Storytelling Fundamentals for Genealogists

The art of storytelling has a long and glorious history impacting all facets of our culture and society.  Before the days of written history, stories were the way history was handed down from one generation to the next.  Yet, stories are deceptively simple in their makeup.

Story Structure

At their core, a story is composed of a series of events which make up its plot or storyline.  Events are meaningful changes in a character’s life that transforms her world from one state into another.  Throughout a story, the main character goes through a series of events which take her closer or farther way from her goal eventually leading to the story’s climax where the main character either achieves her goal or fails to achieve it.

Genealogist’s Take on Storytelling

As genealogists, we already have a pile of documents collected on our ancestors describing important events in their lives.  These are the building block events that will make up our storyline.  The challenge of storytelling is finding ways to transform these cold hard facts into a story that will fascinate our readers.  This article describes techniques that can be used to create stories that will be cherished, preserved and passed on to future generations by family members.

Key 1: Never Make Anything Up

Genealogists who endeavor to capture their family stories are writing works of non-fiction.  They absolutely must resist the urge to spice things up by taking liberties with characters or events.  Adding anything that is non-factual can call your integrity into question and damage your reputation.  Although this may seem very restrictive, there are ways you can add interesting detail to your story without making anything up.  Read on to find out how.

Key 2: Mix in Historical Context

One excellent way to add spice to your story is to weave in historical context.  What I mean by this is to take inventory of the major events happening at the time your ancestors were living and insert references to them into your story. 

Of course, you don’t want to force fit random events into your storytelling, but integrate those that had an obvious impact on their lives.  Below are examples of what are arguably two of the most significant events of the 20th century and how you might want to view their impact on your family.

Example #1

Keep in mind that, although your ancestors may not have been directly affected by the Great Depression of the 1930’s as they lived on their farm, but they lived with the fear and dread of seeing their neighbors’ farms sold at auction and their community members struggling for their very survival.  Most people who lived through this time-period were deeply affected by their experiences.

Example #2

Likewise, your family members may not have served in the armed services during World War II, but they were certainly affected by the events surrounding the war.  They no doubt felt the tension of war as they read newspaper accounts and saw newsreel reports of how the war was going.  They saw neighbors going off to war and witnessed the fact that many of them never returned.  They may have taken jobs in factories or participated in scrap drives.

These events are fair game for inclusion into your story, even if you don’t have any stories directly linking them to the event.  You could limit your treatment to describing the event without any specific reference to your family’s participation.  Your readers will be interested in the picture you paint of the social and political climate in which your ancestors lived.

Creating a timeline of historical events can be a useful tool to help identify potential subjects.  Just remember not to fabricate or embellish stories to make your relatives seem more heroic.

Key 3: Include Interesting Details

People are hardwired to pay attention and remember those things that are outside the norm.  You can use this fact to your advantage to captivate your reading audience by adding details to your story that seem out of synch with modern societal norms.  As time has passed standards for personal hygiene, medicine, money, technology and social consciousness has evolved to what they are today.

Example #1

We take it for granted that we can turn a faucet on in our home and clean safe water will come out in any quantity we desire.  It wasn’t too long ago that water had to be hand pumped or fetched from a well and brought into the house several times daily for cooking and cleaning.  Not to mention the cholera outbreaks in large cities where the water supply was fouled by fecal bacteria.

Adding to your storytelling that your grandparents on the farm took a bath once a week and used the same bath water with each person until it was black will be sure to get the attention of your younger readers.

Example #2

Due to the effects of inflation, the value of money has changed dramatically over the decades.  The net effect is that it takes far more money today to buy the same goods as it did 100 years ago.

You can tell of your great grandpa buying a Ford Model-T automobile for $300 in 1910 and draw the envy of any car enthusiasts.  Until they realize the Model-T’s wooden spoke wheels had a top speed of about 45 miles per hour.

Example #3

American history is filled with stories of racism and bad treatment of anyone who is different: minorities, handicapped, addicts, poor, gays and women.  Although these subjects may seem distasteful and better left out of your storytelling, but they are not off limits for addition into your story.  Just as we don’t want to make anything up, we also don’t want to turn a blind eye to history and wash clean the realities of the past.

You can soften the blow by carefully wording the more controversial parts of your story.  In reality, these are the gritty details that your audience wants to know and they serve to make your relatives seem more human.

I hope the practical storytelling ideas presented in this article have inspired new enthusiasm to capture and tell your own family’s stories.  These stories are family history heirlooms which are far more valuable than passing down grandma’s china or silverware.

Read related articles: Sharing Your Family Story


Genealogy Quick Start Guide for Beginners

Applying the Genealogy Proof Standard to your Research

5 Genealogy Mistakes to Avoid

Google Genealogy Research Toolbox

Find Records

Requesting Vital Records

Researching Ancestors through Military Records

Using the National Archives (NARA) for Genealogy Research

Using U.S. Census Records

Finding Homestead Records

Canadian Genealogy Research using the Internet

Researching British Genealogy


Genealogy Source Citations Made Easy

Finding Family History Books

Listening to Genealogy Podcasts Made Easy

Using Cyndi’s List for Genealogy Research

Researching Ancestors Using Obituaries