27 April 2018
Are you pondering putting pen to paper? It can be a daunting task can't it! Maybe a family history writing course would provide that helping hand you need.
Author Gill Blanchard is well-known in family history circles for her lectures, research and family history books. She also teaches an online family history writing course and here some of her student share their views on how the course has helped them.
Constructive criticism for better writing
Anne J writes:
A couple of years ago some members of my family asked me to share my family history research. I looked at the list of dates that I had compiled for each person, going back to the 15th century, and became aware of just how boring and off-putting it would seem to anyone not infected by the family history bug. It needed to be turned into a more digestible and engaging format, a narrative telling the story of our family. I had an attempt but struggled to work out how to organise all my material and how to make those dry and dusty early relatives interesting.
About to give up, I came across an online course that had just begun, run by Gill Blanchard. It seemed fortuitous. I rang Gill immediately, begging her to let me join the course even though it had already started. How glad I am that I did. That first course taught me, not only how to write, but how to plan, how to enliven my ancestors' stories by placing them in the context of their time and place and where to search for the requisite information. I learned to edit my writing, to critique my own stories and those of others. By the end of that first course, I knew what I was doing and how to continue.
I have now completed all three of Gill's online courses. As each module built on and extended the skills learned in the previous one, I witnessed not only my own writing, but that of my fellow students, transformed. Our confidence in our abilities blossomed. Perhaps the most important aspect of the three courses was the practical aspect. Each lesson contained exercises to get us writing and then, to get us writing better.
Gill's positive, constructive feedback on every piece of writing submitted was crucial. Her critiques enabled me to develop an understanding of the mechanics of the craft and to hone my skills. That, together with the way in which she encouraged us, the students, to become a supportive and cohesive group, able to critique and encourage each other, made this an invaluable experience.
Overcoming nerves & developing skills
Sue P writes:
I was nervous joining Gill Blanchard’s Writing Your Family History e-Course last May. I had previously had unsatisfactory experiences with online courses and I had taken module 1 in a conventional classroom setting. Would I be able to cope and would I fit in with a group who had already completed the first module online? Already an outsider, my writing project was not strictly family history. I am writing a biography. There are very few non-fiction writing courses out there and I have found nothing specifically for writing biography. I had confidence in Gill’s excellence as a teacher and I knew the progress I had made taking her class. There was no need to worry, the group were very welcoming and I was quickly part of it.
It was with great excitement that I opened the email with the first lesson and that excitement continued all the way through the five workshops of module 2 and the three of module 5.
Each module was a challenge but allowed us to develop an aspect of our own projects no matter how varied they were. Never did I feel forced into writing about something I did not want to. Yet, each workshop developed a different writing technique enabling us to develop our writing skills. It is impressive how many different aspects of writing that we covered. Alongside this, we developed our skills critiquing the work of our fellow students.
One of the unexpected joys of Gill’s course was the opportunity of reading the work of the others. The initial discomfort of providing feedback experienced during module 1 soon dissolved as we looked forward to seeing how the stories developed and the writing styles improved.
Dorothy L writes:
Writing Your Family History is a wonderful course for getting the impetus to start writing about your ancestors. For myself, I had done a fair amount of research, but I just couldn’t get started on the writing. Gill Blanchard gives students a number of exercises and feedback that gets you writing. I have now written a substantial chapter about one of my ancestors and I am starting on several other chapters. It’s a great sense of accomplishment. I highly recommend this course. It could actually be a few weeks longer, since the feedback and online writing group were so motivational for writing. The online aspect takes a little getting used to, but it works out well thereafter. I highly recommend Gill’s book, Writing Your Family History, as well.
Becoming confident writers of our family history
Mike D writes:
I tentatively took the bait of an online course that would help me ‘bring my ancestors to life in an entertaining family history that other people would want to read’. In no time I was caught- hook, line and sinker. For many years I had looked at several boxes of photos, diaries and other family memorabilia and promised myself one day to sort it out all out and write our family’s history. Following retirement, I now had the time to start but didn’t really know where or how to begin.
I had joined our local family history group and browsing through their magazine one day I spotted an advert for Gill’s course and decided to give it a go. From the first email I received I knew that this was the right decision. Gill’s whole premise is that we all have a family history to tell and that it is possible to learn to write it in a way that other people will want to read.
Constructing a narrative
Throughout the course we learnt how to develop our own individual voice, how to construct a narrative and to make our family history come alive. This I call the ‘line’ of the story. In a piece about my maternal grandmother Alice, I wrote:
Just a few short days before, Alice had been a parlour maid at Ramsgate County school where the Masters and boys had presented her a gift of a clock. Now on the Saturday before Christmas of 1911 she and her mother Sarah were walking up the steep Hill to the church of St Nicholas in Strood, Kent. She was about to marry Basil in the mediaeval, flint- banded church which looks across the town towards the Medway Valley. But Strood was not her home town, nor his. Nor were any of his family present. Why?
Researching time and place
The weight, or the ‘sinker’ of our story is its’ authenticity, fixing our ancestors as characters in their time and place, of bringing alive contemporary events stop we learn how to evoke the sights, sounds and smells of their everyday lives.
Alice lived with her new husband next to the cement factory where he worked. When the weather was dry the sun light bounced off the beaten chalk ground, piles of chalk waste and the chalk quarry walls and cliffs. The air was filled with dust from chalk and cement and smoke or soot hung in the air. As Alice picked out her washing on a Monday, she knew that when she took it down that evening it might be as dirty as before. When it was wet, the chalk dust turned into a glue-like mud which stuck to the workers boots and clothes.
Getting our facts straight
And at the same time, we learnt how to make sure that our story carried historical weight, that we had checked sources, attributed quotes correctly and sought necessary permissions for the inclusion of copyright materials.
We began to develop as writers as we examined the style of a wide range of fictional and factual writing about the past. We posted our own exercises and gently but firmly we were guided into responding to each other’s work. Each week we met up as an online discussion group. Our feedback, tentative at first, moved from the mainly congratulatory towards a more objective assessment of each other’s stories, commenting on features we liked but expressing views on how it might be improved. Increasingly the critiquing of and by our ‘fierce friends’ became a central part of our working. We opened up to each other, supporting when writing became difficult, encouraging when it began to flow.
At the end of Module Two half a dozen of us begged Gill to run a third module in which we would write larger pieces of up to 4000 words. Gill agreed that she would provide personalised, detailed in-depth feedback to each of us and we were expected to do the same. This was a new venture for Gill which she bravely took on and an intense 10 weeks began which stretched us all. In hindsight it would probably have been better for a longer period between posted pieces, especially in the run-up to Christmas but we were sustained by a growing sense of communal support and when the final module was over we felt we wanted to stay together. So it was that the Fierce Friends group elected to continue writing and supporting each other, posting pieces, asking for advice and meeting up monthly in our discussion group. Not everybody makes every discussion each time and several of us have taken a little time out from intense, focused writing. But we have all achieved what the course promised – skilfully guided by Gill we are all well on the road to being confident writers of our family history.
Oh, and I nearly forgot about the hook. The hook of course is one of those elements of writing which grab the readers interest, then, keeping the tension, gradually reels them in until they just want to follow the line of your story. And my grandmother Alice? Soon she would be hanging out laundry for her new-born son as she began the long wait for her husband to return from the battlefields of northern France. But that’s another story!