Writing family histories: what genre to use?

The genre you choose when embarking on writing about a personal or family history  will depend on your writing skill, style or preference, and possibly also on the amount of factual information you can access.

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

  • Memoir is: the story of an event/period/series of events in your life. Autobiography is: the story of your whole life.
  • This is based on your memories of events in your own life.
  • It will include your own views or thoughts, and may include dialogue.
  • It may be entirely factual or you may fictionalise some aspects to make it more interesting. (But if you have fictionalised it at all, you need to make this clear in the front matter of your book.)
  • You can only know what you think. 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 story to be based on fact but will also expect your view, your slant on things, and a certain amount of licence taken (because you are presenting your view).

Writing an autobiography/biography combination

Writing a life story that is a combination of the above is more challenging than sticking to one particular style, genre or point of view. For more information, go to: Life story writing – as biography, autobiography or memoir.

Historical fiction

  • This is fiction based on researched facts.
  • It needs a plot, dialogue and characters that are more or less based on historical facts and people. As it is fiction, many elements of the story, such as the personalities or thoughts or actions of the characters, can be imagined, not real. But as it is historical fiction, you need to do your research to make sure your story and characters are realistic.
  • When reading a historical novel, your readers will expect the story to be loosely based on historical fact but will expect your characters and their relationships to be, to some extent, imagined. Major events (e.g. a love affair, a marriage, or a major injury or illness) 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.

Regarding sensitivity

You can write what you like in private, of course. This is anyone’s prerogative. But publishing it is a different matter.

When writing about your own history or your family’s history (whether it is a memoir, autobiography, non-fiction history/biography, or historical fiction), bear in mind that your memories or view of events will probably differ from those of other family members. Every family has skeletons in its closet, and you may want to reveal one of those skeletons in your book, but some family members may prefer to keep that episode private.

That is not to say that you should not publish the book just because other family members’ opinions are bound to differ from your own.

But be sensitive, and careful, and talk to the people who might be impacted or upset if you publish a particular story, and consider all the issues and consequences (ethical and legal) before you publish.

If you are writing about the cultures or histories of families that are not your own, you need to first ask yourself why you are writing that particular story – why are you the right person to tell that story? Be respectful of other people’s ownership of their stories. Be aware that you will need to seek a sensitivity reader (from that family or that culture) to ensure your story is appropriate and correct in its depiction of the story, and to ensure you have the ethical right (as a person outside that family or culture) to publish that story.

All of the above applies to writing historical fiction (that is based on real people and events) as well as writing historical non-fiction.

For tips and information about writing family histories, go to:

Image: Sally-Anne Watson Kane’s ancestors. Photographer: unknown.

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