Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Roots and Branches - Writing up Family History - by Cecilia Peartree

In case you are worried that I'm going to go into detail here about my rather prosaic middle-of-the road Scottish family in which nobody seems to have committed a crime, been transported, ended up in the workhouse or done anything much to change the course of history, don't panic! I just wanted to run through a few options for writing up or otherwise recording family history, mostly because I've been researching for well over 10 years and I'm still not sure what to do with all the information. I'm hoping that setting out various options will make it clearer to me at least.

Of course as a self-published fiction writer my thoughts immediately turn to producing an actual book, and I have probably done enough research and have enough pictures now to fill a few chapters, although there is always the urge to try and go back a bit further and find out a bit more before starting. I doubt very much whether anyone outside the immediate family will be at all interested in reading the complete text.  Having said that, my family have shown no interest in their history up to now, but I know from watching ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ how exciting it can be for someone from a future generation to find their ancestor has written up an account of part of their life. I am in touch with quite a few distant relatives – which is one of the many hazards or, more charitably, benefits, of doing this kind of research!  – who might like to see certain chunks of it too, and at least one who will undoubtedly offer a critique of my interpretation.

If nothing else, taking a decision about how to go about this will, I hope, deter me from acquiring any more scrapbooks, photograph albums or family tree databases, although no doubt some other excuse to get hold of these will come along any minute now. One problem with scrapbooks is that you can also buy all sorts of twiddly bits with which to decorate the pages and, as in the case of any other type of stationery, I can never resist getting hold of some of these whenever I see them attractively displayed. I’ve even used a scrapbook to record one of our family holidays, and I hope I’ll enjoy browsing through it one day when I am too decrepit to go on any more holidays or to engage in any other kind of fun! More recently I’ve discovered photobooks and have frittered away many a happy hour creating them for holidays and family occasions.

I’ve realised while writing this post – as I hoped, it’s turning out to be a useful exercise – that my initial task should really be one of collating the material. This consists of family photographs, birth and death certificates derived from various sources, newspaper cuttings, a printed book which is a memoir of my birth family, and notes taken over the years in archives and libraries. The material is fairly randomly distributed amongst various folders, boxes and albums and on computers and cds as well as in some online repositories where it is part of a larger family tree created by a group of related people. At this point I need to remind myself about what kinds of material are copyright to various other people - for instance all the official documents I've acquired really belong to various branches of government, mostly the Scottish government in this case. In case you're looking very closely at the picture and wondering what the booklets about Norfolk are doing in my collection, yes I did somewhat unexpectedly find an ancestor who was born in 1800 in Burnham Overy - the first one I came across who had been born outside Scotland!
At this very moment I’m trying to restrain myself from deciding to catalogue the material properly, on a database, since that is probably a delaying tactic as well as being uncannily similar to my day job.
I think I am probably on a fruitless quest when I look for one solution that brings all the material together and presents a coherent picture of the whole family on all sides for all potential audiences. But once I’ve finished the physical process of collating the material, what then?

Well, I suppose the next step will be to establish boundaries for any writing up that’s going to take place. Should I, for instance, transcribe my mother’s travel journals and incorporate them? How much information should I incorporate about the places where my ancestors lived and the historical events they may have witnessed? I read a book a while ago about how to write up your family history and it seemed to suggest including an awful lot about what the weather was like. I know this is a favoured topic with British people, but unless something really extreme was happening at the time it seems to me that this may be a step too far.

This is where my fiction writing experience should come in useful, I suppose. A lot of the skill in writing fiction, it seems to me, is in knowing where the boundaries of the story should lie – where to start, where to finish and how widely it should roam in between. Just because my family history research so far has been messy and incomplete and ragged at the edges, doesn’t mean I can’t make a coherent narrative out of at least some of it. That’s what I’ll keep telling myself, anyway.


Bill Kirton said...

A fascinating and, I'm sure, ultimately satisfying project, Cecilia. I wish I had your patience and dedication because the thought of coming across some unknown ancestor and fleshing out his/her life is exciting. But if my genetic codes are anything to go by, mine will all be too lazy to have left any significant marks. (Although I'm tempted to kearn more of my great-grandmother who was someone of astonishing power and achievements, especially for a woman in Edwardian England.) Good luck with the book.

Anonymous said...

Go for it, daunting though it may feel. I'm particularly taken by your question of how much to paint in the contemporary scene. I would think you find yourself doing this inevitably, as ancestors react to and take decisions based on events and cultural climate around them. (I wouldn't bother about the weather though, unless someone ends up giving birth in a snowdrift or something.).

Bill, now I'm dying to know about your high-achieving great- grandmother! More please.