Writing family histories: what genre to use?
The genre you use when embarking on writing a family history will depend in part on your writing skill, style or preference, and in part on the amount of factual information you have access to.
Non-fiction history or biography
- This is a factual history (nothing imagined).
- It needs to be researched and the sources cited (or referenced).
- It won’t contain any dialogue or people’s thoughts unless it includes documented discussions, letters etc. that show real people’s thoughts and spoken words.
- Never speculate as to what the people in your history may have thought: stick to the facts.
- When reading a non-fiction history or biography, your readers will expect that all the information in the story is purely factual.
Memoir or autobiography
- This is based on your memories of events in your own life.
- It will include your own views or thoughts, and may include dialogue.
- The chronology may be factual or you may mix it up to make the story more interesting.
- It can include imagined events in addition to factual information.
- Never speculate as to other people’s thoughts: stick to the facts of what they have said (via body language or verbally) or what they have done.
- When reading a memoir or autobiography, your readers will expect the information to be based on fact but will also expect your view, your slant on things, and a certain amount of licence taken with the facts.
- This is fiction based on researched facts.
- It needs a plot, dialogue and charters that are more or less based on historical facts but it is fiction, so the story, thoughts of the characters etc. are imagined, not real.
- When reading a historical novel, your readers will expect the story to be loosely based on historical fact but will also expect your characters and their relationships to be, to some extent, imagined. Major events (e.g. a love affair) will be expected to be based on fact, but minor events (e.g. a family discussion) will be expected to be either only loosely based on fact, or imagined.
When writing about your own family’s history, bear in mind that your memories of events will probably differ from other family members’ memories of those same events; and although you may think it’s fine to reveal a certain episode in your book, some family members may have a different view.
That is not to say that just because opinions will differ, you should not publish your book.
But be sensitive, and kind, and careful, and talk to the right people, and consider the consequences, before you publish.
If you are writing about other people’s cultures or family histories, bear in mind the need to be respectful of other people’s ownership of those stories, and the potential need to seek a sensitivity reader to ensure your story is appropriate in terms of the style, the views, the facts and your right to publish that story.
For tips and information about writing family histories, go to:
- Blogs at Life Stories Australia
- How to write your family history
- Creating compelling characters in a life story
- How to write a memoir
- Writing authentic historical fiction
- A course run by ANU: Writing lives: autobiography in fiction and memoir.
Proofread by Dee Sansom, On Time Typing, Editing and Proofreading
Image: Sally-Anne Watson Kane’s ancestors
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