subject will be unique and require different types of research and structure. Some are organized deductively, others inductively. You may know how you want to organize your work at the outset or the structure may develop organically. Mary Clearman Blew says, “The boundaries of creative nonfiction will always be as fluid as water.” Here are some ideas on how to combine your thoughts imaginatively bu coherently.
Be selective. Eliminate clutter. You can’t possibly use everything you find, and if you did, you might be the only one interested in it. Avoid the temptation to tell the complete story of the family from the Old Country to today. One family tree is worth a thousand words. “Successful family writers limit themselves to specific issues, persons, or periods” (Gouldrup). Perhaps you may want to focus on one living family member, and work your genealogical research into his/her life, with him/her at the center. Or, perhaps focus on yourself and your search for your “roots” (and why) as the center, making it an autobiography/family history.
Make a point. “A story is a meaningful pattern of events” (Rainer). There should be a sense of reflection. Make connections between a person’s/family’s life and its significance in a more universal sense. “Stories remembered within a community or family transport the beliefs and values of past generations into the future” (Rainer).
Your family history must have some sort of continuity: chronological, universal (taste for adventure), geographic, career or talent, or historical. The purpose and audience for your work will be the determining factor in this decision.
Borrow narrative devices from fiction, like dialogue, conflict and crises, and dramatic scenes. (Imagine your family history as a movie.) Add movement and action to your stories. Establish dominant impressions of people and places.
Transcend the event and philosophize. Intersperse Summaries, Scenes, and Musing (Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir). Sometimes you will need to cover a lot of time in a few paragraphs while at other times you may want to zoom in and focus on a shorter span of time or a particular incident. Summary can move time along between scenes. Musing involves reflection, making a judgment, sharing an insight, or expressing an opinion. Try to find an appropriate balance between the three elements.
In Your Life as Story: Writing the New Autobiography, Tristine Rainier offers these structural models. She believes that “In its simplest form a story is: what you wanted, how you struggled, and what you realized out of that struggle . . . the consequence.”
The shape of most traditional, full biographies/autobiographies. The person’s life is imagined as a continuous line (a long loaf) stretching from birth to the present. The life could be divided by chapters into years, decades, or pivotal events.
This form focuses on one period of a person’s life, usually centered on a pivotal event.
With this technique, the writer chooses a particular theme or dramatic line, skipping over months, years, or even decades that are irrelevant to the particular story. “When you read a work that runs an Embroidery Thread through a Single Slice, it can feel much like a modern novel.
Examples of Thematic Threads could include conflicts and resolution, stepping stones, or relationships.
In this structure, each story or chapter stands on its own, but looked at together, tell a larger story. In quiltlike stories, the attempt to create smooth transitions is dispensed with in favor of tighter unity within each chapter or story. In quiltlike stories, there are often a series of problem/realizations that lead up to a final realization.
Transparencies are complicated structures that superimpose two or three single slices of time to tell multiple, complementary stories. It is a very complex and artful structure and Rainer believes it shouldn’t be used unless it is the only way your story can be told. The integration of overlapping stories in different time frames runs the risk of becoming terribly confusing and too mechanical.
Many life stories, especially religious quests, adventure stories, and success stories in a chosen vocation or profession lend themselves to a Quest structure. At Point A, the Hero’s Goal is Set. At Point B, the Hero’s Goal Achieved (or not) and wisdom attained. Rainer lists Nine Essential Elements in this archetypal (mythic) pattern:
1. Initiating Incident (something happens)
2. Problem/Need (established at beginning to be resolved at end)
3. Desire Line (what you want to happen as result of problem)
4. Struggle with Adversity (conflict–within or without)
5. Interim Pivotal Events (events that lead to final crisis)
6. Precipitating Event (pivotal event that forces a crisis)
7. Crisis (narrows options so that choice has to be made)
8. Climax (something dies so that something can live)
9. Realization (desire is satisfied, disappointed, or transformed)