So today I got my first email from the Family History Writing Challenge! The Family History Writing Challenge is a project of the famous Armchair Genealogist, Lynn Palermo. I enjoy getting her daily emails throughout the whole month of February every year. They’re chocked full of expert advice and encouragement on the subject of writing genealogy in story form.
Many of us love researching our genealogy and family history, but–let's just be honest here–the majority of our family members (even very close or immediate family) maybe don't share the same excitement that we do in the names and details in an old hard-to-read record or, perhaps, the joy in seeing all the names, places, and dates on a Family Group Sheet. We may have the vision that's able to see the story behind the lives of all those names, but most of us fail to communicate that vision we see in a way that our non-genealogist family can understand or at least enjoy.
The true success of our work–and whether it actually serves to preserve the memory of our ancestors–really hinges on this art of communicating the story. It's the difference between our work, decades from now, having a prominent place in the family library or coffee table, or it being relegated to the corner of a dusty attic (or worse, getting tossed or left behind in a family move).
I know a number of hard-core genealogists on different sides of my family who spent their whole lives doing research and now, having been deceased a few years, one's work has been completely destroyed except for a single letter of her mother's (which something like four people out of a family of hundreds even knows exists). The other family genealogist had compiled hundreds of pages of Family Group Sheets, but failed to document any of them. Now that she’s gone and no one can ask her, some of the listed facts are useless, because I can’t verify them, and I know there’s a few items that are incorrect (but now how do I know which ones, now that new information has arisen, having no sources). Her collection is kept by her daughter, but no one in the family really gets to see it and all her life’s work was basically a waste, except it being simply a way she enjoyed spending her time (that’s fine I suppose, but in a way it could be much more impactful and less selfish to have shared it in a way other's could've benefitted).
The art of storytelling is an ancient part of who we are. It has always been, and always will be, the most powerful form of communication. The ancient Gaelic seanchaí was a bard (poet), storyteller, and historian. They were an integral and very honored part of ancient and medieval Irish culture, preserving and–by way of preserving–presenting the family’s history and oral tradition to each generation (i.e., preserved by presenting the story to the next generation in a way interesting enough that they would want to preserve it as well). It’s because of these storytellers that we have the Irish folklore and history that we do.
Personally, I’ve taken the time to write down hundreds of pages of my family’s stories…stories that would now be lost, otherwise. Stories from my one of my grandpas, who passed in 2011, about his childhood, legends about where their family come from, stuff that no one else would've ever known, except I asked and wrote. Other stories from my great grandma, about who her real grandpa was (not what the census says), dozens of pages of not only stories from the early 1900s, but also about her parents and grandparents and how they lived, particulars of where they lived and how they cooked, gardened, folk remedies, and details about an era long lost and forgotten. I’ve not got it completely organized and published yet, but at least the stories are written down and if I never touched them again, they would at least be in a state that others could understand and benefit from.
On my Dougherty side, I’ve taken the time to write out my research journey from start to finish of breaking past my brick-wall ancestor and adding four more generations paternally–and it’s fully documented with credible sources for every fact. Nothing is left for the reader to guess, and all the facts can be verified. I tried my best to write it in a way that would be easy to read, though I maybe am not following Ms. Palermo’s advice to perfection, as it’s more of the narrative of my research journey (but isn't that a story in itself). This is very helpful in proving my case, as the fifth and final pillar of the Genealogical Proof Standard is that “The conclusion has been soundly reasoned and coherently written.”
Anyway, I just thought I’d share a link in case you want to sign up for her daily emails for this February (https://www.familyhistorywritingchallenge.com/).
Happy researching...and just as importantly... Happy writing!
Will Dougherty III