Creative writing vs. Encyclopedic statements

Excerpt from “Writing Family Histories for the Nonwriter”

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My strategy for writing my family history is initially to transcribe the information from documents to summaries for each ancestor. These entries can be bullet points. They can also be sentences, but they do not have to be. This method helps me start the process and should help most people overcome their fear and reluctance to start writing their family history.

I visualize my initial entries for an ancestor as just recording information. As a result, my first entries have an encyclopedic format and could be considered boring. Here is an example:

“The baptismal record for my grandmother, Anna Chmielewska, indicates she was born on June 26, 1899, in Pierzshaly, Poland, to Aleksander Chmielewski and Julianna Zaluska.”

This format is mechanical. After using it frequently, remembering specific words, phases, and the sentence structure for each type of record is easy. Each entry begins with the name of the record type, followed by a verb such as lists, indicates, or shows. Next, enter the person’s name and then list the information in the document. Using this method, you can record the information quickly and accurately in your summaries for each ancestor because the words should flow freely. In addition, frequent use will train your eyes where to look for the information in the document.

Using summaries as your primary research document, you should update them conscientiously with more details and facts. Having all the information for an individual in one place is another benefit because it helps find further info faster. Additionally, list the information in chronological order, which will slowly tell the stories. Finally, the latest info, details, and stories will help you expand the initial encyclopedic entry into an appealing narrative. For example, here is the current entry describing my grandmother’s birth after I added details I gleaned from pictures and other documents:

“Anna was born at 7 p.m. on Monday, June 26, 1899, to Aleksander Chmielewski and Julia Zaluska in a small cottage in the farming village Przezdziecko-Pierzchaly, Polish Russia.

“In Poland, fathers choose the names of their sons, and mothers select their daughters’ names. Additionally, Polish parents often give their children saint’s names, and usually, the name is associated with the saint for the day of the birth. However, the saint’s name for June 26 was not Anna, so I do not know why my grandmother received her name.

“On the day after Anna’s birth, Aleksander put Julia and the baby onto his horse cart and led them down the dirt road three miles to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Andrzejewo for Anna’s baptism. Walking behind their father were Anna’s four siblings – Marianna (age 17), Boleslaw (age 14), Stefania (age 12), and Hipolit (age 6).

“Also joining the procession were Grandfather Adam Chmielewski and the godparents Franciszek and Emilia Uscinski. Emilia was Julia’s first cousin, and, as godmother, she was responsible for dressing the infant for the christening.

“Another group accompanying the family to the church included Jozef Sutkowski, age 42, and Aleksander Sutkowski, age 40, who were needed as witnesses to the birth. They were farmers in Pierzchaly and brothers to Anna’s grandmother Teodora who had died four years prior.

“Grandmother Franciszka Zaluska and other family members met them in Andrzejewo because they lived near the church.”

You may think I am taking some liberties with the creative writing in the second example, but I did not make up the details. They came from the documents and photos:

  • Birth and baptismal dates – from Anna’s baptismal record
  • Birthplace and location of church – from Anna’s baptismal record
  • Size of the cottage – from vintage pictures of the village
  • Condition of roads – from vintage photos of the area
  • Origins of her name – from books on Polish customs
  • The list of people attending the baptism- from birth, marriage, and death records for the friends and family of the Chmielewski family and the village of Pierzchaly
  • Distance to the church – calculation from a map


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