Sunday, April 6, 2014

Writing a Narrative History

I have taken two different classes that have required taking lots of little facts and details and translating them into a narrative biography. The process that I learned makes it "simple" to take anyone's facts and make a story.

  • (Before the first step): Talk to living descendants. What stories do your family members already know about an individual?
  • The first step for me in writing a simple biography is to check for an obituary that gives dates and details about an individual's life and values. Also, perhaps someone has already written a short biography about the person. Check with family members and societies for these records (Daughters of the Utah Pioneers for example).
  • Next, trace each individual in the family through the census records until his or her death -- as far as is reasonable. I record everything on a family group sheet and/or in a timeline. Many times the solutions to family mysteries are found in tracing their children.
  • Then, check county or state vital records for births, marriages, and deaths. Once again everything is recorded and analyzed.
  • Find a map that shows the area at the time of the person's life. David Rumsey Historical Maps has wonderful resources.
  • Check out local and county histories for each area the person lived. Many books have become free of copyright restrictions and are now posted online. and are two sites with many historical publications. For example, I could search for "Franklin County Ohio" and come up with several books.
  • If you haven't already, make a simple timeline to see how events and people fit together. This was an especially useful tool in my great-grandma Helen's life. 
Dorothy, York, Helen, baby Donald, and Harold Donald Martin (from previous marriage)
    • Helen (Keeler) Martin lived in Lewiston, Idaho with her husband York Martin. On 17 July 1929, she gave birth do a baby Donald. He lived for about five months and then died on 15 Dec 1929 of marasmus (a form of malnutrition). Meanwhile, York Martin became ill with liver cancer and passed away on 3 Jan 1930. Talk about major life stressors! Grandma Helen gave birth, struggled with a sick infant and husband, and then lost both of them in about two weeks. York was allowed to go home for Christmas before he died; Grandma Peggy was conceived during this visit and born nine months later. (Yay!) Before making the timeline, I did not know how each individual event played together in the story of Helen's life.
  • Look for major events that happened during your ancestor's life. What about the Civil War? the Great Depression? Read in the local and county histories for ways that events affected your ancestor.
  • Lastly, if your ancestors were part of early Mormon pioneer history, check out the links in the sidebar for amazing resources. 
Once I began writing the first history, I found the amount of information overwhelming. The Door County Library digitized many early newspapers, so it was possible to view many details about the lives of family members. I had to decide how long I wanted the story and what information to include. 

Please note that I don't like feelings put into stories. If I don't know that John Doe smiled when he looked around his farm, I don't want to write it. Once I read "The Secret Life of a Developing Country (Ours)," I realized that my values and thought process is very different from someone several hundred years earlier.


  1. I think your idea of creating a time line really does help us understand a person's life story better. Not only did your great-grandma lose a baby and a husband within weeks of each other, she suffered those losses during the Christmas holidays and on the eve of the Great Depression. She must have been a very strong woman to endure those hardships.

    1. I had not even considered Christmas or the Great Depression! It helps to share ideas!

  2. Thanks for putting the steps so clearly and concisely, Jenna. Written this way it sounds so easy and straightforward. Your timeline idea is excellent, especially when we include some of the current events of the time and locality. Sometimes it's the research that takes the longest (at least it has been so for many of my ancestors).

  3. Loved your steps....... I do put my "Feelings" into my stories. When I Blog it's from personal experience I had with the Person or from what the Elders told me.