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Focus on people to breathe life into ancestral histories

Published: Thursday, Aug. 31 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

PROVO — Remembering ancestors can be much more than a dull list of genealogical data, family history writers Morris and Dawn Thurston say.

Families can put flesh on the bones of their forebears, the couple told attendees at Campus Education Week at Brigham Young University this past week.

"Tell a story. Keep genealogy to a minimum; keep people in the forefront," Morris Thurston said.

Capturing the past through oral interviews adds to an ancestor's story, he said. Start simple with non-controversial subjects and listen to their answers.

"Don't be a slave to an outline," he said.

Blend the oral history into the narrative by selecting topics that push the story along. Include family legends and lore to add color and drama.

While genealogists collect facts and dates, writers must look for characteristics that bring the ancestors to life, such as what they looked like and their mannerisms.

Research the period in which they lived to discover styles, clothing and other details of their appearance, Dawn Thurston said. Avoid generalities in describing them. Include fragrances and how they moved. Borrow ideas from novelists and other professional writers, she said.

Also write about how the ancestor's actions affected people around them.

Other suggestions:

• Learn to analyze photographs to describe the trends of the day. Find other pictures of the period to add to the description.

• If no photos exist of the ancestor, then pull inferences from other relatives to create suppositions. Create a sketch based on relatives' recollections.

• Let their feelings show. How did they react to specific incidents in their lives?

• Research wills, estate papers, court records, military records, pension applications, diaries and letters to create a word picture of the ancestor.

• Interview people who knew them, read journals, unpublished histories, newspapers and visit living museums, such as colonial Williamsburg to get a feel for how they lived.

She also suggested making inferences about the ancestor from known facts, but said the writer needs to let the reader know to maintain integrity.

Writing about grandparents that are still living can be tricky, Morris Thurston said.

He suggested letting the grandparent see the story and make changes.

"You may have to live with the changes," he said, "or wait until they pass away."

He suggested including negative events to make the narrative more interesting. Focus on interesting incidents in their life and dramatize it — "add quotations," he said.

"Don't be content with a narrative of the family group sheet," he added.


E-mail: rodger@desnews.com