Social History: the Key to Producing Captivating Family Stories

Image courtesy of Simon Howden at FreeDigital

Image courtesy of Simon Howden at

How does a genealogist or family historian write about an event that he or she hasn’t actually witnessed firsthand?

The Basics

Back in Journalism 101—many long decades ago—I learned the key to good newspaper reporting was to cover the 5 Ws and the H: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How.

To add description, my professors suggested, throw in the five senses: Sight, Hearing, Smell, Taste, and Touch. What did it look like? How did it sound? What did it smell or taste like? How did it physically or emotionally feel?

Family historians, though, tend to write about people they most likely never knew or events they couldn’t possibly have witnessed. For that reason, there’s a third component to this writing recipe that should be included in their writing as well: qualifiers—words like “possibly”, “probably”, “likely”, “no doubt”, “presumably”, “could” and “perhaps”. There are probably other words just like them that can serve as qualifiers in our writing as well. (Did you catch the qualifiers in the first and last sentence of the paragraph you just finished reading?)

Of course, you’ll want to open your narrative with a “hook”; all good writing does that. It might even be a question as opposed to a statement. (Note the opening sentence in paragraph one.)

Finally, the wrap up. Here are three ideas for your finale :

  • a Summary, which recaps what you’ve already written; straightforward but can be a bit dull;
  • a Suggestion, which offers readers a theory as to how the situation may have developed, while leaving the door open to other possibilities; or
  • a Question which invites readers to consider, wonder, or surmise for themselves why the person did what they did, what may have happened next, or how the story may have actually turned out.

Putting the Flesh on Those Old Bones

Recently, I’ve been taking some online courses to sharpen my skills in genealogy research, analysis and writing. Two have been particularly useful. The first has to do with finding the women on the family tree. (Drat those married names like “Mrs. Cornelius Daly” and “Mrs. Daniel Deneen” that erect an immediate brick wall! What was her MAIDEN name, dang it? And could you give me her first name, please, instead of that of her husband?)

The subject of the other course is crucial though, for those intent on preserving the past. It’s all about researching and incorporating the social history of your ancestors’ lives into your writing to put the flesh back on their bones. (Pun intended.)

What’s “social history” you ask? It’s a branch of history that zeroes in on the day-to-day lives of ordinary people who lived in the past during a particular place and time: How they lived, worked, spent their leisure, or simply got along through life. Simply put, it’s the history of the common man (and woman and child) at the micro level.

Subject areas include birth, life and death; marriage and family life; food, clothing and community life; occupations, education and religion; customs, traditions, and celebrations.

The “big” topics–crime, war, epidemics and other disasters covered in traditional history books–are included in social histories too, but only as they relate to how they impacted the everyday lives of ordinary people who experienced those events.

A century from now,  for example, some future social historian may choose to research and write about how America’s current presidential election affected our everyday lives way back in 2016. Now, that would be quite a read!

Using Social History to Produce Captivating Family Stories

I’ll let you in on a little secret I’ve discovered over the years as a writer, genealogist and family historian: Weaving social history into your genealogical writing will breathe life back into those old ancestors’ bones (metaphorically speaking, that is.) And ultimately, isn’t that what most genealogists and family historians strive to achieve–to  “bring their ancestors’ stories to life?”

For examples of how I incorporated social history into some ancestors’ stories published here on GeneaJourneys over the years, I invite you to a click on a few of these posts:

Edward Kennedy, Civil War Pontonnier!

Searching for a Phantom Uncle in Depression Era Records

An Overdue Salute to an Unsung Hero

A Flower Girl’s Memories, 50 Years Later

Now, if  you’re not quite sure just how to research the time and place your ancestors lived in, no worries. I promise: You won’t have to retake high school history.

There are a host of reasonably short, easy to read, social history books that can introduce you to the everyday lives of ordinary people in the particular times and places in which they lived.

Did your ancestors live through Colonial times? the Civil War? the Victorian era? the Wild West? Prohibition? World War II? There are social history books on each of those topics, as well as on many more. Start with your library. If no luck there, check and other online booksellers or your favorite brick and mortar bookstore. You can also just google “everyday life” + “(the era you’re interested in)” to see what pops up.

Bookshelf basics I keep on hand when writing about people from the past include these social history staples:

Daily Life in Immigrant America: 1820-1870 by James M. Berquist, c. 2009

Daily Life in Immigrant America: 1870-1920 by June Granitir Alexander, c. 2007

Daily Life in Immigrant America: 1920-1940 by David E. Kyvig, c. 2004

And to look something up about life in the “old country” when all eight of my great-grandparents lived there, I have this standard to refer to:

Everyday Life in 19th-Century Ireland by Ian Maxwell, c. 2012

So if you want to breathe a little more depth, a little more breadth, and a little more life into your next family story, consider researching and including some social  history related to your ancestors’ lives into your next family narrative.

Your descendants will thank you.

(Your ancestors just might thank you someday, too.)


 Copyright © 2016 Patricia Desmond Biallas

This entry was posted in American History, Family Stories, Research, Research Tips, Social History. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Social History: the Key to Producing Captivating Family Stories

  1. Linda Dooley says:

    Nicely written! What class are you currently taking?
    Linda Dooley, NSGS

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