Weaving family history into your memoir

“To know the road ahead, ask someone coming back”

Chinese Proverb


If you’re writing a memoir that includes a lot of family history, you’ll encounter unique problems.

For example, perhaps you want to write about how your life connects to that of your ten grandmothers. How do you even begin to know how they lived, loved, and felt, if they’ve long since left this earth? What if you don’t even have a photo of them?

But more importantly – how do you write about people you’ve never met, and how does it connect to your story? Because memoir is, in essence, your story.

TIP: Your family history should only be included in-so-far as it relates to the central theme or quest of your memoir.

This post will share three aspects of the writing process you need to keep in mind if your memoir involves the tricky ghost-filled labyrinth of family history!

I have a very special invitation for those of you who’d love to see a memoir being prepared for a publisher at the end of this post.


1: Have a cut-off for your research

Researching our family history can take us down 101 different paths and roads, 208 google searches, tonnes of archives.

There really is no end-point. From ancestry.com to Facebook, Trove, Service Records and even google books, we have the blessing of so many global records at our fingertips.

But here’s the rub – it has to end somewhere.

I once met a man who had been researching his grandfather’s life for two years. Two years! He was obsessed with Trove and had yet to start writing the draft.

While I’m sure he’d uncovered some amazing facts in his (extensive) research, there comes a time where you have to be disciplined and say “OK, I’m going to start the writing, now” or you will never be published. Having a cut-off also forces some part of the creative brain to come to certain conclusions, too. You can’t stay in a place of questioning for years and years on end. It’s just not healthy.

Give yourself a cut-off date. 

Once I learned that my dad’s papers were stored in at least 11 library collections (dozens of boxes, each containing dozens of folders. Can you imagine how hard it was to have an end-date to that?!) AND that there were over a dozen books that referenced him, I had to give myself a deadline or I never would have started writing the first draft of A Letter From Paris.

You will NEVER know every single detail about someone’s life, whether they’re here or not. And memoir is about how it connects to you, anyway, so there is some leeway.
Memoir is not an academic text on someone’s life history. Memoir is how their life connects to the central theme(s) in yours.

So give yourself a cut-off date for the research whether it’s 3, 6 or 12 months from now.

TIP: Keep a diary while you’re doing the research, because you’ll go back to your first emotional reactions to certain pieces of information when you’re drafting the book. See here for more on keeping a journal for memoir.

The writing is when things get interesting…

2: Honour your ancestors with these writing prompts

Something I found really hard while writing about my dad in A Letter From Paris was the very fact that he’s no longer here.

How could I check I was factually correct? Would he agree with what i was saying about what he did? While I did everything I could to cross-reference dates, times and diary entries (it was a semi-biography of his life, too), certain things had to come from my own internal connections. This is when the writing gets interesting.

I still remember a creative writing exercise from Year 12 English, where we had to re-write an alternative ending to a book. I read and re-read Beverly Farmer’s Home Time until I sort of internalized her voice, and re-wrote the ending based on that.

I remember how sacred and spooky this all felt and how beautiful, too. I used similar exercises when it came to writing the connections between dad and me for A Letter From Paris. You can use a part of a sentence and then finish it, from something your ancestor wrote in a letter. Or you could study their grammar to syntax to an audio or visual material you may have, to bring the connection in to your own writing.
Writing is a form of shamanism, in some ways – it has the power to bring in people, thoughts, places which may no longer physically exist or be in front of our eyes. It’s so powerful. Writing stories is a way of creating living things out of nothing, and this is very sacred and very powerful.

One of the beautiful ways you can honour your loved ones if you’re incorporating them into your memoir is to lay out some written material – even if it’s just a receipt, a letter, a signature, a date – and use that as a jumping point for the connection with your own life.

You can use the following prompts whether their experiences were good or bad, whether you approve of their behavior or not… Whether your relative was a criminal or anything else. Your memoir is your story, yes, but remember that you’re only including this relative if and where and how their story connects to you and yours.

Find the connection and make it come back through ritual.

Family history is just that – interesting to no-one but you and your relatives. But what’s universal – and interesting as memoir – is the connections you can draw between your relatives and the central theme or quest of your memoir.

Finding the connections – some prompts 

  • How would you feel, going through what you’ve learned they went through?
  • What physical / economic / environmental /political constraints were they under, that you’ve never had to experience? Imagine them.
  • What do you think they’d want you to learn or know about that experience?
  • If they knew someone 50 or 100 years later was thinking about their life, how do you think they’d feel? How does that make you feel?
  • What opportunities do you have, that they didn’t?
  • Or conversely, what opportunities did they have, that you don’t?
  • How does that make you feel – and does it prompt any memories?
  • How would they want you to live, knowing what you do about how they lived? I love this one 🙂
3: Devote a portion of your research time to good record-keeping

This is one thing I didn’t do from the beginning with A Letter From Paris, which would have saved me so much time later. I didn’t back up my phone for a year from when I found dad’s library archives. Oops! Three thousand photos uploaded to Dropbox took almost 20 hours, AND a very scary moment when i thought i’d lost everything.

I did, however, start a chronological file from day one, which I added to, every time I found a new piece of information with a date on it (because so much of dad’s stuff was undated, this was important), and recorded exactly where I found it, in which box (box numbers are important when you’re working through 150 of them!).

Looking up global news stories on these pertinent dates when your relative went through something intense can add so much to the story. Keep a record of dates, if you can.

A special offer for those of you working on a memoir

Speaking of dates, at the very end of my library research for A Letter From Paris, as in, the very end – I’d worked my way through all the 1940s and 1950s boxes of letters, I looked in the 1970’s box. And there it was.
A complete manuscript for a travel memoir my dad had written about life in France in the 1940s and 1950s. A love story, an ode to France, a guidebook which mentioned people, places and figures in the first-person I’d only ever read of in history books.

It somehow wound up in the 1970’s box at the library by accident.

It’s my dearest wish to bring this precious manuscript out of the archives and into the digital realm. Currently, to view it, you need to make an appointment to view it physically in a special room at the State Library in Victoria. No good if you’re interested in Post-War Paris or artists living in France in the 1940s and 50s and live in the United States!

In an effort to think how I could work on this project but still keep teaching memoir, I created a kickstarter campaign “backer’s reward” where you get password-protected posts on how I’m crafting the material (along with other archival material) for publication.

Think of it as a 3-step course for writing memoir that has family history – but you get to watch the process as it unfolds. I’ll share the decisions I’m making in what goes into the proposal, what gets added from the letters and diaries, and more. It will be a little like watching a book get edited, too. But the course will be delivered via password-protected email.

Time centric – Kickstarter is all-or-nothing and campaign ends on April 27

With that particular reward, you also get your own copy of this precious memoir as soon as it’s published! The campaign ends on April 27 , so please hop on in and sign up for Three Password-Protected Process Updates if you’d like it to both learn how to re-work your memoir and help me bring one out of the archives at the same time.

I’ll be sharing the ‘classes’ through password-protected blog posts with step-by-step material of how I’m working through the manuscript and making certain editing and writing decisions (adding other material from the letters and diaries to strengthen the manuscript).
When I work with other people, I can’t show you exactly how I’m re-working a manuscript (which is a really great way to learn – and how i learned, from my amazing editors at Scribe and Allen and Unwin), so I figured this would be a unique way to be able to show you.

If you want to watch this memoir project unfold in real-time, I’d love you to join the fun on kickstarter you’ll be bringing something very very special out of the archives and into the digital realm, at the same time!

Thank you to those who have already backed the project, and i hope this post has helped you with your writing.




About the Author:

I write, read and teach memoir. I'm a paper cut survivor from way back. I love cats, kindness and coffee.

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