Your Narratives Suck

Late last year I found some genealogy software narrative and “journal” reports on Google Scholar. I knew immediately which program they originated from. The style and the sentence structure were dead giveaways to which one. It sucked! The research in the reports also sucked, but that’s beyond the ken right now.

Writing a great narrative means taking the given facts and assumptions you’ve made and entered into your genealogy program better. The only way to write an inviting, and readable report is to write it yourself.

Genealogy programs are tools, templates, for organizing data, not writing your reports for you.

A narrative contains all the facts about a person. A narrative also includes information about those facts. A narrative goes beyond the facts and fact metadata. A biography is a narrative based on a simple premise: This is a story about x, illustrated by y.

That word, “illustrated,” is the key part of writing a great narrative. What is the story? The illustration. Take, for example, Hugh Fiske (not a made-up name, but it works for now). There was an extensive set of facts (who, where, when), but not what, or why. Not even how! Ok, here’s the thing, remember those five (six, actually with how) Ws from high school? A narrative needs all of them to work well.

The report included excerpts from Mr. Fiske’s will, placing him in relation to his surroundings but the report just “excerpted” all of the facts, as is. That’s not a narrative, that’s a list. You need to show, not tell, in a narrative who was doing what.

If you want to illustrate, you need to start with the story of Mr. Fiske and his will.

“On 1 May 1549 Hugh Fiske, a landholder and minor functionary in Hoxfield, County Suffolk, England, wrote his will. His wife, children, and various members of his extended family were included.”

Ok, now what?

Who was Mr. Fiske? He was a son of James and Martha. You list out his birth, marriage, and death dates; those of his wife (and maybe parents); his siblings; and, his extended family, if any. Then you continue writing with full, simple sentences the rest of his story. The data only fleshes out the scene of the story about the will writing. It shows who was there, when, and most importantly, what they did, and how.

What did those other people do? Research them and write about them in their context to Mr. Fiske. Put them in their context. It also helps to know a bit about Hoxfield, where it is, and its relation to Mr. Fiske’s, surroundings, not just Mr. Fiske and his family.

Putting source information in footnotes or end notes is necessary to show where the information in your narrative comes from makes sense. It’s not only common sense, it’s necessary to add authenticity when you write non-fiction like this.

Parts of the excerpted will should be worked into quotes in the footnotes, but not in the text. The narrative will become more than a simple story if you do that, so don’t.

A recent example of an excellent biography is Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, by John M. Barry, published by Viking in 2012. This sets Mr. Williams fully in his and shows the effect he had on his surroundings as well as the effect his surroundings had on him.

Find out more about the “illustrated by” premise in The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-standardized Text for Writing & Life by Marion Roach Smith, published by Grand Central Publishing in 2011.

To be continued.

© 2012 N. P. Maling

Comments, anyone? Please tell me what I’ve written is wrong. Thanks!