Writing about your family history (v) … where were they? And what did they do there?

Another aspect of telling a story is place and location. Maybe you know the places where your ancestors lived – maybe you still live in the same location. If they came from far away, even if you haven’t ever visited, with the internet it’s easy to find pictures and maps, and old pictures and maps too of what it was like when Great-Aunt Jane or a red-headed blacksmith ancestor lived there.  You can go on street view and follow their footsteps from home to where they worked, from their little village to the local town where your farming ancestor might have taken his animals to market.

As for the plot or narrative of your story, you have the outline of someone’s life, fill in the gaps – find pictures or visit the church where they were baptised or married, look up contemporary newspapers and directories to see what happened in those years and who the neighbours and tradespeople were your family might have had dealing with.

Use what you know, and what you can find out, but use your imagination to! Your story can start with a maybe… ‘maybe one bright spring morning Jane looked in the mirror and saw herself as a beautiful bride… today was the day she was to marry her beloved Arthur…’

Another way of making your stories accessible to others is to write the story of your investigation. What were the stories you heard as a child of great-aunt Jane? How did you find her in the records, did she go missing and you couldn’t trace her? Did she travel to somewhere you weren’t expecting? Did she have a first husband you didn’t know about, or children who lived with someone else… how did you track them down, what was the paper-trail? What were the stumbling blocks – how many Jane’s with the same name and birth date did you come across? How did you identify which one was yours? How many and what blind alleys did you go down? Which other interesting ancestors did you unexpectedly come across? The story of your journey through the records can be fascinating.

I have written a series of novels about someone searching for his family history; his non-literal journey follows their actual travels, from the Ukraine to Harwich, to Surrey, to my imaginary town of Easthope. His genealogical research gives him the tools to investigate other things, and people begin to commission him to solve their little mysteries, the woman who vanished from her car at the traffic lights, the mysterious but influential Moroccan an old lady brought back from a Mediterranean cruise, the death of a little girl in 1932… I have written five novels about my character Thomas Radwinter, the sixth should be available in May this year!!

Here is a link to my Radwinter novels:


My featured image shows the Portland Arms Hotel in Cambridge, where my granddad held the license from the mid 1920’s until 1950.

Writing about your family history (iv) … telling the truth? Or not?

Telling real stories as fiction…. You might have a fantastic story to tell about your family, but for various reasons (not just risking being cut out of the will!) you may have held back. If you want to write it, however, three are ways of disguising the actual people involved so no-one will guess or recognise them, and yet the bones of the story are there.

I shared this a while ago when thinking of things to write about when inspiration for total fiction deserts you… but thinking about writing family stories, there maybe some you are desperate to write but for personal reasons you can’t write them… but maybe you can!

  • Decide what part of the real story you want to use
    • is it the skeleton of the plot?
    • is it the characters?
    • is it a real setting?
    • is it a situation or event or series of events…
  • Decide on the disguise
    • if it’s just the bones of something real, there are all sorts of ways you can disguise what inspired you, changing characters, locations, sequence of events
    • if it’s the story of a person, change their details
      1. name (obviously!)
      2. gender
      3. age
      4. character (unless the story is dependent on the character – in which case you can change other aspects of them)
      5. appearance (of course! But think about ethnicity, religion etc. as well)
      6. their situation, class, family, background, work, fashion/clothes and so on
  • if it’s a personal story decide whether you are featuring in it – this might make it more difficult to change personal details of other ‘characters’; if you are you! You can, however, change yourself – as in the point above
  • change the time/date/era – bring a Victorian story into the present, change the swinging 60’s to the glam-rock 80’s, change the war in a war story, put the present back into the 90’s; summer to winter, spring and beginnings change to autumn and endings; a CND protest can be an anti-something else demonstration
  • change the location from anywhere to anywhere – even the effects climate and temperature might have on events can be changed, danger from flooding could change to danger from avalanches, trapped by flood water could be trapped by snow
  • decide on the tone or ‘voice’ of what you are writing; is it patently a disguised memoir, is it autobiographical and you just want to be discrete about other ‘characters’; is it seemingly a piece of fiction, is it a ‘maybe true, maybe not you decide’ piece of writing; is it just an episode in something else – a character/incident in a novel you are writing?

You might find your family story told in disguise takes on a life of its own, then you will have to decide whether to maintain the hidden truth, or continue in a completely fictional way.


Writing about your family history (iii) … the journeys they made…

It’s a bit of a fallacy that people in the past never travelled further than the nearest market; in fact, as you probably know from your own research, people moved about almost as much as we do, if not more – and probably for the same reasons, work, family, opportunities, marriage, business… Writing a family story from the point of a journey is a way to create a contained narrative, with a beginning – in one homestead/village/town/city and after staying temporarily in other places, the settling in what became the family home.

On my dad’s side of the family, the Elsdens were all ag labs, agricultural labours, working in Suffolk on farms for generations. They may have come from Norfolk, and before that from Scandinavia, but they stayed in the Suffolk area throughout the eighteenth and first part of the nineteenth century, moving from village to village, no doubt finding work on different farms. When the railways came they moved from the land to work initially on the tracks in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, but later into the engine sheds and driving the big steam engines. The sons of the family moved out of labour and into commerce, opening a fruit and vegetable shop in Cambridge, then holding the license of a pub… and so we became a Cambridge family.

On my maternal side, my Jewish forebears left their commercial business in the hands of their brothers and cousins in London, and travelled round the other side of the world to Tasmania where they started an import export agency – they had ships travelling across the Pacific and all round the South China Sea. Eventually they returned to London and settled in a house on Regent’s Park, they were extraordinarily rich… this was an actual journey, but there followed a journey of a different kind… a journey from riches to a more modest way of life.

My character Thomas in my Radwinter stories follows his ancestors lives, tracing his family back to war-torn eastern Europe, and following their journey from their arrival in England in the 1830’s, across southern England to Easthope, where the family still lives… “I followed the story of the Radwinters, and discovered where we came from… and what an interesting journey that was. I mean journey for me in a non-literal way, but it was an interesting journey for the Radwinters, literally”.

Here is a link to the first  book in the series:


Writing about your family history (ii) … the people you knew…

When you are writing about your family history,  you want to make it accessible – and more than that, enjoyable! You want to engage and intrigue your grandchildren, or their children – you want them to feel part of the story, which of course they are!

With any novel you might read it probably belongs to a genre and has a theme, and that shapes the narrative… you can do the same with your story. Instead of telling your story via the family tree you could pick out a theme which you might follow.

Here in the UK, people of my age grew up in the aftermath of a global, civilisation and culture changing event, the war – and we will have known people who lived through it. Some might have grandparents who experienced the war, and even the war before that, the 1st world war; there are other conflicts which might have touched our families – the troubles in Palestine, the Korean war, Kenya, Cyprus as well as more recent war zones. This could be a theme for your story; instead of trying to tell the whole story of your father, grandfather, uncle’s life – why not write about his war… in fact you may not know very much about his service life (although there are now plenty of ways you can find out about his record) You may not know the details of his service, but you might know the affect it had on him; my father  was in the parachute regiment and served in France, Italy, North Africa and Greece but he told us very little… except the funny things which happened to him. I have written a series of short stories about his comical escapades  imagining the details I don’t know.

The war did not only affect the men,  it affected the whole country, the women, the children, the old and inform who could not serve on a battle front. There are tales to be told about the home guard, about families digging for victory, cooking with a ration book, remaking old clothes – stories from the women who did their bit for the country – fertile ground for creative writing!

… and the children; my mum grew up during the war and she and her sisters kept a diary of life – I could just copy her diary, but using photos of the three girls, I could imagine their stories more fully. Their father and brother were away, Father in the army brother in the RAF, so the four women managed as best they could and offered a friendly welcome to young army boys stationed nearby, far from their own homes.

Maybe you only know scraps of their stories, things you half-remember; use your imagination to weave these stories together to give a glimpse into your family’s past. You can add the bald facts at the end, but by being creative, you can save their stories and hand them on – if only you remember them now, you are the only one who can do it!

In these photos my grandpa is in uniform because he served in both wars.

Audrey, Alan, Monica, Ida, Reg, Beryl Matthews


I wrote a fictional account of one man’s search for his family through genealogy, his research led him to discover as much about himself as about his family from several hundred years ago –


Writing about your family history (i) … the people you never knew…

So many people I’ve talked to about writing their family stories say ‘I just don’t know where to begin’… It really is a dilemma but I think the best answer to ‘how do I start’ is – just start! You may then say ’but where do I begin? Do I begin with Great Aunt-Jane because she had such an interesting life, or do I begin with Sir Hougo de Frogface our distant medieval forebear?’ Well think about Great-aunt –Jane and Sir Hougo – do you know any stories about either of them? If you do then you can tell them! If you don’t, maybe you can imagine from the facts you do know.

Whoever you start with, think of how you would tell someone in a conversation about them – you wouldn’t say ‘Jane Smith was born in 1888, she had three brothers, John, Paul and George who were born in…’. You might, however, say ‘oh, Great Aunt Jane! What a character, she was born in the middle of a thunderstorm and the barn was set on fire by lightning  so the story goes…’ That’s how you would tell an interested friend or relative if you were talking to them… try writing it down as f you were speaking to someone – or write is as a letter!

You will probably wonder whether you should begin at the beginning (wherever that is) and work through the years towards your own immediate family and yourself, or whether you should start with yourself and work back in time. That’s something you have to decide  – and you might start in the middle with great-aunt Jane!  You might have photos of your family, your ‘characters’ in your story so you have an idea of what they look like – if you don’t have any images, use your imagination!

So  supposing someone was a blacksmith, you have his birth record and he appears in censuses – he will be beefy and strong with great shoulders and arms – if many of his descendants have red hair, then maybe he had red hair too. If there’s a family trait of having a wonderful singing voice, maybe he could sing – maybe he was in the church choir, in the church where he was baptised and married. In a later census you know he became a whitesmith – so you can tell he was a person ready to adapt and to embrace new technologies. His first three children died before they were two, so he may have been marked by that sadness… his eldest surviving son became a sailor, how did your red-headed blacksmith feel about that? His second and third sons, twins, joined him in the smithy – you know one later became a stove and oven manufacturer in Manchester, that tells you something about him and his character. His brother and twin stayed with his dad in their village which was growing into a town, working as a silver smith but then went into plumbing as people began to have water in their homes rather than from a pump in the yard… With only the most basic information, using your imagination you can tell your red-headed smith’s story without just a spread sheet of names dates and references…

And what about the smith’s wife? His first wife died after the death of her third child… was she weakened by her pregnancies or was she a sickly person and her poor health meant she struggled to have children?  You have no pictures of her but you might be able to imagine her, slim, pale, not very strong, and saddened, depressed by her struggles to have children (she may have suffered miscarriages as well) She would have struggled physically and mentally, and the life of a housewife in those days was hard and labour intensive.

His second wife (bringing him joy after his sadness and bereavements) lived to be ninety-seven, and bore him eleven children, all of whom survived, including the sailor, the stove manufacturer and the plumber who became an electrician at the turn of the century… And you do have pictures of her as an old woman – can you work out what she may have looked like as a strong young woman? Use your imagination!!

You have the facts, apply the imagination! You may think you have no imagination, but I am sure you do – otherwise you wouldn’t be so interested in the lives of people you never knew!


In my Radwinter stories I have written about someone exploring his family tree and his family’s history… in the next in the series he is looking at the complicated ancestry of his wife… Huguenots, one-armed heroes, tragedies and love! If you haven’t read any of my stories yet, here is a link:


My family history writing group

It’s nearly a year since I started my family history writing group – we are all interested in finding out more about our ancestors and researching our genealogy, but we meet together to think about how we can tell our family stories – we are a writing group, not a researching group!

As usual people join groups and then for various reasons aren’t able to come any more, and so it has happened, but now we have settled down into a consistent eight of us and we met last Monday at my house as usual. I generally have a rough plan of what we are going to discuss and focus on for the first half of the get-together, and after tea/coffee/biscuits we share what we have written from last time.

This is what was on the agenda on Monday:

  • Brief  updates/ any news/ introductions
  • Last time we were thinking about domestic details – adding interesting colour to your stories
  • Today we are thinking about plots and themes – are we going to bring out an aspect or thread of a story of one of or a group/family of our ancestors? For example
    • from place to place– the travels and journeys of our families
    • rags to riches – from humble beginnings to a different life
    • village/town/city life
    • war story – what happened not just to those who went away but those who were left behind, and those who came after
    • love

…and then for next time (only a suggestion, not compulsory):

  • Subject for next meeting (this is completely optional!! It is only a suggestion!!)
    • A glimpse behind the curtain – the story of an ancestor who had a secret
    • Or choose from the examples above (travels/journeys, rags to riches – or vice-versa, war story, love)

After refreshments we shared what we had been doing from last time; I’m so lucky to have such an interesting group of people to work with – the stories they brought were so interested and varied, and without breaking any confidences, here’s a brief summary of what we shared:

I shared my story of my mother and the horrible teacher which I wrote about here; I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way for me to write my family history is to use my imagination and create a filled-out story from just the bare facts – in this case it was my mum as a young girl being kind to a teacher who was beastly to everyone.

Someone continued the story of her childhood; she is such a gifted writer, her prose flows effortless and each ‘episode’ not only follow on from the previous, but is also able to be read as a stand-alone story. This time she wrote about being evacuated from Birmingham during the war.

Someone – who feels that she ‘is not imaginative’ (although she is!) had written three small vignettes I guess you would describe them, recalling tradesmen from yesteryear, the coal man, the rag and bone man and the milk man, all who delivered to houses with horses and carts… cue much laughter about buckets and shovels and compost heaps, vegetables and roses (using the horse’s ‘deposits’ as manure!)

Another person had written about a Christmas tradition from when he was a child; his family would pile in the small car, loaded with gifts, and drive round to all the aunties and uncles and cousins, delivering, and receiving refreshments at each. In those days it would have been quite an expedition in an old-fashioned car, and the details of the different relatives and their houses was amusing and interesting.

Someone else gave us an interesting insight into their first jobs after leaving school, their social life and the ups and downs of their romances. We all commented how different a young person’s life was then, their relationship with their parents who were so strict, and how these days social media and mobile phones mean that everyone is in communication with everyone else almost instantly!

One person has a collection of letters written during the war written by a relative who served overseas. When she first joined the group she was struggling to know how to ‘attack’ them, how to present them without just transcribing them all. She has really got to grips with it, and chosen to write in the present tense which brings an immediacy to what she has done, which makes it very engaging and accessible.

It really is an interesting and enjoyable group and I look forward to the next meeting in February!

If you missed my story about the horrible teacher, here’s a link:


…and here is something I wrote about rag and bone men: