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Writing Family Stories

A Fun Family Activity

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I'm lucky because I had some relatives who did write things down, so I know that some of my ancestors on my father's side were lead miners in England who lived in rather crowded conditions. Seven of them lived in a two-room cottage, one room being a straw-covered loft where they all slept. My grandfather's father left England for America in 1871.

My mother's parents came from Poland. Her mother was a peasant and her father was well-to-do. Her father's parents disapproved of the relationship, so the two left home and came to America. They started a family here, but after some years returned to Poland. Fortunately, they soon returned to America. My mother's mother's family farm was located near the area where Hitler's troops invaded Poland in 1939.

Family stories can tell us about our families and the kinds of lives they led, but unless we write them down, they can be lost forever. Here are some ways you and your children can collect and preserve family stories.

Gather Information

Before the kids can write any stories, they need some information! They can gather information from you and other relatives: aunts, uncles, grandparents. This can be done a number of ways.

Collect Pictures

Most families have pictures, sometimes buried away in boxes or old albums. To preserve the photos and be able to share them and even use them in projects, you might want to digitize the photos. Old photos are so invaluable and not just for what we are able to see. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that may be true to a degree. We can see what people look like, the expressions on their faces, the clothes they wore, the way they held themselves, all of which would take many, many words to describe. What pictures can't tell us, though, is what the people were thinking, what they were like, the kind of relationship they had with the others in the picture, and what was going on when the picture was taken. What we want are the stories behind the picture.

Interview Relatives

Pictures can make a great starting point in gathering family stories.Children can sit down with you and other relatives and ask about the people in the pictures. Sometimes, the pictures can also trigger other memories of the people in them or the events around the time the picture was taken. But there is much more to learn from relatives through interviews. Kids first want to prepare for interviews by writing down some questions to ask. Here are some examples:

  • What did you do for fun?
  • What kinds of games did you play?
  • What kind of toys did you play with?
  • What was school like?
  • What did you study?
  • What kinds of foods did you eat?
  • What was your favorite food? Meal?
  • What kind of homework did you have?
  • What kind of chores did you do
  • Did you have an allowance?

Be sure to tell your child to take good notes of the interviews! But then maybe he would rather use a tape recorder to tape the interviews. Those interviews can then be saved to pass down, too. In fact, your child might want to use a video recorder for some of the interviews.

Read History

The stories of our family members can tell us only so much. We also need to understand the times in which our family members lived. What was happening in the country? In the world? What were people concerned about? What was life like for everyone? One way to learn about daily life is to read some history on the times and places in which our ancestors lived. Your child might be interested in reading some historical fiction that will provide some excellent background to help her get a full understanding of the lives her ancestors lived.

Fill in a Family Tree

Visual aids always make information easy do understand and a visual family tree is no different. Kids can fill in the blanks on a family tree to see how everyone is related. It makes it easier for them (and you) to grasp some of those trickier relationships like second cousins once removed or first cousins twice removed. Family Tree Magazine has a great downloadable family tree graphic that kids can use to make the job easier. In case you're wondering, second cousins would be the grandchildren of siblings. If they're once removed, there is a generation between the two. That means one would be the grandchild of one sibling and the other would be the great grandchild of another sibling. Charts can help illustrate these relationships.

Write Stories

Once your child has gathered some information through pictures and interviews, it's time to write some stories. If your child is a budding short story writer or novelist, he can tell the stories family members have related, but also fill them out with historical details he gathered from reading histories of the times. But if your child prefers a more straightforward descriptions of family members and their experiences, then he just needs to write out the details. Either way, he is preserving so much information for future generations. If your child needs some ideas on what all to write about, there are a few creative questions about family that he can answer. However, your child wants to approach the story telling, she might want some ideas on how to make the stories come alive. The book Show; Don't Tell! The Secrets of Writing explains how to do that through the choice of words and more in a fun and interesting way.

Create a Family Story Book

Once your child has written all those stories, what should be done with them? Why not create a family story book? The front cover can have a copy of the graphic family tree that your child filled out or a print out of one of the old family pictures. The book can be organized by time or by family branches. Pictures of people can be on the pages that tell the stories about those people and events. Pictures of houses, neighborhoods, towns, workplaces and other places of interest can be included, too, depending on what stories your child has written.

If you have digitized the photos, your child can create the story book on the computer by using a word-processing program like Word or Open Office. If your child is older and more proficient with computer programs, a program like Publisher can be used. Another way to create great family story books is through Bookemon. Bookemon is a free service that allows people to create quality books for free. You can even upload your own pictures to use. The catch is that if you want the book, you have to buy it, but you do have some control over the design and price range. Some are as little as $13.00. You can buy copies of your book to give as gifts to family members or just let family members know the book is there and let everyone buy their own copy.

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