Storytelling Tips for Telling Your Ancestor’s Tale

By Vanessa Wieland

Once Upon a Time…

Some people seem born with the ability to weave great tales with nothing more than a few words, while others can capture an entire scene in a single photo or painting. Some of the greatest stories we know come in the form of movies or radio programs. From oral histories and interviews to movies and novels, there is no limit to the ways we can chronicle our family history; it’s just a matter of finding the method of delivery that works best for you. In our Tricks to Telling Your Ancestor’s Story class, you’ll learn about some of the different resources you can use to craft a great narrative. If you’ve ever had the thought, “This would make a great story!” when it comes to your ancestors’ lives, this workshop is for you. Below, we’ve pulled some storytelling tips to get you started.

Storytelling tips

Provide a Historical Backdrop

There are plenty of online collections of old photos and newspaper articles that you can use to add historical context and a colorful backdrop to your ancestor’s life. While some items may still be covered under copyright, if you have an ancestor from WW1 or the Civil War, for example, there are collections that you can use to enhance your story. Check out the Library of Congress to tap into their collections of resources you can use.

Of course, not all of the events have to be big and dramatic. Local or yearly traditions in the community can add context to an event in your ancestor’s life. If your neighborhood has hosted a Fourth of July parade for the past 200 years, are there pictures of old floats in local library archives? Where did your ancestors go to school or work? There are plenty of Facebook groups that are dedicated to old photos of specific cities or regions. Keep in mind, if someone posted it, you’ll want to get their permission to use it, but they might be delighted to accept – and have some information to add to what you already know.

Document an Epic Journey

In addition to photos, maps can add visual interest to your ancestor’s story. Use maps to show the journey your immigrant ancestors took from their homeland. Did they make any stops along the way? Use the David Rumsey Historical Maps Collection to highlight the boundaries and names of places as they were around the time your ancestor lived, and use Google Earth to get street views, map overlays and other tools to add to your visual story.

There’s an App for That

You don’t need a fancy video camera to create and edit videos of your ancestors. All you need is a computer or mobile phone with an Internet connection. Use Adobe Spark to create a fun slide show with audio narration, music, and photos to tell a story. They have templates you can use to make it easy. Feel like a video might be too much but you still want to share a great photo? You can also turn an old photo into a fun piece of art for social media and blog posts, even design a webpage. Once you have something you’re happy with, it’s easy to download and share with others online.

Look for more tricks to tell your ancestor’s story in our workshop. Instructor Nancy Hendrickson will offer a Q&A as well, so you’ll have plenty of opportunity to get all the storytelling tips you need to chronicle the lives and events of your ancestors. It starts tomorrow!