Posted On May 15, 2015 by Print This Post

Your Ancestors as Fiction by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi

Romance University is going in a slightly different direction today, taking a road we hope will interest you. Much as I love romance, it’s not ALL I read. And for many of you, romance isn’t all you write. Today’s guest, Jennifer Bort Yacovissi, writes fiction rather than romance. The inspiration for her debut book was close to home…

All those stories you’ve heard about your ancestors are ripe for turning into good fiction; you’ll just need to keep a few things in mind.

My fascination with my ancestors’ stories was ignited when I was about twelve and my mother gave me her mother’s diary. In it, my grandmother Lillie May Beck captured a brief six months of her life from April to October in 1915 when she was eighteen and nineteen—but what a six months! Even then, I appreciated the lovely story arc of the diary. It starts out as my grandfather Ferd Voith is trying to wheedle his way into Lillie’s affections, and ends with her admitting that she is in fact in love with him. She begins the diary because she’s finally been asked to the Easter dance by one handsome, charming fellow who ends up playing a very small role in Lillie’s daily records. Instead, from the first entry to the last, there is Ferd, proving that persistence pays off. “What a great story that would make,” my twelve-year-old self thought. Forty years later, that story formed the basis of my debut novel, Up the Hill to Home.

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By the time I finally started writing, I had collected an impressive amount of original source material from several generations of ancestors. Items included my great grandmother’s far more voluminous diary, and letters from my great-great grandfather, a surgeon who served during the Civil War. In the middle of the project, I unearthed an inch-thick folder in the National Archives that added eye-popping detail to the lives of these ancestors.

Along the way, I learned some valuable lessons about what it takes to fictionalize ancestral stories successfully.

 

Wide appeal is the name of the game.

If reading good fiction over the years has taught me anything, it’s that any story can be made broadly appealing: it’s all in how you tell it. But people forget that what makes a family story interesting to them doesn’t necessarily translate well outside of the immediate family. It’s as though the author is telling an inside joke and is surprised that no one else is laughing. My beta readers helped me to understand this when they protested my inclusion of large swaths of my great grandmother Emma’s diary. They were right, of course. While possibly interesting to her descendants and an historian or two, the diary got in the way of moving the story forward. I eliminated most of it, and carefully selected the entries that remain for the specific information they supply. For the people who might be interested in the entire record, I published the whole diary on my website.

Consider whether your ancestors’ lives intersect in some way with larger historical events. You may find that your family’s story is simply a good launch point for a wider-ranging narrative, and takes you in a direction you didn’t realize you were headed. Allowing the story to unfold organically is the path to writing appealing, engaging fiction, ancestors or not. This brings us to the next point.

 

Yes, truth is stranger than fiction.

       Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction often makes the better story. This is a corollary to the point above. Often, people are motivated to write about their ancestors when they think, “Wow, you can’t make this stuff up. A book would practically write itself!” But it’s crucial to remember that you still need to structure your story using all the normal elements of good fiction: a protagonist who wants something, an antagonist who is blocking the way, an inciting event, rising action, a climax. So even though you know the story, you’ll probably need to step back and consider how to translate what you know into an effective story arc. It’s here that you sometimes discover that knowing what really happened—and sticking with that—can get in the way of discovering the better story that’s hiding somewhere underneath. Again, I learned this valuable lesson as I wrote my own book. At the beginning, I imagined that if I knew the “true” version of events, I would use that version. What I found as I spent more time inhabiting the story and getting to know the characters was that I needed to make a choice between relating a family history and telling a richly layered, nuanced story that wasn’t necessarily the way things actually happened. It didn’t take long for me to come down on the side of the better story. This was especially true of the story’s ending. Once again, it was my beta readers (bless them!) who made it clear that the original ending—whether or not it was true—was unsatisfying, and in fact undercut the story that had come before. I spent more time rewriting the last four pages of the book than I did on any other part of the novel, because I needed to discover the real ending, the correct ending, rather than the one I had carried in my head all those years.

 

You’re putting your ancestors in the public domain.

       Remember that your ancestors belong to more than just you, and not everyone may be happy that you’re writing a story about the family of which they are members also. Generally, the closer your story is to the present day, the more concerned you’ll need to be about raising hackles, and you should think about whether anything you’re writing might be considered libelous. In particular, if the story you want to tell “belongs” more to other people in the family than it does to you, tread carefully. Consult with them ahead of the project and along the way, and do what you can to garner their support for your effort. After all, the rest of your family may be a great source of additional information. My uncle had done extensive, well-documented research into our ancestry long before the advent of the Internet. Having that information gave me a starting point of factual data that saved me years of work. Most crucially, he was able to capture childhood stories from the last generation I was writing about. By the time I started my book, a number of those folks were no longer with us. There were nine children in that generation who then produced a legion of offspring—me, my siblings, and all my cousins—and I put out multiple data calls in order to collect up the photos, letters, legal documents, and other artifacts that had been distributed among all those kids, especially to those whose parents had died. Finally, a number of my cousins were beta readers of my book, which allowed them to be close to the project. Plus, it was wonderful to hear their perspective on the stories we had all heard growing up.

 

This takes more than Ancestry.com.

Depending on the historical period and geographical setting, you’ll need to do a lot of homework to get the details of time and place correct. Historical fiction is very popular now, and fans are sticklers for accuracy. My own book covered almost one hundred years, which demanded a lot of fact-checking. I found that Wikipedia was my best friend for avoiding anachronisms when I needed to know when zippers were invented or when petroleum jelly started being called Vaseline (answer: that was its original name). The Internet is truly a boon for historical writers, if you use it prudently. Many historical archives are now digitized and available online so that you don’t always have to visit them physically. Online access to these original artifacts, like those available through the National Archives, as well as to information about different libraries, databases, historical societies, and other source material is the best use of the Internet for historical research.

The key is to find original source material. I recommend against relying upon other people’s online interpretation of historical events without additional reliable verification. To the extent that you can, visit archives in person that may contain source material about your ancestors and the time period or events you’re describing. I am lucky to be writing about Washington, D.C.—a document-heavy town if ever there was one—and I live nearby so it was easy for me to spend a lot of time culling through original source material. As I mentioned, I found a treasure trove of information concerning my great-great grandparents from his Civil War records and post-war government records, and from her application for a pension from his war service. The most surprising discovery from the official archives? That their daughter, my great grandmother, held a patent for a device she invented early in her career with the Post Office. No one in my family knew that story before, but we all know it now.

***

What story about your ancestors do you think would make a great piece of fiction?

Editor/author HEATHER WEBB, a regular RU contributor, joins us on Monday, May 18.

***

Bio:

Jennifer Bort Yacovissi

Yacovissi head shot

Jenny Yacovissi grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, just a bit farther up the hill from Washington, D.C, where her maternal ancestors settled.  In addition to her work with Washington Independent Review of Books, she enjoys reading historical and contemporary literary fiction, as well as gardening and boating.

She lives in Maryland, where she owns an engineering consulting firm. A fictionalized account of her mother’s family, Up the Hill to Home is Jenny’s debut novel.

To find out more about the people in Up the Hill to Home and see photos and artifacts from their lives, visit Jenny at www.jbyacovissi.com.

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20 Responses to “Your Ancestors as Fiction by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi”

  1. Jenny – Thanks for this fascinating post! I’m a genealogy buff, and I’m lucky that my grandfather also dabbled in researching our family tree. He saved a lot of his own journals as well as those written by his father and grandfather, and many of those were passed down to me. I’ve come across a lot of things that would make good stories, and I’m sure if I dig deeper I’ll find even more. I’ll definitely check out your book, too!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 15, 2015, 1:10 am
  2. I’ve always wanted to know more about my dad’s side of the family that came over from eastern Europe two generations ago. There was a certain level of madness and addiction on that side!

    Posted by Stephanie Barko | May 15, 2015, 8:21 am
    • Stephanie – Are you able to access census records from that period? My biggest problem in researching my mom’s side of the family is that she has an incredibly common surname. My dad’s surname is more unusual, which makes research somewhat easier. The problem with his surname is that it can be spelled in a multitude of ways, and it’s very hard to be sure I’m following the same family lineage.

      Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 15, 2015, 9:20 pm
  3. In my great-great-grandfather’s journal, I learned that he’d lost a son as a toddler. It was soooo sad! And my grandfather had stories about living in the Indian territories. 🙂

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 15, 2015, 8:40 am
  4. I’ll be out for the rest of the morning – back later!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 15, 2015, 8:41 am
  5. I, too, enjoy looking to the past wehn writing. My father served as the band’s geanologist for several years. It was a big task compiling all of the information and something you can’t find at online ancestry sites.

    Because we are Ojibway, he had to reserarch everything through the Treaty pay list and old residential school records.

    I love hearing his stories about the residential school and include tidbits in stories I write, such as one girl dying of appendicitis in the middle of the night when the nuns ignored her screams and cries for help. Or another boy who was found frozen to the railroad tracks after trying to run away from the school so he could go home. Or a family hiding their son (he was a wondrful elder who passed on much knowledge that he had never lost through the school) from the government so he wouldn’t be sent away.

    Then there is another band that split in half over traditionalism and religion. The residential schools have had a hug impact on the aboriginal people of Canada and this plays out in many of my works.

    I don’t think I could ever write a story about my grandmother, father, or other relatives though. But I love including tidbits they shared with me.

    Having grown up on the rseerve, and employed by many aborigianl organisations over the years, besides working with numerous First Nations people and communities, I love writing contemporary stories that are driven by the past.

    Posted by Mercy | May 15, 2015, 10:34 am
    • Mercy- The best letter I have from my great, great grandfather, and which I included in my book, was his account of observing a treaty negotiation at Fort Rice between an expedition sent by President Grant and a number of bands headed by the Hunkpapa. I tried to find more about it in the treaty archives at the National Archives in D.C., but couldn’t find any more information. I doubt the treaty was ever signed, since the speaker for the bands wasn’t having any of it!

      Posted by Jenny Yacovissi | May 15, 2015, 10:29 pm
  6. Great post. I’ve wondered about doing this as my aunt has done extensive family history (a Type A at her truest). But since fiction is so different, I would be concerned at upsetting anyone’s idea of people they really know … For me, I think the story would have to be loosely based on history using source material, but about fictional characters.

    Posted by Stephanie Scott | May 15, 2015, 12:03 pm
  7. I’m an American Indian–NOT a Native American, thank you. Everyone born in America is a Native American.

    Through no doing of mine, I have ancestors who are politically or anthropologically famous. I’m not bragging, because all of my families were at one were avowed enemies of both the United States of America AND the Confederacy. The US killed several of my family on one side, and the Confederates were the damn-dest bunch of smelly idiots on the American continent.

    So when it came to hunting cryptid animals, I put several of my family into my novel as minor characters. (In case you’re curious, the book is due out this summer, and no, I won’t tell you the name of it because of agreements I’ve signed.)

    But I began to realize that, if I took away tribal beliefs from stories my family told me, I was left with encounters that are very like those I have read about regarding bigfoot and so-called dogmen in today’s accounts. (I will only say this for now: the hail-bigfoot-well-met approach advocated on certain television programs of leaving apples, music, and gifts for the big creatures because someone wants to befriend them, is a very dangerous and stupid thing. Many of the creatures may be well-behaved and perform friendly acts. But many of them are the very opposite, and the hail-fellow approach may backfire in the worst way. And that Canadian who says he is simply trying to find a scientific basis for establishing the identity of the species may well find himself eaten alive by the objects of his scientific inquiries.

    Anyway, in my story, my family members are simply guests in a story. It was fun imagining how they were at the old homestead, which no longer exists but which I saw. I imagined how they drank water from the bucket using the common dipper, and how my aunt would have to have someone help her because the bucket was up on the table.

    I imagined how one of my main characters fared at the table of another relative, she having to eat foods she was not familiar with and how they tasted going down. She had ketchup (does anyone REALLY say “catsup” anymore?), but she lacked whiskey. An old friend of mine told me of an anthropologist who travelled many places in the world, and ate with people of many different cultures, often never knowing what he was eating. He said that if you have ketchup and whiskey, you can eat anything.

    Well, the fun I had imagining my family was bitter-sweet. Eventually, I was sad to have to leave them again to the ages. But they lived again with me for a little while in my story, whether or not the book sells.

    Posted by Jim Porter | May 15, 2015, 1:50 pm
  8. I’d love to read all your family adventures. I didn’t find anything very exciting about my family – unless you count the discovery that there were 15 generations of Methodist ministers on my Dad’s side, and more than that on my mom’s side. My grandfather broke the mold by becoming an Army doctor – and a Presbyterian!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 15, 2015, 4:06 pm
  9. One of the funniest things I came across was a story of the birth of one of my great-great-grandfather’s oldest sister’s children. He mentioned that she routinely gave her children the name – first name or middle name – of prosperous people in the town, in hopes they would be generous with the children named after them! That explains some of the children with three or four unusual middle names in our family tree!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 15, 2015, 4:12 pm
  10. Jenny – You mentioned that some family members might not be happy about a book featuring true stories about their relatives. Did you have to persuade people in your family to contribute to your book, or were they excited to participate?

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 15, 2015, 4:42 pm
    • Becke – I love the concept of 15 generations of Methodist ministers–just that phrase alone could start a story–and the naming of children after prosperous townfolk! You asked about whether my own family was supportive, and yes, I got an amazing amount of help and information from the extended family. I mentioned putting out several requests for photos that people had, and I even invited everyone to brunch one Sunday early in the project–and then pumped everyone to tell the stories they had heard. It was wonderful!

      Thank you for all your posts today; I ended up being away from my desk almost all day, so I missed much of the conversation!

      Posted by Jenny Yacovissi | May 15, 2015, 10:15 pm
  11. Jenny – I belatedly realized that my grandmother was the equivalent of an unreliable narrator. She gave me a lot of information about her ancestors that turned out to be false. She and my grandfather liked to wander through graveyards and look for tombstones with their family names (Adams and Davis – hard to get more common than those names!). They copied down the details of the tombstones and added these people to our unofficial family tree. NONE of the names she gave me were actual family members as far as I can determine. Luckily she did remember some names on her side of the family. I’m back to about 1850, but that’s when I get stuck. One day I’ll get back on Ancestry.com, but it’s too expensive for me right now!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 15, 2015, 10:24 pm
  12. Have a great weekend, Jenny, Stephanie and everyone!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 15, 2015, 10:25 pm
  13. I have my aunt’s diary from the 1930s, and I refer to it often. I find lots of gems in there. I’ve done considerable research on my family (genealogy), what the times were like, my mom’s hometown (also the hometown of a few generations starting with my great-grandfather who came over from Wales in 1869). I’ve also done a lot of research about Wales, coal mining, coal mining towns in eastern Pennsylvania. Not all the details make it into my fiction, but the essence does.

    Posted by Karen R. Sanderson | May 16, 2015, 5:18 am
  14. When I was 10, I found my dad’s love letters to my mom while he was in France as a paratrooper during WWII, and my mom was waiting for him in NJ. Even as a pre-teen, I knew that these letters were HOT. Could make for a great book, because my dad also wrote about his days in the center of the war.

    Posted by Pamela | May 18, 2015, 5:31 pm

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