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How to Write a Life

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 06, 2011

Scott K has shared with us a short biography of one of his ancestors, Charles Price. It’s the kind of thing many of us would like to write about our own ancestors. (Many of us have – Kevin Folkman and Clark Ricks and Coffinberry and Anne (U.K.) and Bradford Ogden and Grant Vaughn and Polly Aird and Maurine have shared some of their family history here; Amy Tanner Thiriot is doing something very similar with the women of St. George who helped with the Eminent Women project, as well as on her own blog, The Ancestor Files; … and I probably shouldn’t have gotten started with names, because I’m sure to have left someone out. I apologize to whoever I’ve inadvertently skipped over.) I’m going to pick apart Scott K’s biography – with his permission – to analyze why it works so well, and how even more of us can do the same kind of great work.

Scott started with the basic genealogical information that most of us can collect about recent generations in our family – birth and death information, names of spouses and parents and children, with a limited amount of data on the ancestor’s migration from place to place. Most of that is available on pedigree charts and family group sheets. He added to that some information about Charles Price’s career. But he did not start with a detailed journal kept by Charles Price, nor with letters written to or from that ancestor, nor with any other private family sources. We all dream of having the personal papers of an ancestor to work with, but most of us aren’t lucky enough to have access to anything like that. The material that Scott added to his basic genealogical facts all came from public sources of the kind that are available to just about all of us.

Those sources include:

Newspapers. For ancestors who lived in the last 200 years, newspapers can be, and very often are, an incredibly rich resource for personal information. The dream may be finding whole long articles specifically about the heroic things our ancestors did, filled with colorful statements in personal interviews, with plenty of background on who our ancestors were and how they lived. That’s not likely to happen. Your ancestor may have been involved in something newsworthy, and may have had an elaborate obituary – or he may not. But every little scrap of information should be extracted and analyzed – the ancestor’s presence on a jury list, or on a delinquent tax list, or as a witness to an accident, or attending a community party, or even her name on a list of letters waiting to be picked up at the post office. Nothing is too small to be of potential use.

For those with Mormon Utah roots, the Utah Digital Newspapers database is the place to search, whether you live in downtown Salt Lake or have a computer link from your home in Greenland – and if you can’t find anything there today, try again in a few months; they add new batches constantly. For links to databases of historic newspapers in other places, both in the U.S. and a few other places, try this collection of links at the University of Illinois, and Wikipedia’s list of online newspaper archives. The Utah newspapers are freely accessible; some papers in the other two sources are free, while others are behind pay walls. Google News has a growing database. The New York Times archive is available at their site. The British Museum has a wonderful database of British newspapers that is often available through subscriptions at universities and other major libraries; libraries such as BYU have other digital resources available to people with institutional accounts. If you’re aware of other newspaper databases, especially free ones, please note them in the comments.

Maps. We all have access to maps and satellite views through Google Maps. You may be able to find historic maps by visiting libraries (check not only the formal map collection, but also city and county directories and histories). Maps help us to feel situated, even if our ancestors’ names appear nowhere on them. A map showing where your ancestor emigrated from can help readers who are unfamiliar with distant geography understand whether the family came from the suburb of a large city, or a sparsely settled seacoast; they can help you understand the great distances your missionary ancestor walked by showing the towns you know he served in (either because you’re lucky enough to have a diary, or because you have gleaned a few facts by finding his name in reports in the Millennial Star or the Liahona).

Directories. Scott found his man named in an 1864 business directory – and that bare listing tipped him off to Charles Price’s survey work, and sent him off on the whole chain of research that resulted in this biography. Most large cities, and many rural areas, issued directories throughout the 20th and even during much of the 19th centuries. These directories resemble telephone books, but without telephone numbers. You generally have to go to a library in the region where your family lived to access these books, but the Family History library does have many of them on microfilm. Take the time to make the tedious search and look year by year – you never know what you’ll find. Directories of rural counties often indicate the number of acres held by a farmer, and their approximate worth. Children often appear with their own listings once they turn 18. Most city directories give an indication of the occupation followed by the people named. They list poor people as well as rich ones. Most have preliminary pages that list all the town or county officers, including school boards and other smaller offices where you might find family names. Most list people a year after they are no longer living in the area, indicating either a date of death or a “removed to [place]” indicating where they’ve moved. Wives are sometimes named parenthetically in their husband’s listings, and widows often have an indication of their deceased husband’s first names. If your ancestor owned or worked for a commercial establishment, you may find advertisements, even sketches, of the places they worked. Collect it all.

Then there are all other “routine” public sources – death certificates (often easily available through state historical societies or archives, if they’re old enough), and the census, and church membership records, and voter registration cards, and draft registrations – suggest others, please, that you have used; and if there are any questions on how to find these sources and what uses they can be, ask. We – other readers and I – can try to answer them in the comments, or make them the subject of future posts.

When Scott identified Charles Price as a surveyor, he deliberately hunted out the kinds of sources that might provide information about surveyors and their work. You can do the same with what you learn about an ancestor – there are brand books for cattle- and sheepmen, and trade organizations for some businesses, and alumni lists for scholars, and pension records for soldiers, and all kinds of other materials once you have some reason to suspect an ancestor will be included. Take some time to think about what records would be created in today’s world for somebody who had a particular role, then go out and see if similar records are available for the people of the past. Analyze each one and see if other research avenues are suggested. Gradually all these seemingly petty details coalesce into a clearer picture of someone’s life.

Then you start writing … and this is where Scott’s work makes an especially good model for family historians. Some random points for you to notice:

Because he had gathered records that illuminated Charles Price’s surveying career, he made that the centerpiece of his biography. Scott provided some other material on earlier points in Charles’s life as context, but it was his career that takes the bulk of the space. Scott may have done that as a practical matter – that’s what he had to work with – but it’s often a good idea to focus on one aspect of an ancestor’s life even if you have lots of material about lots of aspects. That gives focus to your article, a sense that it’s about something, and not just a random collection of more or less interesting facts. It made Charles Price’s life seem like a story – and if you take the trouble to notice, you’ll find that often the talks you enjoy most in General Conference are built around an incident that is told as a story, or that the articles you like best at Keepa and elsewhere focus on a single event or theme, told as a story, with other facts given lesser prominence as background. Nearly everybody loves a story, and focusing on one aspect of an ancestor’s life creates the illusion of a story. (If “story” doesn’t illustrate for you what I mean, think back over your life in Sunday classes, especially the recent use of the Gospel Principles manual — weren’t most of the best classes usually ones that focused on one or a limited number of ideas about fasting or prayer or the Sabbath, and not those that just bounced around from this and that to some other random aspect without any real emphasis?)

Scott also didn’t get bogged down in explaining too many background details and issues. He assumed, for the most part, that his readers understood the story of Mormon migration and western settlement – sometimes he provided a short clause, those brief identifiers set off by commas, to give a general explanation; mostly he provided links to sources where someone could easily find more information if wanted. He didn’t get bogged down in explaining the whole of Mormon doctrine or history, as sometimes happens. This way of handling the history makes this article accessible to long-time students of Mormonism, and to people who don’t know and don’t care about the religious motivation for Charles Price’s emigration and work in a new country. Mormons writers are always wringing hands about how to handle the peculiar vocabulary of Mormonism as well as our unique institutions and history – oh, if we could only do it as well as Chaim Potok handled Judaism in his novels! we moan. Scott’s technique here is one very effective model of how to do that: assume people understand what they need to understand, but provide very subtle help in case they don’t. Don’t preach. Don’t get bogged down.

That “don’t preach” admonition is another trait of Scott’s sketch here. We’ve all read biographical sketches – sometimes mocked as typically Daughters of Utah Pioneers-ish – that are filled with vapid praise of an ancestor for his assumed qualities of bravery and fortitude and never-waveringness, of her never-flagging cheerfulness in the face of hardship and tragedy, blah, blah, blah – traits that may very well have been true of an ancestor, but that sound fake when no real evidence is given. It almost always makes for a more believable, more accessible, more enjoyable family sketch if you let your ancestors’ actions speak for them: show them doing the heroic things of sailing off from Europe to face an unknown future with the Saints, of trudging across the plains, of starting over again when a flood washes out their western homes. Reading that they have done those things automatically lets us know that they were strong, that they were dedicated to their new faith, that they were resilient, that they tamed the West, far more than praise-without-evidence ever can. Trust your readers to get the point – don’t beat us over the head with it.

One other point I like about Scott’s writing is that he took us along on the detective work of uncovering these details about his ancestor’s work – “I looked here, which took me there, which led me to uncover this.” That made the story personal to Scott’s search as well as to Charles’s life. And yet he didn’t overdo it. The story, the focus, always remained on Charles, and never shifted entirely to Scott. Be subtle. Take your readers along on the ride, if you can, but never make yourself the hero of your ancestor’s story.

I’ll bet if you skim through Scott’s story again, you’ll better notice how he accomplished what he did, and it may give you a clue as to how to write your own ancestor’s life in a more coherent, engaging way.

And when you do, if it reveals a Mormon life, or suggests ways in which the rest of us can better dig out our own history, share it here on Keepa.



21 Comments »

  1. Excellent advice. Although I have been doing this kind of research for a couple of years, I am sometimes guilty of most of the excesses you named here. Having them described this clearly will help me avoid them in the future.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — December 6, 2011 @ 11:18 am

  2. Ardis, your deconstruction and reconstruction is both informative and insightful. It’s also, if you don’t mind my saying, brilliant. It reflects an experience with history/biography that functions to show readers, writers, researchers, and scholars just what’s possible. I have to say, “Wow” and “Thanks.”

    Comment by Gary Bergera — December 6, 2011 @ 11:43 am

  3. Ack! How could I have left Bruce out of my list of ‘ninnies who have written some very good (local, in his case, rather than family) history! I often link in the sideblog to Bruce’s posts at Amateur Mormon Historian, not just because the stories themselves are interesting bits of history, but because he uses sources to their fullest, and takes advantage of local contacts, and links together seemingly unrelated bits of evidence to tell the stories of Mormon history in Tennessee.

    And I blush at Gary’s comment. His writing style is often what I aspire to, and I have spent more than one hour trying to figure out how he achieved the effect he got in order to better incorporate his techniques.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 6, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

  4. Thanks, Ardis, for the very kind analysis. I can’t let it go, however, without confessing that I was only half-aware, at best, of some of the things you give me credit for. Also, I think it might help your readers to know that some things (like my “don’t preach” tone) were partly due to awareness of my original intended audience, a group of other amateur genealogists/family historians, all non-LDS, on a liberal Democratic website. A “faith-promoting” story (which I really didn’t want to do anyway) might go down in some serious flames there (though I must add that the folks in that group are a ridiculously nice, thoughtful, and talented bunch of family history geeks).

    Looking back, especially after reading your post, I think having that specific audience in mind did help keep me honest, and focused, and also made the writing come easier.

    One more thing that should encourage others: my bio of Charles Price was an intentional exercise, an attempt to see just how much I could find on the internet. Once I got going, I was surprised at how much I was able to dig up on him (a lot more than I had room for in the piece). If I can do it, anyone can.

    Thanks again for the kind words, and for the chance to be a guest here at Keepa!

    Comment by SLK — December 6, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

  5. That’s a point worth restating, Scott: Audience. If you identify for yourself who you expect to read your writing: the public, your family, children, Mormon or not, religious or not, professional genealogists, professional surveyors (in the case of Charles Price), potential clients — that will shape your tone and what you include. When I write for the Tribune, I imagine a different audience (with some minor overlap) with the audience I think of as Keepa readers, which would be very different than something I would write to read at a conference of the Mormon History Association. Keeping that audience in mind keeps your writing coherent — you don’t shift from professional to school-marm to testimony meeting, leaving your readers puzzled about who you are and who you think they are. (That’s a hundred bloviating words to say what Scott said so briefly.)

    And I don’t care whether you made your choices consciously, Scott, or whether they were instinctual — they worked. If they don’t come naturally to others, though, it helps to think about them consciously.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 6, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

  6. Ardis, you have a knack for explaining things in a direct, straightforward way that often leaves me smacking my forehead, saying “Why didn’t I think of that!” In fact, your little exercise here has helped me refocus my efforts on another project I have underway that has really been difficult to get started on writing. I keep rereading the letters and journal entries, trying to wrap my brain around what’s really happening, and then I read this and SLAP! Palm to forehead, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

    Scott, I really enjoyed your piece, and now Ardis has helped me to understand why. She really is a great teacher, as we have seen in many other posts here where she gently but firmly teaches us all how to do things right. I also will second how much information is generally available on the internet, if you are patient and persistent. Just today, for example, I ran across the information that one of my ancestors owned a pub in Nantwich, England, on a street called The Swine Market, including a map. Such things I never imagined, and twenty years ago, it would have been just about impossible to do, short of flying to Great Britain, and spending thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours. And the toobz of the interwebz is always available, right there in front of me at work…..

    Back to work!

    Comment by kevinf — December 6, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

  7. It’s the thought of writing it down which is the scary part, I think. Every ancestor’s story is obviously unique to them, and undoubtedly contains elements which should be recorded, but ‘where to start’ and ‘what to include’ are the bits which put me off. A little sprinkling of inspiration certainly helps!

    Comment by Anne (UK) — December 6, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

  8. Is this the right place to announce that Anne (U.K.) has sent another absolutely fantastic (and two-part!) tale of her adventures as a genealogist?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 6, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

  9. Hooray for the news in the last comment. Looking forward to that. And I’ll have to come back and read this post (especially since I’m mentioned — yikes!) when I have a minute.

    Comment by Researcher — December 6, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

  10. This is a great post. I particularly appreciated the link to the newspaper archives. I’ve already discovered that my great-grandfather lost over $10 due to traffic violations in 1934 and 1942. :)

    Comment by Matt — December 6, 2011 @ 3:50 pm

  11. Ardis, I agree with kevinf that you have a knack of explaining things in a manner that continually teaches me how to be a better writer and/or researcher. You are a great teacher.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — December 6, 2011 @ 4:00 pm

  12. Thanks, Maurine — another occasion for blushing!

    Matt, you’ve got your excuse ready next time you get a ticket — it’s in your genes, or you’re upholding family tradition, or “the sins of the fathers will be visited on the third and fourth generations,” or any number of other variants!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 6, 2011 @ 4:47 pm

  13. Wonderful tutorial, Ardis.

    An additional suggestion for researching your family, one which should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: never take online family trees (New Family Search, Family Search, RootsWeb, Ancestry, etc.) as fact. Check everything.

    As mentioned in Scott’s post and the comments there, trace siblings. Figure out who the other people mentioned in the vital records are. They could be strangers off the street, but they usually aren’t.

    I’ve recently had some success finding family pictures and records through Find A Grave by contacting the people who have submitted pictures or histories.

    Comment by Researcher — December 6, 2011 @ 7:16 pm

  14. Thanks for the mention, Ardis! Your thoroughness caused me to recheck some of my recent work on the Davis County East Winds. Sigh.

    Comment by Grant — December 6, 2011 @ 10:47 pm

  15. Oh, and good job, Scott!

    Comment by Grant — December 6, 2011 @ 11:21 pm

  16. Grant, what are you doing with the Davis County East Winds? Are you working on the current ones or the historical ones?

    Comment by Maurine Ward — December 7, 2011 @ 12:29 am

  17. Maurine, a little of both. With the recent experience, I remembered a story about my Great Grandparents and went to Utah Digital Newspapers to pin it down to October 20-21, 1906. That is a wonderful on-line source! -Even if the Davis County Clipper was a little quirky at times.

    Comment by Grant — December 7, 2011 @ 6:40 am

  18. Grant is too modest to link to his recent post about the winds (which contains a link to a follow-up post from yesterday).

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 7, 2011 @ 9:05 am

  19. Some thoughts on sources. I’ve been finding a lot of great stuff at the Utah Digital Newspaper database. Another one that Ardis didn’t mention is the Library of Congress’s historic newspaper site, Chronicling America. I’ve found several ancestors there as well.

    I’ve also been lucky at the State of Utah Digital Archives, the Journal of Mormon History website, the Utah Historical Quarterly (I can’t find my link right now for a site that has downloadable PDF files), and BYU Master’s theses on Mormonism.

    “My” group of family history geeks (which I mentioned in an earlier comment) always respond with delight to pictures and maps, so I’d add the digital collections of the University of Utah and BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library.

    These are probably all obvious resources to experienced researchers, but they’re fairly new discoveries for me so I offer these links for my fellow beginners.

    Finally, thanks again to everyone for the warm welcome, and especially to Ardis, whose thoughtfulness and generosity in every regard is just awesome. Oh, and I want to add a plug for the Keepa archives, where I’m continuing to learn both about Mormon history and about how to do it right. :-)

    Comment by SLK — December 7, 2011 @ 10:06 am

  20. SLK’s work on “surveying” reminds me of another good online source I have used both professionally and amateur-historian-ishly (to coin a cumbersome word) http://www.glorecords.blm.gov which has original land patents from the feds all over the US. In there I was able to find ancestors’ patents in Davis County and elsewhere and pinpoint them on a map.

    Comment by Grant — December 7, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

  21. Thanks for that link, Grant. Nice source.

    Comment by Researcher — December 7, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

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