As I write this article I’m holding a hairdryer, trying to melt a block of frozen soup away from its non-microwavable container. I’m sure my ancestors had a better system, but then again they didn’t have freezers.
Often unconscious of the fact that Caveman Joe, Erik the Beardless and Sophie Hairdryer Soup Queen are the protagonists in a long saga; this family history can be an incredible source of inspiration for our fiction.
All we need is a time travel machine and a little imagination to fill in the blanks on this most excellent adventure.
Look at Old Photos (And See What’s Written on the Back)
Old family photos are a great starting point for the curious mind. Unlike cold, factual census records, photographs show real life in action.
Whether it’s the moment the camera captured your great-aunt’s skirt lifting on a windy beach, or an austere Victorian portrait revealing who gave you your ‘characterful’ nose; the sentimental and sensorial details are something we can use to inspire us.
Really take the time to mull over each one, and as you do ask yourself these questions:
- What’s my immediate emotional reaction to the photo?
- What are the factual details of the scene? (i.e. what is happening? What are people wearing? What year do you think it is and why?)
- How do the elements in the photo relate to each other (i.e if there are several people in a scene, how are they acting towards each other and their environment? How do you think they are feeling?
- Is there anything you or living family members can’t explain? (i.e maybe there’s a mysterious guy in the corner of a family gathering that nobody recognises. Eek!).
- ‘Zone out’ of the photo and pay attention to it as a physical source: is it in good/poor condition? Is there any writing on the back that helps to put it into historical context?
Ask Living Family Members
I always find it amusing when you ask a relative to recount a well-known family story and you’re presented with a different book in the Bible. Similar but not quite the same version of events.
Family stories are in a sense a kind of Chinese whispers, not just through time but through different people’s perspectives of an event. So next time you get the chance to talk to your mum or your great-uncle, get your notepad out and mine their brains for interesting family stories.
When you have a couple that stand out to you, ask other family members about the event and write down those too:
- Was there anything different about them from the first person you asked? Which details (if any) were added or omitted?
- Can you see any potential ‘conflict’ you could use as part of a story?
Steal Someone Else’s Family History for Free
In a writing workshop, we were once asked to listen to two family stories of another person in the group. We then wrote down ‘important’ details as they spoke and afterwards retold the story to everyone.
Each persons’ had something intriguing about it, whether it was a mysterious or funny event, an object or a distinctive characteristic of an ancestor.
These are details I may decide to use one day. It only takes ten minutes and after starting with nothing, you look down in your gold pan and see a couple of golden nuggets staring back at you.
This is a good idea if you want to go further back in time or want to take inspiration from your family history in a wider sense. Here are some tips:
- Pay attention to given names/surnames and what origins they suggest.
- Be on the lookout for any anomalies (i.e. why is it that the father’s name is different on two copies of the same birth certificate?)
- Is there a common theme in terms of the occupations of your ancestors? Is there a trade that seems to be passed down along the generations?
- Check out your family’s various coats of arms. What do you think they say about the ‘character’ of that branch of your family and why? Can you design your own?
- Are there any definite or rumored celebrities, famous historical characters?
- What could you keep of your family tree and what could you tweak to make a more ‘interesting’ piece of fiction?
Back to the Future
Now for something completely different. As an exercise, close your eyes and picture your current family circumstances and the age you’re living in. Then cast your mind forward two hundred years from now and picture one of your descendants.
They’re researching their family history and after a couple of glitches involving lost files, eventually come across you.
What information and sources have they discovered to piece your life together? Where are the missing pieces? What opinion do they form of you based on this?
Rewrite the History Books
If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far, it’s to not be afraid to pick and choose our inspiration. In other words if you’re basing a piece of fiction on aspects of your family history, don’t be afraid to change or add elements to suit.
Have you discovered anything intriguing about your family history that would make a great story? What challenges (if any) have you come across so far? Let me know in the comments below!
Until next time,