The Riverside: A Writer's Resource


  Non-Fiction: Family Stories

  Story Keeper/Story-Teller


A fun, non-fiction project to do is to tell your family stories. These stories can range from genealogical research and the assembly of facts to stories in which you are the main character. You can also write stories about your children or grandchildren. All family stories are sure to find a receptive audience and will be treasured by everyone who is even remotely related. Many family stories have a universal theme and will find their way into the hearts of broader audiences. Whatever generation you choose to write about and whatever the topic or theme, family stories are a great source of material for the non-fiction genre (they provide great material for works of fiction too, but we’ll discuss that in another article).


As with any writing, you should first prepare before you begin. There are four steps you should consider in the process of writing and getting ready to write: 1) Gather the facts; 2) Know your purpose; 3) outline/brainstorm; 4) WRITE!


Gather the facts

On a blank piece of paper, jot down all you know about who is in the story, what events will be told, when does the story take place, where does it take place, and what is the resolution or solution to the main event(s) in the story. As you are working on this, you will discover that there are things you don’t know. We call this type of missing information “holes”. Once you identify the holes, you are ready to go out and ask questions or do some research.


Know your purpose

What point(s) do you want to make by writing this story? Perhaps you want to introduce ancestors to your family, or maybe you want to immortalize some part of your life as if taking a snap shot of a treasured event and frame it. You may want to highlight certain characteristics or qualities of humanity by telling your story. Whatever your purpose, write it down so you can at least think about it and have it as a guide.



This step is optional. If the story is biting at the bit and can’t wait to be told, then by all means, just start writing! On the other hand, these activities can serve as an excellent tool in warming you up and getting you ready to do your best work.


Brainstorming is like shopping with a pocket full of cash: you can fill your cart with absolutely everything that triggers your fancy. With brainstorming, you can dream and fantasize and you can have it all! Brainstorming sets you up with the potential for countless stories.


The only drawback to brainstorming is that you may enjoy the shopping so much that you never take the tags off the items and actually use them. Brainstorming may be the end of your enthusiasm, leaving you with a notebook full of great ideas that never turn into real stories.


Outlining on the other hand, helps you organize ideas, events, and sequence to the extent that the story is already shaped and you are more confident and secure about filling it in and dressing it up. Outlining is a great way to visualize the completion of the story.


The main problem with outlining is that you may adhere to the structure of the plan at the expense of inspiration. Stories and characters are very much alive and as a writer, you have to remain open to the voice(s) you are serving. It takes a certain kind of abandon to write a really good story when following an outline. If outlining works for you, then by all means, employ this technique! Just be forewarned that your story will be dry and academic if you don’t allow yourself some flexibility to your plan.



This step is not optional! This is the fun part. In writing, you get to go back in time and relive a part of your past. You get to hang out with your ancestors and ask them all those questions you thought were too late to ask. They will answer you through your pen, they really will! Trust me on this one – ask anything you want, then shut up and listen; your pen will go crazy with words you would never fabricate on your own!


In writing, you get to romanticize the moments that would otherwise remain dormant in the mundane and distant past. In writing, you get to be a kid again and you get to spend time again with your own children and grandchildren.


The only stipulation to the writing is that while you are doing it, please forget everything that was said in all the steps leading up to this one! Preparing to write is an important key to getting ideas from your head to the paper. But once you are in the throes of writing, you have to surrender all control so that you can experience the story. When you morph yourself into the story and let it take you on its own ride, not only do you produce a great piece of work, but you are also transformed by the very act of writing. This is the highest high and the biggest thrill of the human experience.