Wednesday, January 19, 2011

(my) Writing Wednesdays #2

Or also known as: How I am trying to write a family history even my grandkids will want to read 
Just what stage of my writing am I at? I hope I am beyond procrastination... and that I will move things towards fruition rather quickly this year. BUT! It wouldn't make me feel very happy if my kids and grandkids took snoozers while reading my great tome (or worse yet, quit and went to play a video game). I can't just gin out the facts or the snoozer route is a definite possibility here. My solution is to provide some context "up front." Without context, it is really hard to imagine what is going on...

Imagine for a minute that I am describing a task to you that I want you to complete. I say, "It really is simple. First you get everything together in one place. Then you separate everything into different groups, unless there isn't much, in which case just one group will do. Although generally it is best to do fewer at a time, or you can end up making expensive mistakes. And really, the end of this task seems to never be in sight. Once the task is finished for the time being, however, you have to arrange everything into different groups again and then put them in their correct place." 

Not a particularly clear set of instructions, is it?

Although the task doesn't sound incredibly difficult, there are a number of questions you might have to ask in order to actually do it: 
  • What are we gathering up? 
  • Are the things heavy (do you need to get help?) 
  • And how am I defining the groups? Age, smell, what criteria?
  • And why do groups need to be small? aren't there economies of scale involved?
  • And do things go back into the same groups they were in before? in which case why can't you just keep them together to begin with?
All of these are valid questions, but if I had provided you with some context, many of the questions would be moot. What if I had a basket of dirty laundry in my arms as I explained your task to you? Then you would know that the things in the collection were not going to be incredibly heavy; that you would first sort on the basis of color; and small is better as clothes get cleaner and less chance of a red sock making the white sheets pink; and that afterwards you would group them by where they were going to be put away – towels in the linen closet, junior's shirts in his dresser and so forth. 

The laundry basket provides the context. The laundry basket makes my task description make sense. Just like doing laundry, in writing a family history, context helps my readers make sense of what I have written. Without context, my readers are operating in a vacuum. So the first advantage context gives me is that it helps my family readers understand - to put things in perspective. 

The second advantage, although related, is (to me) a bit different. Reciting facts in a family history may be interesting, but the facts by themselves may not be memorable. To be memorable, you have to have?? Context! 

If I give you a number, say 9,000,000, it is kind of interesting. OK, grant me that one... It is, at least, a big number. But if I tell you about it in the context of the organization that has coined it as a term,, the number might bring a tear to your eye - the 9 million children living in refuge camps as victims of conflict and violence. Context doesn't just create understanding. It can also tug at your heartstrings and get you emotionally involved. And if you are emotionally involved, you become more interested, and you remember. It is important. 

So context gives my readers understanding, a tie, and the realization that the facts are important - important to me [the author], to my family history readers and their sense of place, and to the people I am writing about, the ones who went before. Just like my family readers don't want to be forgotten and left out, neither do their ancestors. That is the first tool in my toolbox to engage my family readers and make them want to know more. I think everything is important, which is one reason it has been so difficult for me to put pen to paper – what if I miss something? What if some detail gets let out? 

As I write my family history, I am also writing in context, both around the historical events, as well as by providing additional explanation in footnotes (and making sure those footnotes are page notes, rather than at the end of the entire document... more likely to get read that way). 

By way of an example of the importance of context in my own writing, I found in my family research that Claas Pieterzen Cos was married to Neeltje Engles, and they had two children (one of whom is my several-greats grandparent). However, Neeltje didn't live long after the birth of her second child, and Claas remarried. On January 20, 1665/1666, a divorce was granted by the Governor to “Claes Pietersen Cost [sic] of Gemoenepan from his wife Grietie Maas.”

In this day and age, if I told my grandkids that Claes and his second wife were granted a divorce, their reaction would probably be "big whoop." My children and their children have been raised in a time when they have seen the statistics suggesting that first marriages result in divorce 41% of the time, second marriages 60%, and third marriages fail 73% of the time (OK, some people might be slow learners). For Claas and Grietje, the record indicates at the time of the decree, they had been married for eleven years. Divorce was quite rare, and at times, the Court would refuse divorce requests, which suggests that there was an issue that was rather compelling. However, the plot has a bit of a twist, as in the Court records in a margin note, it states that it was “Recalde and of no Effect. [signed] Jas. Bollen Secretary.” [1] 

Bollen's statement suggests that there may have been a rapprochement – voluntary or forced[2] – between the two of them. It may be telling (or not) that there are no records that have been found indicating that the two of them had any children, and while divorce was uncommon, separations were less infrequent.

So there you have it. My argument for liberally peppering my family history with context as a backdrop against which I plan on unfolding a riveting tale, of murder and mayhem (yes, we have some of both), of marriage and divorce, of war and peace, of love and laughter and of a culture and that while similar, is so very different from what my children and grandchildren experience today. 
Where am I in my progress? Right now, I am beginning to pull together the first volume (Back in the Old Neighborhood: Our Family in Nieuw Amsterdam - see my Writing Wednesdays #1). This particular volume currently has:
  • Nine fairly polished chapters. These chapters are awaiting:
    • a final re-verification that facts given are correct & dilemmas so noted 
    • verification that references are correct
      • Are they still in the right place (the citations) - editing moves text and endnotes can become attached - romantically or otherwise - to new phrases that roll off my silver tongue...
      • Make sure there are no typos in the references that could result in dead ends 
      • Check the family tree provided at the end of the chapter 
      • Generate the family's personal timeline (key events) against the historical timeline
      • Final polishing
        • Give it to a couple of people to read and then
      • Second final polishing
  • Fourteen chapters that are in, well, how should I say it? A mess... thus far
This could take longer than I thought! We will see where I am at next Wednesday... Cheers!

[1]Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New Jersey 1664 - 1703, Calendar of Records in the Office of the Secretary of State, Volume XXI (1917), edited by William Nelson [EAST JERSEY DEEDS, ETC., LIBER NO. 3. 29].
[2] Divorce and separation could be initiated by either spouse under Dutch law, but that didn't make it easy. Actual dissolutions were rare, but did happen when spouses were VERY persistent. Social pressures and other factors frequently had an affect on the couple's decision to stay in dysfunctional marriages. Perhaps sadly, with what we know today, magistrates had very little concern even when there was compelling evidence of abuse in the marriage. The magistrates often insisted on reconciliation, which may have happened in the case of Claas and Grietie, given the margin notes. [Michael E. Gherke Dissertation submitted to the College of Arts and Sciences at West Virginia University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in History, 2001]

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