Wondering how to write your family history? Just go for it!


22 May 2013
how-to-write-your-family-history-june-family-tree-300x209-89287.jpg Don't sit there staring at a blank page... make a start writing your family history right away with our experts' tips in the June issue of Family Tree.
In the June issue of Family Tree, we've launched a brand new series, helping readers discover the best way to write their fam

In the June issue of Family Tree, we've launched a brand new series, helping readers discover the best way to write their family history - something that will become a well-loved family treasure in the years to come. As part of our research into tried and tested ways of doing this, we chatted to Karen Charlton. Here's her advice, which we're sure you'll find interesting...

Author Karen Charlton has successfully published her fictionalised account of one of her ancestor’s desperate battle to avoid the gallows in her historical novel, Catching the Eagle. Set in Northumberland, and complete with a notorious Regency robbery, a woeful miscarriage of justice, and a budding love triangle, Karen’s story appeals to a much wider readership than solely her family, and we asked her for some insider tips.

Family Tree: What’s your one tip for getting on and writing those first words?

Karen: Just go for it! Telling the story of our ancestors all starts with the same nerve-wracking experience; a blank page. It’s a daunting task to write a book, even for an experienced author. But an aspiring writer needs to put all that out of their mind and focus on filling page one with text. Pick a time when most of the family are out of the house, switch on some relaxing music, write ‘Chapter One’ at the top of the page and then begin.

At this stage, it doesn’t matter what you write, if it makes sense or if it is correctly punctuated. Books evolve gradually and debut writers need to remember that they will come back time-and-time-again to those first lines and paragraphs to edit and revise them. But nothing, absolutely nothing, will ever happen if you don’t make a start.

Having said that, I eventually dumped the first 10,000 words of my debut novel and restarted it at Chapter Three.

Originally, I began ‘Catching the Eagle’ with a scene were my impoverished ancestor asks for credit in a local haberdashery. He is refused by the owner and thrown out of the shop. I then went onto show him in conflict with his nemesis (the evil steward, Michael Aynsley) and arguing with his wife about their dire financial situation. All these incidents were based on fact and the dialogue between the characters discussed events which we had meticulously researched. I thought that they established the main characters, highlighted the poverty in rural England in 1809 and gave great background to the plot.

Fortunately I had a lot of honest, helpful and constructive criticism from friends, family and other authors. The feedback I received from my readers went along these lines: ‘You’ve promised us the story of Northumberland’s most notorious Regency robbery and a miscarriage of justice - but you take ages to get there. You need to move quicker towards these events – that’s your story, not Jamie’s credit rating.’

Yes, it hurt. Successful novelists also need a thick skin. But eventually I heeded their advice, dropped the first two chapters and began the novel on the day of the robbery. It worked. I then got a publisher.

Family Tree: Which format did you prefer? Your novel, ‘Catching’, or your non-fiction, ‘Seeking’?

Karen: To be honest, I like them both but ‘Seeking Our Eagle’ will probably be my only non-fiction book for a while. (I’m currently writing my third novel.) Personally, I need a lot of artistic challenge and I achieved this when I switched genre into non-fiction last year.

There’s a massive difference between penning a fictionalised version of an ancestral story and a non-fiction ac-count of the same events because they attract two totally different groups of readers, with very different interests and expectations. Fiction readers (and fiction publishers) look for drama, tension, strong characterisation, a plot which enthrals them and reaches a satisfactory emotional conclusion. A novelist needs to subtly blend the historical detail into the narrative and remember that in fiction, the plot must always come first.

As I showed above with the tale of my first three chapters, minute historical detail or flying off on a tangent can slow down the pace of the narrative and damage any chances of publication. The family historian who aspires to become a historical novelist sometimes needs to distance themselves from their research, keep their head above the genealogy parapet and focus on the main event. This can lead to tough decisions about what to put into the book and what to leave out.

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Who to leave in and who to leave out, is another issue which also crops up. They had big families back in the 19th century and most of them were called ‘John.’ A cast of thousands may have worked well in the bible but it rarely works in modern fiction. The habit of naming children after other family members helps genealogists trace their relatives back through the centuries, but if you have a mother, grandmother and a daughter all called ‘Ann’ in the same book, it confuses the hell out of the reader.

Fortunately novelists can use artistic license. In ‘Catching the Eagle’, I changed names, killed off some characters early and brought forward a wedding by three years. I did this because I wanted the fun and the emotional high of the marriage celebrations to fit in with a chapter which was essentially ‘the calm before the storm.’ Fiction – even a novel based on a true story - is for story-tellers, not historical record keepers.

My non-fiction book, ‘Seeking Our Eagle’, tells the story of our research and was quicker, and probably easier, to write. In this book I show ‘how-we-did-it’. This is a genre that will better suit historical purists. I included far more detail about our ancestors in this non-fiction account of their lives and I didn’t make anything up. I gave some of them nicknames can help solve the problem of seven generations of Williams; I used ‘Soldier Will’ and ‘Station Master Will’ to distinguish between a grandfather and grandson.

Non-fiction also presents other challenges. We family historians become so immersed in the stories of our an-cestors that we forget that our readers may not find them as easy to follow. Consider the number of times when you’ve told your best friend all about your latest genealogy discovery over a cup of coffee or a pint in the pub. Do you remember how often they had to stop you to ask for clarification about a person or an incident they didn’t understand? Well, the readers of a book can’t do that. If they get frustrated or confused, they will just toss the book aside unread – or even worse write you a scathing review on amazon. Non-fiction authors need to take the time to explain people, places and events carefully. Leaping backwards and forwards between the centuries and the different branches of the family tree is a no-no. Let the story of your research unfold gradually.

I found that a chronological approach worked well for me. I started with how my husband and I first became interested in genealogy back in 1994, and then wrote the book as semi-autobiographical account of how we moved from one discovery to another. As real time moved forward, we romped backwards through the centuries in hot pursuit of Charlton ancestors. I included the dialogue from our conversations and described some of the daft things we did in pursuit of our hobby. Since publication I have discovered that this humour and light-hearted self-parody has gone down well with the readers. It keeps them interested in the main story, breaks up the facts and gives balance to a book which can be tough, tragic and disturbing in parts.

I also have a keen interest in the social history behind the lives of our ancestors and I tried to ‘show’ the world they inhabited rather than just ‘tell’ the reader about them. I wanted to bring this world alive. I researched the occupations of our ancestors and the major local, national and international events which affected them. This included World War I and their involvement in the building of a railway line. I visited their streets, stared at their houses and used description to show the setting and the ritual of their daily lives. I also speculated on what must have gone through their minds when their relationships hit awkward patches and their loved ones died.

Family Tree: If you wrote another book, is there anything you’d do differently?/ With hindsight, is there anything you would do differently?

Karen: Yes. When submitting a novel to publishers I would strongly recommend that authors emphasise that their book is based on a true story about real people and historical events. Publishers love books which they can tag with a ‘Based on a True Story’ by-line. They are popular and sell well. ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher’ is a successful example of this.

Unfortunately, I wasted a lot of time with my early submissions because I didn’t have the confidence to push this angle to editors and agents. Nervous that they would see me as a mad woman who was out to get justice for a much-maligned ancestor, I didn’t mention my connection to the main characters, or the fact that it is based on real historical events. With hindsight, I now realise that this timidity was a mistake. Go for it!

Karen Charlton's book Catching the Eagle (£11.69 paperback, £6.17 Kindle) was published in 2011 by Knox Robinson Publishing Ltd, www.knoxrobinsonpublishing.com and Karen has subsequently written and published Seeking our Eagle (£8.99 paperback, £2.87 kindle) – her account of how she researched and wrote Catching the Eagle. www.karencharlton.com.

Read top insider tips on how to write your family history from other authors in the June issue of Family Tree, out now in WH Smiths, leading supermarkets and all good newsagents, or you can download our latest issue as a digital edition right now – visit www.pocketmags.com, the App StoreGoogle Play or Amazon Appstore. Single issues, back issues and subscriptions are available for PC, Mac, eReaders, smartphones and tablets. A free sample is also available for all devices.