One of the best places to start writing is telling stories of your childhood and youth. In fact, a lot of people as they get older are drawn to the idea of writing the history of their family. Unfortunately, this can read about as dry as a police report—objective, factual, and humorless. But writing about family presents the opportunity to explore nearly every emotion possible and has a built-in plot, so it makes a good place to practice your skill and techniques. I’ve written before that the best way to approach your own biographical pieces is through events and the people who populated them. Here’s a reasonably short example:
Winter. Where I grew up in the Midwest we couldn’t wait for the snow to sufficiently accumulate to become “sleddable”—of sufficient depth and compaction so you could run with your sled clutched in both hands, and in a single ballerina-like half pirouette aim it toward the ground and leap on top for the ride down Hospital Hill. In seasonal preparation, I would borrow some of my dad’s steel wool and polish my sled’s runners to a sheen and smoothness of a car bumper. I learned to add a little paraffin from one of my mom’s jelly jars to add lubrication and keep the snow from sticking to the runners.
Being from St. Louis, I had lots to learn about snow and cold and I can remember how thrilled I was when my winter-experienced cousins taught me these techniques as well as others, like how to use my booted feet to assist in executing the sharp back-and-forth turns that enhanced my downhill speed. Those were the days when the term “race to top” was meaningless. In my winter world it was a race to the bottom as snow misted my face, hidden as best I could inside my fur-edged parka hood. The excitement kept all of us sledders warm as we trundled back up to the top of the hill for another run.
My sled was an “American Flyer” and though a hand-me-down from somewhere I can’t remember and a generation old, to me it was my limousine of snowy speed. You need not have felt bad if you could not afford a new sled from the Jones’ Sporting Goods store because yours was battle-scarred from past crashes and collisions, some choreographed and elegantly performed, other legitimate accidents. Mine were inherited and gave me the aura of an old salt and speeding down snowy hillsides. Our sleds were our badges of courage.
I was always a little envious of those kids with parents with large toboggans that zoomed by as I climbed the hill, all on board screaming in delight. My parents were older than most, so there was little familial involvement in my outdoor adventures, ‘cept fishing. That also meant I had a mother who busied herself with fret and worry as soon as I stepped outside the door, sled in hand. At the same time, what my parents didn’t know they couldn’t be concerned about. Dad understood self-generated risks, he grew up by the Boone and skated the frozen surface on a bend in the river and helped cut blocks of ice from it for the icehouse over by the railroad tracks that my step-granddad, George Garth, operated for many years. But Mom was steadfast in her belief that anything having to do with being outside in winter was a sign of mental deficiency or suicidal intention, so I was well advised not to brag about any close calls or even small injuries, and never some intended and anticipated adventures.
All my winter adventures were cut short by my obligation to pick up the local afternoon newspaper by 4:30 for delivery. My route included my own home so responsible promptness was always open to inspection.
It didn’t take long for somebody from a warmer clime to discover that if you could keep your ears, hands and feet warm—something you quickly learned if you were a paperboy—enabled you to stay outside and play forever, repeating the slide-down-trudge-up process until your energy inventory was about to sap the reserve needed for the long walk back across town to home and warmth. There was no getting bored with the thrill of those downhill rides, and being as packaged and bundled up as we were, we stayed warm and unhurt.
Except for ski trips to Colorado, I long ago swore off places with winter temperatures and all the little labor-intensified side-effects—shoveling sidewalks, starting and warming up the car, scraping a half-inch of ice from windshields, and kicking the dirty debris of winter slush that collected and froze in solid chunks behind the wheels of the car.
I now have a way to stay toasty on such adventures. Visit them as warm memories.
The above short and descriptive vignette taps into a narrow memory of childhood but avoids giving too much detail. It’s designed to serve as a piece that touches on a fond recollection of a time rather than delving into a detailed historical visit to the past, which would be what you might strive for were you writing your own family history. There, details of people, places, things, and events are the elements that familial readers want and expect. History is nothing without details and facts, and family history should provide readers with not just facts, but personal insights into the characters, locations, and events that make up a family’s history.
The essay starts with the word, “Winter.” Were I writing about a special place that was part of my personal tales of winter specifically meant for future family members to read, I might have started it another way:
“Hospital Hill got its name, logically enough, from the fact it’s a hill and that was next to the old community hospital. The hospital has now started the process of becoming a faded memory. It was torn down in 2015, but the hill still provides winter thrills to children from every corner of town. So many things from childhood fade or are replaced over one’s lifetime, but the thrill of Hospital Hill remains mostly unchanged and has served up winter fun to generations of kids.”
From here I might start with a recollection of my own first visit with my cousins Ron and Jerry, or even my last visit.
Or maybe with something like:
“Being raised in the middle of the flattest, richest farm land in the world is an honor—agriculturally—but in winter it can get plenty boring. The winter gray can make it difficult to discern the boundary between land and sky, and you’d have to drive a few hundred miles from Webster City to Dubuque to find something to ski down. Dad would never drive that far, and we didn’t know anything about skiing anyway. At home, the Boone River escarpment was either too steep or non-existent. Thus we were left with literally one place worthy of a sled ride—Hospital Hill. It had long history, Dad slid down it long before his marriage to Mom. On top was the hospital and to the west of that the cemetery, where great grandfather and Civil War Army Captain John Eckstein occupies a place in the first few original rows and which provided the basis for one joke told many ways: if the worst were to happen on the hill, you would have a short trip to two options—aid or the grave.
“There were no official condition reports like the ski slopes of today. We would get word of the Hill’s “sleddability” from kids at school who lived reasonably close by or had ventured to check out its conditions. As much fun as sledding was, my cousins, Ron and Jerry, and I weren’t about to hoof it from our houses on James Street clear across town carrying our sleds only to find grass still sticking up through a covering of powdery white. Needed were several inches of wet stuff that had compacted into a base, then, on top of that, at least an additional few inches of fluff to make the ideal lubrication on which our newly polished and waxed sled runners could glide. I had to learn these critically necessary elements and requirements from my cousins. As a newish transplant from the more temperate metropolis of St. Louis, which rarely saw snow, I didn’t have a clue about snow and sledding.”
The alternatives for telling the story are virtually endless. You don’t have to think much up. The raw material is lying there or scattered around waiting to be collected and organize. List the relevant and/or interesting items of your family history. Start with big items and then you can select one and drill down into its details. You can brainstorm how you might write about them, but you’ll likely discover that once you dig into them idea on how to write about them will come to mind. Usually some facet shines brighter than the surrounding one and provides a good place to start. You find the need to include a few flashbacks for clarity. Just because it’s history, you don’t have to comply with any rules of linearity. Your stories, do, of course, need key ingredients: people, places, dates, and interesting events or events you can make interesting. Of course, the starring characters must be members of the family or someone your family had a connection to. The result is that one segment will naturally focus on a person, another on an event, and another on a combination of the two.
When writing the “family history,” you want to tell story, but through the eyes of the likely reader’s relatives so some facts you might leave out for a general audience will be of interest to a family audience, especially background details and how they are related and connected. You want to bring the characters to life, which might require some additional research. The local newspaper is a great source for information that puts your story into historical perspective, and, who knows, might even contain stories of your family’s history, depending on how locally famous or infamous they were.
Don’t be bound by any sense that you have to write “A” before “B.” You can shuffle the content into the order you wish or that works best later. Your first tasks are to recall, research, and write. The act of writing about someone or an event will prompt more recollections, and before you know it, your original fears about where to start might be replaced by where to stop.
Where to start?
One of the fascinating things about writing, when you start a project your mind gets on board and starts to open up old memories and recollections in bits and pieces. Start with something that comes to mind or some recollection you have. Trust me. Your project will grow and expand, in all directions. Just keep a notebook handy so you don’t lose a recollection as it flies by.
Next, putting things into words.