“Using Historical Fiction & Social History to Support Your Narrative”
Presented by Beth A. Stahr, CG®, MLS

By Mary O’Brien Vidlak, CG®

NOTE: This post is one of a series reviewing the BCG Skillbuilding lectures presented at the National Genealogical Society’s 2019 Family History Conference held in St. Charles, Missouri from 08-11 May, 2019. Recordings of these lectures and the accompanying session handout can be purchased from PlaybackNow NGS at https://www.playbackngs.com/

During the course of her lecture “Using Historical Fiction and Social History to Support Your Narrative,” Beth Stahr, CG®, MLS, affirms that as genealogists we’ve been trained to stick to the facts. At the same time we want to tell a compelling story to capture our reader’s interest. She explains how the skillful use of social history research and historical fiction can add descriptions and imagery that bring the stories of our ancestors to life.

To understand how to achieve this, Beth begins by defining the terms social history and historical fiction. Social history is non-fiction, as our genealogy should be. Historical fiction, on the other hand, is clearly fiction. While it can add valuable context, it must be used cautiously. Ms. Stahr identifies what makes a novel historical and goes on to outline the four elements of historical fiction.

She defines and discusses narrative, citing writer Jack Hart who says great narrative rests on the three legs of character, action, and scene. Character comes first and drives the other two. In genealogical writing each ancestor we are writing about provides the character; their life provides the action; and where they were provides the setting. Stahr also discusses a technique known as “perhapsing,” which can be extremely useful to our readers but must be used with care.

Of particular value in this lecture are several examples which demonstrate not only what to do but what not to do. Three exercises show how she took the bare bones of a machine generated genealogy and added depth and interest to it using social history and historical fiction.

The handout for the lecture provides an extensive bibliography of historical fiction and social history books, articles about writing narrative non-fiction and history, and examples of narrative non-fiction.

The words Certified Genealogist and letters CG are registered certification marks, and the designations CGL and Certified Genealogical Lecturer are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists®, used under license by board certificants after periodic evaluation.