Are you teaching or raising a creative writer? Kids are creative by nature, but creativity needs to be cultivated in order to thrive. One way to encourage creative writing in young people is to introduce them to writing about their ancestors. I started my genealogy work when I was only 16, and I had been a creative writer since I knew how to form words on the page. On Christmas of the year I began researching my family history, two family members encouraged me to take what I’d learned from our family history and turn it into stories. A friend of mine had just given me a journal as a Christmas present and on December 26, I wrote the introduction to it, “For a year now I have been extremely interested in genealogy. Yesterday my grandmother Mary Andrews and my step-grandmother Susy Lutz urged me to gather information about my ancestors and fictionalize the rest of it. I’d get the historical facts right, find out as much as possible about the family and go from there. I could write about anything. How two people met and got married, an immigration, the birth of a child, a job, a holiday gathering, anything… This should be fun.”
Writing about ancestors is a great way to exercise kids’ creative writing muscles, and they have an endless resource in their family tree – and yes, I was right – it is fun! But what to write? Well, one of the best things you can do for your young writers is to teach them how to come up with new ideas, or expound on their budding ideas.
So, if you and your child are interested in writing about your ancestors but don’t know where to start, here is a list of strategies to help you explore your family tree for story ideas:
1. Start with an obituary. Writing often starts with an outline, and an obituary can give you the closest thing to an outline of a person’s life. Many times, obituaries will give you character traits that you can use in your story, too. An obituary will give you an overview of a person’s life and tell you about their closest family and friends.
2. Look at the time line of the person’s life in context to where they lived. This can give you a rough idea of their life experiences. Look at when and where they lived as a child. For example, were they born in the early 1850s in the American South? Then they saw the Civil War with their own eyes when a young child. Did they immigrate from Ireland in the 1840s? Then their family was leaving during the Irish Potato Famine. Make a timeline with your child of the person’s life on one side and historical events on the other and compare the two to see what your ancestor was experiencing at certain times in their lives.
3. Look a census record of your ancestor when they were a child. Who were they living with at the time, and what was everyone’s age? Did your ancestor have a lot of siblings close in age, or were they an only child? Where was everyone born? What are the occupations of the adults in the house? Who are their neighbors? Explore the answers to these questions with your child and what they can tell you about your ancestor’s early life. If you can, compare the census record with earlier or later censuses.
4. Don’t forget to ask older relatives about family stories. Many times there are old records hidden in trunks or files that older relatives know about but haven’t brought out in years just because they haven’t been asked. These records could have little snippets of old family tales that are just begging to be turned into a short story. Or maybe your older relatives remember stories their grandparents told them when they were little that they can share. These can be turned into stories too.