“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Rudyard Kipling (1865- 1936)How to Write like a Historian... Without Actually Being One by Laura Suchan

As part of the advanced memoir writing class I teach, one of the  assignments is for the participants to write a brief narrative linking their family history  to  historical events happening on a local, national or international scale.   As long as they place their family history into historical context the participants are free to choose any event they wish.  I must admit I enjoy the looks of confusion, and in some cases fear, on their faces as the writers wonder how to do this.

It takes me some time to convince the members of my class that by putting to paper  family stories they are engaging in social history, which is simply the study of the lives of everyday, ordinary people.  For most of us “ordinary people” would accurately describe our ancestors.  Katherine Scott Sturdevant, author of Bringing Your Family History to Life through Social History defines social history as the study of history from the bottom up, not focusing on the lives and habits of the rich or elite, but rather on the ordinary citizens, “Having a social history perspective means that one sees historical events as they affected groups collectively, not just as they affected exceptional people individually.”[1]  Sturdevant  encourages her students to consider that everything in their family history fits within a larger historical context of events.  “Human nature follows patterns… Finding the appropriate context means understanding your family, its background, its motives, and its prejudices. It means telling a story rather than reciting facts.”[2]  Family stories become richer when they are told within a social history context.  They no longer contain only names and dates but draw in historical events and experiences taking place on a wider scale.

As an example, I worked on a project with the Oshawa Historical Society  in 2003 to collect and present the personal memories of those living in Oshawa, Ontario during the Second World War.  The objective, apart from preserving these stories, was to illustrate how events in the national and international sphere played an important role in the lives of ordinary citizens. These personal reminiscences contributed to the historical record of Canada’s role during, and in response to, the War. Project participants were proud to consider their memories becoming part of the permanent  historical record.

By following a few simple guidelines all writers can learn to enrich their stories with social history concepts.  These guidelines are useful for memoir writing, other nonfiction writing and will even lend a rich texture to historical based fiction writing.

1. Be prepared to do your research and always check and recheck your facts. It’s good practice to always reference your material and cite a source. Completing this step as you go along will save you having to search out a reference at a later date. Be critical of your sources and their reliability. Keeping in mind the difference between primary (first hand, original accounts including diaries, photographs, letters) and secondary (refers to second hand narrated reports or descriptions of the past such as biographies) research material will help you assess validity of your sources.

2. Ask yourself the 5 familiar questions, who, what, why, where and when (and how) but expand the focus of the questions to include the time your family lived, groups your family were a part of or the events you are writing about. A social history view would look something like the following:

Question Traditional View Social History View
Who Name, usually of an individual Refers to a group, class, community
What What did the character do? Move? Emigrate? What happened around them, what events were taking place, what trends can you identify.
When A date Time period, an era based on a theme, such as the ear years
Where Location, Place name The character of a place, a community, a region
Why Individual reasons, causes Group motives, exterior influences, motivating behaviors. Again consider what was going on around them.
How How did he do it? How did everyone around him do it? What was typical? What was not?

3. Historians use conceptual frameworks to connect and organize knowledge to make it more meaningful and to help people make sense of history. Fitting information into a framework makes it more usable. Examples of frameworks may include;

  1. Themes
  2. Timelines
  3. Questions
  4. Maps
  5. Chronological narrative

Writing with themes is usually the most popular choice to arrange information. Think about what themes and sub themes might be relevant to your story. Examples of themes may include migration, food, myths/stories, celebrations, war, recreation, politics, community and business. Ask yourself questions such as does your family have stories about a particular historical event or did anyone participate in a migration? Were any family members involved in a particular organization? Did anyone play sports? Questions such as these will help you recognize and organize the themes in your family history.

My grandfather, an average immigrant, arrived in Canada post World War II as a displaced person and his story became an excellent illustration of Canada’s post war immigration policy at work. In order to write about my grandfather’s story in any detail I had to research Canada’s role in accepting these immigrants. My relative’s journey was played out against the larger picture of historical events taking place nationally in Canada and even internationally in post war Germany.

4. Keep in mind your subjects and their experiences were typical, and also part, of collective behavior. For example when researching my grandfather’s experience, I asked the question of how common or uncommon was his behavior? Were other immigrants following the same path as my grandfather? What external forces were at work to influence his decision? This is what is meant by inserting the experiences into historical context. If you lack specific information on your relative’s experience it is acceptable to use historical descriptions of what was typical behavior for the time to fill in the blanks of your family history. I did not have any resources to tell me about my grandfather’s experience on the ship bringing him to Canada, however I did have a few accounts of other immigrants’ experiences that I could use in my grandfather’s story.

5. Define and identify any unfamiliar terminology, or dated names for things. For example do you know to what a Mae West refers? The first time I heard this term I knew of the actress but not of its reference to the yellow life preservers of the Allied soldiers during WWII. When I use this example in high school presentations I am lucky if one student has ever heard of Mae West. Including a brief description will ensure the term remains recognized.

6. Avoid inserting historical events that are irrelevant to a story. Referring to your grandmother’s year of birth as ten years after the Titanic sank may sound creative but in reality does not contribute in a meaningful way to the story. When using social history for historical context, keep it relevant to the story.

Writing with these six simple guidelines in mind will enrich your personal history stories and ensure your writing is more than just names and dates. One final comment, when you are finished with your family history, consider donating a copy to the applicable archives, museum or genealogy society. They will usually welcome well written, well researched and relevant material. Practice these guidelines and you too will be writing like a historian in no time.

Katherine Sturdevant’s publication Bringing Your Family History to Life through Social History, (Cin: Betterway Bks., 2000) is the best resource I have come across to help you use social history in your writing. This article is based in part on Katherine’s book.

Author Bio

Laura Suchan, M.A.: is a historian with over 25 years experience in the non-profit field. She is the author of Writing Memoirs for Fun and Profit and has taught oral history at Trent University in (Peterborough, Ontario) and Durham College (Oshawa, Ontario). Laura is passionate about helping people share their personal histories and has acted as consulted for several oral history projects. She has authored several articles for newspapers and journals about memoir writing, history and personal growth. She is a member of the Writers Community of Durham Region, the Abandoned Cemetery Committee for Clarington, Ontario, and is President of the Trent University Alumni Association for Oshawa/Durham. In her spare time Laura enjoys writing, yoga, traveling and spending time with her family. www.laurasuchan.ink

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