A Successful Family History

This summer it has been my privilege to help a client prepare her family history.

This could have been bad news (even at my hourly rate!) but the client–we’ll call her Bea–did several things right that made the work, while intense, one of the most fascinating editing gigs I’ve ever had.

The first thing my client did right was get born into an interesting family. Her father, aunt and five uncles are the children of Virginia tobacco farmers who persevered through family tragedy and the Depression of the 1930s. The original farm is still in the family and the annual reunion is a community event in their southeastern Virginia county. We discovered in the course of editing the material that her grandfather was born a hundred years ago this month.

The second thing Bea did right was involve her father, aunt, uncles, and a couple of her grandfather’s cousins in the project. I gather it was hard work getting everybody to sit down and write their 500-word biography and any supplemental stories of growing up they wanted to contribute, but she persisted, and the stories are wonderful. It turns out that most of the relatives are natural storytellers, and even the people who were more comfortable with a just-the-facts approach supplied enough detail so that their personalities and pride in their children came shining through.

The third thing that set this history apart from a mere record of who begat whom list was the original research Bea did. She spent one full week this summer in two libraries, one in Virginia and one in North Carolina, discovering birth records, marriage certificates, census documents and slave records that gave a history to ancestors who before had been only names and fragments of story.

The fourth good decision she made was to include different perspectives. For instance, the history includes two accounts of a great-grandfather’s murder by a deranged brother-in-law: one written late in life by her grandfather, who almost witnessed the event and was so traumatized by discovering his father’s body that he would not talk about it to his own children, the other by a cousin, who added detail the grandfather’s account does not mention.

There also is a fictionalized memoir of a great-great-grandmother’s life as a slave before the Civil War and her life after Emancipation. This section–clearly labeled a dramatization–is based on the family tradition but includes dialogue and added historical detail to make it more accessible to younger family members.

The fifth good decision she made was hiring a graphic artist to design the book. If you’re going to spend several years of your life putting together a project like this, do it right. And she did.

And the last good decision, if I do say so myself, was hiring a professional writer to look over the material before she sent it to the designer. My job was to fix grammar, spelling, and punctuation while still maintaining each writer’s distinctive voice and not overriding regionalisms, query inconsistencies of fact and spelling, double-check what I could and flag what I couldn’t, and in general, work with Bea to make the book a fitting tribute to her grandparents.

(The catch I’m proudest of was adding “a regional word for creek” in parentheses after a phrase about her grandmother walking an uncle to school “and swinging him over the branch.” Bea was brought up in Wisconsin, but I’m from a part of Ohio settled not long after the American Revolution, when Virginia was the next state to the East, and some of our creeks are still called branches.)

I haven’t seen the finished product yet; the book is still in the design phase. I’m looking forward to the day this autumn when the page proofs are ready so I can finally see photos of the people whose lives I have followed with so intensely!

© 2011 Anne Bingham and Making It Up as I Go

This entry was posted in History Stuff, The Writing Life and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Successful Family History

  1. MaryWitzl says:

    What a GREAT job to get! If I had to make a list of the most interesting possible freelance jobs, doing somebody’s family history would absolutely be a 10. Even relatively boring family histories are interesting (life has a way of adding its own drama), and Bea’s family history sounds anything but boring.

    I’d like a 10 too. I’ve had a couple of 7s and the odd 8, but a freelance 10 would be so nice.


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