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The Write Way

27 February 2009

"No-one Speaks My Name..."


The elderly aunt of one of my friends died late last year, and my friend and I were discussing how quickly life passes and how things change (as you tend to do when reminded of your own mortality at times like this). We were both sobered by the thought that we were now the most senior generation in our respective families ... 

I know I've confessed before that in my head I'm still 18 (on bad days, 30-something) despite what my birth certificate tries to tell me, so this realisation came as a bit of a bombshell. It's scary to think that there is now no-one to whom our generation can go for advice or help ... or even for answers to all those important questions, such as, "Remember when we lived at X ... what was the name of the people who had that black and white dog?"

There was always Mum or Dad or a grandparent or an aunt or uncle ... now there's just us. It's another reason for us all to put pen to paper and write down our memories while we have our faculties! And this week's Little Something Extra has some good tips on how to go about doing just this.

As we reminisced about family members who'd left us, my friend was reminded of an observation her aunt had made about being old, and it was such a poignant comment that I know it's going to stay with me forever. Her aunt was talking about how all her friends had gone and she said that now, shop-keepers and business people called her Mrs, family members called her Mum or Gran or Aunt, but there was no-one left to speak her name. No-one to call her by her given name, no-one to address her in an informal way, no-one who was a contemporary who knew her well enough to use a nick-name ...

It's something we forget about, isn't it? That what people call us is so important to our feeling of belonging. Think of when you were (are) at school ... far from being outraged when other kids start calling you by a nick-name, you actually feel accepted once you start getting called "Blue" or "Carrots" or "Johnno" or whatever. Even unflattering nick-names can be a sign of acceptance ... At least you've been noticed!

(And I know some of you are remembering hurtful nick-names, and I understand that these are a different kettle of fish entirely.)

So your mission for this weekend, should you choose to accept it, is to start raking through all those family photos. Get them into some sort of order. Old shoe boxes work well - put in some cardboard dividers so you can organise them at least chronologically. Later on, you can sort according to places or families or holidays or whatever you need.

Then, and this is the fun part, it's time to go through all those bits and pieces you've got stashed away in envelopes, manila folders and filing cabinets; tucked away under the bed, on the top shelf in the wardrobe, in a box up in the attic (for those of you who have such wonderful storage areas) or balanced on the rafters near the man-hole in the ceiling for the rest of us.

This is where you go mining for autobiographical and genealogical gold!

Here you'll find those old school books and reports that show how standards have changed; there'll be receipts for household items that cost the same as a bottle of milk costs now; you'll discover instruction booklets for those new-fangled electric fridges, phonographs and transistor radios. Maybe you'll unearth documents from the purchase of your first home, from a trip overseas or a trip to the doctor when you were expecting your first child.

Then there are all those birthday cards, Christmas cards and others from people whose faces you can no longer place. If you're lucky, there'll be short notes of family news scribbled inside or perhaps even a letter full of hatchings, matchings and dispatchings!

Don't discount anything, because all this is grist for your writing mill, and justification for hoarding it for all these years ...

Then, in a week or two (or four or five ... I know what you're like once you start reminiscing over old photos ...) it will be time to gather your loose-leaf folder and start jotting down those events, people, visits and memories that leap out at you. Don't try to artificially structure this ... they're your memories about your life and your family, so you get to make the decisions!

Start a new page for each thing you remember, jot down your recollections and then start collecting photos, documents and memories that relate to each one. Talk to people who were around at the time to get their take on what happened -- you often uncover lots of fascinating family skeletons or champions you had no idea existed once you start this sort of exercise. Think of it as a voyage of discovery!

That should keep you gainfully occupied for the next year or so ... and then you can start putting it all together.

The format is entirely up to you, and the evidence you collect will largely determine how to do this. Nothing beats a word processor for quickly and efficiently keeping a record, and if you start by structuring your recollections so that you start a new page every couple of pages, you'll be able to slip an extra page into your lose-leaf folder if someone phones you with a startling memory that just has to be included.

If your family was one of those with an avid film-maker and you have access to lots of film footage, then you might prefer to make a DVD; or perhaps a CD with photos and recordings of family members recalling their memories.

We're very fortunate to have all these resources so readily available to us today -- computers and digital cameras and mobile phones have made it possible for all of us to be mini-Cecil B DeMilles!

OK ... What are you doing still here? Off you go! You have a history to compile.

And if you do all that, no-one in your family will have to make this wish-list:

I want ancestors who could read and write, had their children baptised in recognised houses of worship, went to school, purchased land, left detailed wills (naming a huge extended family as legatees), had their photographs taken once a year - subsequently putting said pictures in elaborate glass frames annotated with calligraphic inscriptions, and carved valuable and informative inscriptions in their headstones.

I want family members who wrote memoirs, who enlisted in the military as officers and who served in strategically important (and well-documented) skirmishes.

I want relatives who served as council workers, schoolteachers, county clerks and town historians.

I want relatives who "religiously" wrote in the family Bible, recording every little event and detailing the familial relationship of every visitor.

I want relatives who were patriotic and clubby, who joined every society they could find, who kept diaries, and listed all their addresses, who had paintings made of their houses, and who dated every piece of paper they touched.

I want ancestors who were wealthy enough to afford, and to keep for generations, the family homestead, and who left all the aforementioned pictures and diaries and journals intact in the library!

There you go ... do it for your kids!


This next story is about families ...

A lawyer was reading out the will of a rich man to the people mentioned in the will:

"To you, my loving wife Rose, who stood by me in rough times, as well as good, I leave her the house and $2 million."

The lawyer continued, "To my daughter Jessica, who looked after me in sickness and kept the business going, I leave her the yacht, the business and $1 million." The lawyer concluded, "And, to my cousin Dan, who hated me, argued with me, and thought that I would never mention him in my will - well you're wrong. Hi Dan!"

And now that the weekend is here, you can sit and think about your entry for our competition. In a maximum of 25 words, you're to outline the plot for a Soapie, and if you need something to kick-start your thoughts, re-visit How to Write a Soapie. 

Details of the competition are on Write101's home page

This week's quiz:

Here are some terms you may come across as you put together your family history ...

banns, patronymics, nuncupative, descendant, primogeniture, legatee, dowager, lien, testate, consanguinity

1. someone who inherits money or property from a person who left a will 

2. widow holding property or a title received from her deceased husband; title given in England to widows of princes, dukes, earls and other noblemen 

3. the practice of creating last names from the name of one's father 

4. oral will declared or dictated by the testator in his last sickness before a sufficient number of witnesses and afterwards put in writing 

5. public announcement of an intended marriage, generally made in church 

6. died leaving a valid will 

7. your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, anyone to whom you are an ancestor 

8.  the degree of relationship between persons who descend from a common ancestor 

9. insures the right of the eldest son to inherit the entire estate of his parents, to the exclusion of younger sons 

10. claim placed on property by a person who is owed money 

And a story about a tricky family history ...

The children of a prominent family chose to give the patriarch a book of their family's history. The biographer they hired was warned of one problem. Uncle Willie, the "Black Sheep," had gone to Sing Sing's Electric chair for murder. 

The writer carefully handled the situation in the following way: "Uncle Willie occupied a chair of applied electronics at one of our nation's leading institutions. He was attached to his position by the strongest of ties. His death came as a true shock."



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Last week's quiz:


2. culpa (a fault) - CULPABLE, CULPRIT

3. fugio (I flee) - FUGITIVE, REFUGE, REFUGEE


5. ruptus (to break) - RUPTURE, INTERRUPT, BANKRUPT


7. tentus (to hold) - TENTATIVE, TENACIOUS, TENANT




A Little Something Extra

The first thing you need to decide is whether you're writing the history of your family, which will involve lots of detailed research, or whether you're writing your own history, in which case you'll just need plenty of time to jog your memory.

Whether you choose a full family history or an autobiography, the one thing they have in common is the need for documents and other pieces of evidence so you can ensure accuracy. You owe it to yourself and your family to make sure you tell the story as it really happened.

A good introductory article on writing about your family here 

This article shows how you can make your family history read like a novel here. (Make sure you read the other How-to articles listed at the bottom of the page.)

Some practical tips about writing your family history - where to get the information, how to organise it here

An interesting slant on what can happen when you write about current family members ... while they're all still around to complain here 

A handy tip to help jog your memory so you can start writing down your life story here

And here's how you keep track of all your information ... If you're like me, you'll start writing a description of somewhere that was an important part of your life, then get a flash of inspiration about something that happened when you were a child ... And by the time you've found the bit of paper (or page in your notebook or file in My Documents) where you've been keeping similar notes, you've forgotten what it was you were going to add!

But that is now a thing of the past, because this natty program has a Global Notes section where you can create dozens (or hundreds or thousands) of neat folders to store all these ideas - and then they're all there at your fingertips, just a click away.

As I mentioned earlier, this is primarily a novel-writing program, but with just a teensy bit of juggling you can also use it to write your autobiography or family history. Just bypass the Character Creation section and concentrate on the World section. Then use the Global Notes to organise all the parts of your book. 

Allocate a main folder and a number of sub-folders to the different parts of your history and then you can add to any of these as you think of things you want to include. And once you've entered all the information, the book is practically done!

This is a ripper - you can write fiction (and follow the suggestions the program was designed to help with) or, with a bit of judicious omission, non-fiction! Read more about it here.

Word of the week:  Ahnentafel (n) ancestor table, tabulates the ancestry of one individual by generation in text rather than pedigree chart format. A comprehensive ahnentafel gives more than the individual's name, date and place of birth, christening, marriage, death and burial. It should give biographical and historical commentary for each person listed, as well as footnotes citing the source documents used to prove what is stated.

Try saying this word and you sound as if you've just run up three flights of stairs! explains the origins of this word: "The term Ahnentafel is a loan word from the German language, however its German equivalent is Ahnenliste. In German Ahnentafel means a genealogical chart showing the ancestors of one person in the form of a binary tree."

See a working example here 

Oxymoron of the week: This week's oxymoron is from Dr Mardy Grothe's great book, Oxymoronica, and it may sum up the feelings many parents have at times:

"We all of us wanted babies -- but did we want children?" (Eda J. Lashan)

Since we've been looking at our family histories this week, here's another about that amazing transmogrification that turns ordinary people into saints ... This one is from Voltaire:

"I have just been informed that Monsieur X is dead. He was a staunch patriot, a talented writer, a loyal friend, a devoted husband and father -- provided he really is dead."

And a Latin phrase just for families:

Bene, matrem tuam rogabimus.

[BAY-nay MAH-traym TOO-ahm roh-gah-BEE-moos]

(All right, we'll ask your mother)

Did you know that you can have your very own Latin reminders? How about undies proclaiming, Bene est rex esse? (It's good to be king) Or a shopping bag that warns, Emptrix nata sum (Born to shop)? 

Kind regards,


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