Writing the physical world of our ancestors may seem impossible at times. We face two concerns, how do we know what it looked like and how do we bring that world to life on the page.
Replicating that world will once again rely heavily on your family history research along with social history research. I encourage you, where possible to visit the ancestral hometowns of your ancestors. Walk the streets, visit the local historical societies and learn everything you can about their surroundings, from the house they lived in, to the street they lived on. Absorb the town that was a part of their daily life. If you can’t go in person visit through the magic of Google Earth. Reproduce your ancestor’s setting down to the most minute detail.
Once you have your research, you now must turn to painting a picture of the landscape with words so the reader can visualize being there. We want them to feel as if they are standing beside their ancestor, seeing what they are seeing.
As we have previously discussed with regards to scenes; we will rely on our senses, all of them, specific details, and figurative language to make this happen. However, before writing physical description of your ancestor’s world let’s discuss the importance setting plays in your family history story.
You learned in previous posts, setting is a component of scene, without a setting to anchor your reader, they are lost.
However, I see writers not doing justice to setting. They may include a year, maybe a town name or a place like a the kitchen, but that’s where the description often stops. More detail, particular detail is needed. When I say more, I don’t mean describe the entire house, or the whole town. Give the reader intimate details of the immediate setting. For example, if we’re in the kitchen then give the reader the colour of the tablecloth, the smell of the stew cooking on the stove, the creak of the chair and the burnt out lightbulb dangling above.
A setting can also set tone, a feeling and it can be a character in of itself. For example, the supportive small town or the thick forest holding back progress or a chaotic city that overwhelms a new resident can play a pivotal role in a story. The setting can offer far more complications or support in your story than just a pretty backdrop in which to tell your story. Keep in mind that what you choose to share in terms of details are the very tools you will use to create tone and evoke feeling. Is the kitchen warm and cozy, or cold and desolate? The description you share should be hand-picked and carefully worded to evoke the feelings you want to bring forward to the reader.
Setting can also take on a character type role. Many of you writing memoir might find this to be true when writing about a childhood home, or a grandparent’s house, a setting that conjures up immense emotion.
Consider how the environment plays into your ancestor’s emotions. Take out something you’ve written so far this month. Read it. Is the location clear? The physical setting established? Are there details, or is it very general in nature? Does it reflect a feeling an emotion, could it?
On the other side, setting shouldn’t take over your writing. Long narratives describing a family home or locations pull the reader away from the action and the story. Describing setting within a scene requires a delicate balance, just enough to to feel like we are there, not to much that it pulls us out of the story.
You, the family history writer control the window to your ancestor’s physical world, think cautiously about how you wish to portray that world to your reader and what feeling and emotion it could bring to the story.