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

Chinese Proverb

Is your memoir about someone in your family who lived in a different erea? An intergenerational experience? Perhaps, like mine, it’s a dual biography of a parent and memoir?
If you’re writing a memoir that includes a lot of family history, you’ll encounter unique problems. If you want to get it published (ie. rather than use it as a legacy document you pass to your loved ones), you will need to narrow your focus in certain ways. Here are three important considerations when you’re writing a narrative nonfiction that involves elements of biography and history…

Identify the universal themes

They key with making narrative nonfiction with family history elements readable to a wider audience is identifying what others can related to, or would connect with, regardless of whether you’re related or not.
For example – if your relative was one of the British Matchstick women of the 1880’s, you’d identify those themes of feminism, rising up against the patriarchy, and strong women throughout time. You’d also search for books – fiction or non-fiction – which tell stories of such women in really compelling ways.

TIP: Your family history should only be included in-so-far as it relates to the central theme or quest of your story. No need to devote chapters to your great grandmother’s life – that can be cut down to lines and paragraphs woven into how it connects with YOUR quest in the memoir. Because remember that memoir is always YOUR story.

OK – now that I’ve cleared that up, I want to 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!

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 your story and experience – so their life is only relevant in terms of how the two intersect.

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.

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 behaviour 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 themes 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!).

In summary:

It’s easy to get lost in the details of researching aspects of your family history. And, in truth, it can be never-ending… You could spend the next ten years researching! But you need to give yourself a deadline, and narrow the focus, if you want to finish the book and make it compelling to a wider audience.

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