Stories are the most effective way to transmit family history, not trees. The tree is merely an organizational device, not an end product. Stories, on the other hand, are how humans have always processed and conveyed the complexity of our life experiences.
As my family’s “designated historian,” I had to learn this lesson the hard way after sharing the standard trees, charts, and research summaries with my relatives completely flopped. But once I started conveying my discoveries in the form of stories, my relatives stopped tuning me out, and the results were gratifying.
Unlike research, basic storytelling doesn’t need to be taught, because it’s so fundamental. It’s something we’ve been doing almost our whole lives.
But telling good stories is more than just pulling the facts we’ve collected for a person out of the tree and presenting them in paragraph form. We family historians need to start by moving beyond basic records research to understand the larger context of our discoveries. Just starting from a more interesting set of sources than what we typically consult is half the battle. The other half is learning to read these sources for details of narrative value to better understand who our ancestors were, the time and place in which they lived, what kinds of life experiences they had, and how those experiences may have affected them.
Here are a few of my favorite research journeys:
- When You Bang Your Head Against the Wall Hard Enough, an Insane Lady Appears with the Answers
- What Was a 66 Year-Old Man Doing on the Roof of a Building, Anyway?
- My Hunch about That Third Tombstone
My best example by far is how I discovered my ancestors, the “Margarine Moonshiners from Minsk.” To learn more, watch the one-hour talk I gave at a recent International Conference on Jewish Genealogy:
Synopsis of talk: In spring 2011 a routine search on one of my great-grandfathers revealed the shocking surprise that he had been incarcerated in Leavenworth. What followed was a rollicking genealogical journey to trace a group of brothers and brothers-in-law recently immigrated from Minsk, who set out to sell margarine as butter in defiance of one the stranger pieces of legislation ever passed.
Learn how my desire to tell this story in its entirety led to uncovering the hijinks of my great-grandfather, who fled with his family repeatedly before the feds finally nabbed him; my great-grandmother, whose pleas to the warden still survive; the brother-in-law he fingered, who was excommunicated for selling lard as butter; another brother-in-law who was arrested for threatening to kill a witness; the soon-to-be-famous inspector who was hot on their tail the entire time; and more.
Numerous historical and genealogical repositories are discussed as I retrace my multi-year journey to get to the bottom of this long-concealed chapter in my family history and offer advice for how you can better pursue the fascinating leads in your own tree when you think like a storyteller.