Earlier this week, I met up with the lovely Barbara Henderson – one of my Twitter friends – to hear about a new project she’s planning. It sounds really interesting so I invited Barbara onto the blog to tell us some more about it.
PAST PERFECT: How to be creative when writing up your family history.
You’re offering a rather unusual writing course aimed at people who’ve been researching their family history. Can you tell me a bit about it?
We know there’s a huge interest in genealogy and tracing your family tree these days. Just look at the success of sites like Genes Reunited or television programmes like ‘Who Do You Think You Are’! Places like the Records Office at Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland make it very easy for people to find out lots of information and an impressive number of people use its archives every year. What happens then is that people often have a whole sheaf of fascinating stories and pieces of information, but they’re not sure how to start writing it up. This course is for them! It’s called Past Perfect and it will cover everything from how to recreate scenes from the past, how to structure your family history and even how to think about publishing it.
Will it help people do the actual research?
This is a writing course, so it doesn’t cover the basic skill of tracing and researching family history – but if that does interest you and you haven’t yet started, there are some very friendly people at Woodhorn Museum who can help. There’s also a great starter video on their website: www.experiencewoodhorn.com/trace-your-family-history/ . But if you’ve got your information and you’re ready to put it together, then this course is for you!
Do people want to write-up their family histories – or is most of the fun in the research?
Research is a huge amount of fun and I think people really enjoy that process and get quite sucked into it. But once it’s done, then it’s a huge shame to let all that work gather dust. You might only want to pass it on to children or grandchildren, but if it’s just a list of names and dates then no one will really look at it or enjoy it again. So it’s still worth trying to write it in the most interesting way possible. Or you may have found some stories that deserve a much wider audience. That might be because your ancestors had experiences that are common to others, such as working in the region’s traditional industries – mining, fishing, shipbuilding. Or it might be that your family were very unusual and had some stories that people would just love to read. Either way, if you’ve done all that research, it makes sense to take the next step and get it into a readable, enjoyable form.
You say that it will be creative – but how creative can you be when you’re writing up a true story?
You’d be surprised! We’ll look, for example, at ways of writing about something that happened in the past in a way that will make the scene come alive, even when you only have little snippets of information. We’ll look at ways of making your stories interesting and readable, not just to your own family but perhaps to a wider audience. We’ll think about where to start a family history – sometimes the obvious beginning is not the best place! Of course we’ll cover some basic good creative writing techniques too, so that you really do justice to all that interesting research – how can you make those family characters come alive, for example? At the end of the course, the family history should be a delight to read. And all that research won’t be stuck in a drawer, never to be seen again.
What if people aren’t sure about whether the course is right for them?
The good news is that I’m running a taster session so that people can find out for certain. It’s on Saturday, July 28th at 2pm at Woodhorn Museum in Ashington. The session will last an hour and a half, which means we’ll have time to set out what it’s all about and people will be able to ask questions. Then if anyone wants to take it further they can sign up for the full course, which will last for four one-hour sessions and will include an individual written critique of a piece of your work. The taster session is completely free, but you will need to book because places are limited – you can book by calling Woodhorn on 01670 528080.
Dr Barbara Henderson is a former BBC journalist who has a PhD in Creative Writing from Newcastle University. Her adult suspense novel, ‘Kill and Tell’, was shortlisted for the 2009 Luke Bitmead Bursary and is available on Kindle. Her children’s novel, ‘The Serpent House’, was shortlisted for the 2010 Times/Chicken House award. She teaches journalism and creative non-fiction at Northumbria University and is also available to teach creative writing to adult and young people’s writing groups. Check out her website: www.beadavenport.com.