Gentle Genealogy: More Discoveries, more Delight, less Drudgery
Sounds great, right? Well I found this out as a side effect of becoming a Reformed Genealogist. All one needs is to shift your focus from collecting and researching: to resurrecting and writing. It’s called a Paradigm Shift. I am telling you it will be the best thing that ever happened to you, as a genealogist. A side benefit your family will stop rolling their eyes everytime you start talking Genealogy. Please don’t cringe at the word WRITING. I didn’t know how to write when I started, either. Stop concentrating on the writing. Just listen to your ancestors and agree to tell their stories.
Gentle Genealogy isn’t about rules and have to’s. It’s about enjoying the journey and the people you meet on your trip. In your life, when you meet someone new, do you ask: Can you tell me the date and place of your birth and the names of your parents? And may I please see your birth certificate? Well of course you don’t. If you are simply collecting ancestors to fill out your tree that’s pretty much what you are doing. If you are a “proper” genealogist you will get down every document, record all sources and have a huge collection that no one will ever look at, save you. Jolly good!
Delightful is meeting someone and learning something interesting about them. It’s finding commonalities or finding they have a story to tell. You will learn a lot from their stories, as you begin to care about them as real people. You will want to figure out all the supporting bits that help you tell their story. You may be doing more research and documentation than ever before, but instead of it being DRUDGERY, it can be DELIGHTFUL. The focus is on placing your ancestor within the context of their own lives. You need to see where they lived, how they lived. What was happening of historical significance. You need to understand that he lost two brother’s in the Civil War. Did he have survivor’s guilt? She married at 14 was she pregnant? Context matters. Now most genealogy teachers will emphasize this. However, with a Paradigm Shift you don’t need to be scolded or shamed into doing it. You can’t write their story without context. You will need to do research, because you will need it to complete your mission. Otherwise, your ancestor will remain dead and buried “six feet under.” Sadly this is the fate of most of our ancestors that fill our family trees. Show me one good story—it’s worth more than a tree full of unripe fruit.
- Pick an ancestor who you would like to resurrect
- Is there anything interesting you already know about them?
- Is there anything interesting about their name? Are they named for someone? Are they a junior? Imagine you are asking them. They can’t speak, but they tap their finger there.
- Locate where they lived. Did they live in a posh or a poor place. A log cabin or a Victorian mansion, a castle or as a servant in a Manor house.
- What story would they tell you about themselves? What would they want you to know? What are you going to ask them?
Do you see how this shifts away from collecting bits and allows you to engage in an ancestor treasure hunt for their stories. You are not forcing yourself to write about someone you know nothing about. Or that you or your audience doesn’t care about. You are a detective following clues, filling in the blanks and bringing your ancestor to life.
As for the writing part. First, give yourself permission to muck it up from the get go. Did you do a perfect job the first time you rode a bike? Of course not! The idea is to get to know this ancestor and then in a conversational tone, tell them what you found out. You might literally imagine telling your ancestor (who can’t speak) what you have found out about them. Sounds a bit weird, but try it. Or if that’s too much of stretch imagine your telling your grandmother about what you have found. When you read it out loud to her, you’ll see what’s missing. Will you need maps or pictures to help explain? Can you hear her, yes Kelly that’s right Great grandpa was in the Revolutionary War from Connecticut… As I have mentioned before if writing is just too hard—tell the story and then transcribe it. Do what works for you. It can be short (under 500 words) or quite long. I suggest if this is your first go, pick something doable in less than a week. Don’t bite off the life and times of my grandmother Ida May. Rather let it be “Ida May’s Award Winning Quilt.” Or “How John Stevens Escaped the Grim Reaper, Again.”
The idea is to build on success. If you aren’t having fun, you might need to remind yourself of your focus. It isn’t about you and how well you write—it’s about your ancestor and how to make others care about them, how to make them real. You want your reader—to laugh, to cry, to worry or to want to know more. You don’t want your reader to yawn and stop reading.
RESOURCES TO HELP YOU
- Google Maps
- Rumsey Historical Maps
- Ebay for Postcards of places or things Before 1923 they are in public domain & can be used freely
- Newspaper articles for Free at Chronicling America or The Big Project worldwide, elsewhere by subscription,
- City Registers many available Free online, others by subscription
- Sanborn Fire Maps US, British Library Fire Maps, both Free
- Archives—various archives and repositories with Free online records
- FamilySearch.org Free genealogical records
Location, Location, Location: San Francisco: A Soprano’s Aria Chapter 6 An example of Place research using GOOGLE MAPS, Sanborn Fire Maps & Historical maps to illustrate a place someone lived
Pacific Ocean, Golden Gate Park, Paradise? A Soprano’s Aria Chapter 5. Using postcards & historical maps
The Challenge: Tokyo Rose In this piece I put myself in the story defending my father in a historical context. I used the National Archives for this
Cher Ami: A Pigeon & a Poet This is a very short piece that includes a poem my grandfather wrote, a photograph from the National Archives and a photograph I had of him.
A Tale of Two Soldiers A long piece that took a couple of months to put together using lots of resources
Kelly Wheaton Copyright 2021. All Rights Reserved.