Writing – Creative Non-fiction – Fiction or Fact?

“Whose story was true?” From Keep it Real, page 77, asks where for the footnotes in historical accounts since the 1970s.[1]

The scope of genealogical and family history writing borders on creativity sometimes. How does one know which parts are fictions and which are verified, and verifiable facts?

One way to determine is the scope of research done by the writer. A writer may have included a preface or introduction laying out the basis for the writing. Another way to tell is simply which material is footnoted and which not. Spot-checking some random facts, or material stated as fact can give you an idea of the veracity of the writer.

  • If no citations, treat the entire thing as fiction
  • If well cited, tread with caution, especially when the data isn’t explained in at least some of the notes.

The article cited in Keep it Real also discusses the dry-as-dust historical writing and the trend away from it. Another question asked is whether the truthfulness of the writing is good or not depending on the marketing acumen of the writer/publisher affects the acceptance of one version but not another. In other words, is the truth subjective? Yes.

There are any number of genealogies out there which could be fact or fiction. The only way to tell is by checking spot only, or better yet, by reviewing the entire writing assertion by assertion.

For example: Without directly referring to the material in the Shearer book[2] on the Mellen family, I was able to construct a quite different view of Richard Mellen’s family. What my little publication on the web amounts to is a subjectively different view of the truth of Richard Mellen’s descendants. Essentially the same could be said about Simon Mellen, one of the alleged sons of Richard.

Again, the only way for a genealogist to figure out the most likely course of events is to compare both versions and decide on their own what the most likely discussion of assertions is the better.

Asking me whose story is true is asking a scholar whether his work is questionable. I will, however say that I believe that my account of Richard Mellen is the more accurate. Not having checked the veracity of the rest of the Shearer book, I could not say whether much or any is either fact or fiction. The only parts I have considered here, and in my writing are the lines from Simon and from Richard in New England.

[1] Gutkind, Lee and Hattie Fletcher, eds. Keep it Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2008.

[2] Shearer, Gail Elizabeth. The Mellen and Shearer Families: Pioneers, Puritans and Patriots. Baltimore, Md.: Gateway Press, Inc. 2000.


© 2012 N. P. Maling — Sea Genes – Family History & Genealogy Research

Update to Mellen Family History Research

I’ve just updated my published research into the Richard and Simon Mellen families in Massachusetts during the 1600s. There is an interesting document in the published Middlesex County probate records. My added material to the introduction follows.


In the published Middlesex County probate records we find a James Milengs’ property in Malden, in 1674, mentioned.[1] This record, combined with the Weymouth boundary description record provides scant evidence that there was a Maling, or some variation of the surname in the area at those times. The spelling in both records is atrocious and given the consistent spellings otherwise, I’m still less than inclined to believe a Maling, rather than a Mellen, was responsible for those records.

Given that I consider the Weymouth land record a more authoritative document than the Malden will; it is an actual proof of legal division. The will, on the other hand, was probably scribed by the decedent or someone connected to him, but not an officer of the court, or a judicially or legally designated person. Thus, the two documents are still less than the standard of proof that I’d require for a satisfactory saying of “yes, there was a Maling family in that area at that time.”

[1] Robert H. Rodgers, Middlesex County in the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay in New England: Records of Probate and Administration: February 1670/71–June 1676 (Rockport, Me.: Picton Press, 2005), 274.


The information gleaned from this snippet of data is interesting in that is shows the process of applying the Genealogical Proof Standard in a real-world manner. What I’ve done here is look at the given information in context with other information concerning the family and my overall interpretation of that information. That there is evidence a James Mellen lived in Malden is a given. That there is no evidence a James Maling (referenced in any other document that I’ve seen) lived in Malden, is also a given.

You can download the updated Richard Mellen of Massachusetts: A Brief Genealogy of the Mellen Family from this site. The current document supersedes previous versions found here.