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Ancestors Speak Out: Creating Scenes in Your Family History Book

How do you write about the past in ways that bring the characters to life, while being true to the facts of the time and place?

By writing “…books that communicate information in a scenic, dramatic fashion,” says Lee Gutkind, who was once described by Vanity Fair magazine as “The Godfather” of creative nonfiction.

Creating a dramatic scene presents a nonfiction writer with some unique problems. You can rely on historical sources to recreate a vivid description of the setting of an event. But often no such sources exist when it comes time to add dialogue. Unless you are writing about famous people, there will be no record of what the people you are writing about actually said a particular moment. How do you create dialogue that functions as a “scene”, yet doesn’t wander into the realm of fiction?

First, you should try to get a sense of the voice of the “character” you will be writing about. If it’s a person you have personal experience with, you can literally remember the way the person spoke. If your account relies on interviews, don’t forget to ask your interview subjects about the person’s speech patterns. Sometimes your character has left behind a diary, a journal or letters that will give you a sense of how they used language. In any case, you know that a family farmer raising corn in Iowa wouldn’t sound the same as a big city banker, or an English professor. Some of the people you are writing about may well be immigrants whose English would occasionally be scattered with words from the old country. A word or phrase in Spanish, Yiddish or German can help you to nail a character’s speech.

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One technique to distinguish one person’s speech from another’s is to use what fiction writers term character tags, which are unique, favorite expressions. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby called people “old sport.” Theodore Roosevelt often found things he liked “bully.” Tommy LaSorda, the Hall of Fame manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, told players who weren’t performing well they’d be “back in the lunch bucket league.” Each of these expressions is colorful, and each gives a sense of the kind of person the speaker was. Using these character tags adds meaning and authenticity to your dialogue.

Remember, dialogue is not formal speech. People often don’t speak in complete sentences; and they ordinarily don’t pontificate at great length.  Instead, a dialogue represents an exchange between speakers. Make sure the dialogue you write captures that informal quality.

How might you go about writing dialogue for a scene when you have limited knowledge of what the speaker might have said or how he might have said it? You have to resort to a degree of deduction and speculation. You know something about the person. You know something about the situation the person is in. Think about what the person might have been thinking and feeling and you can get a sense of what they might have said.

It is a good idea to keep the dialogue simple when your knowledge is limited. It is still possible to write a very effective dramatic scene which has only brief dialogue.

Paul David Pope’s family saga The Deeds of My Fathers offers a good example of such brief but effective dialogue. Pope describes the moment when his grandfather, Generoso, decides to leave Italy to come to America. He describes the scene in great detail: a café next to a rutted dusty street in a small Italian village. Generoso is seated at a table with a well-dressed agent for a shipping company which is offering passage to America. Pope uses narrative summary to supply facts about Italian immigration and the way people in the village might have viewed it. The only dialogue in the scene is as follows:

“How much is the fare for America?” Generoso asked.

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“Ten dollars.”

“How old do you have to be?”


“I can’t wait.”

“Look here.” [Generoso shows the agent a letter from his brother-in-law in NY offering to sponsor him when he arrives in America.].

“Would you like to see some pictures of New York?”

“Oh, yes! Very much.”

The scene works effectively at bringing to life this pivotal moment in Generoso’s life. But Pope hasn’t taken any great fictional leaps in creating the dialogue. What boy hoping to get on a ship would not have asked these same questions? He is simply descibing the inevitable conversation that must have taken place. The dialogue is in the context of many known facts: the location, the people, the events.

If the dialogue you use to tell your story meets that criteria, you are within the bounds of historical accuracy, and you are telling a good story at the same time.

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