Bringing the Dead to Life: Writing a Biography of an Ancestor.

My grandfather

The other day I was asked if I had any ideas about writing the biography of a dead family member. This struck a responsive chord in me. For some time I’ve wanted to write  about my mother’s father, my grandfather. He was only thirty-two when he died in 1920. A Winnipeg fire fighter, he succumbed to the great flu pandemic that was sweeping the world. My mother was only two when he died and she had few stories about him.

Maybe you’re also thinking about writing the life story of a distant family member. Before beginning, you’ll need to pull together as much information as you can on your ancestor. Here’s an approach I’m going to use for my grandfather’s story. You might want to try this.

Locate relatives and friends. Where possible,audio record interviews with descendants. Try to find out as much as you can, whether it’s first person accounts, documents, or leads to other people who may have information about your relative.

Research documents. Personal letters, diaries, and wills, as well as census, land, church, probate, and court records, may yield details of your subject’s life. For example, I’ve contacted The Fire Fighters Museum of Winnipeg to ascertain if there are any records of my grandfather.

Search for historical and cultural information. This will give you some clues about your relative’s  life. In my case, I want to find out about the working life of Winnipeg fire fighters around 1920. What were the qualifications to get into the fire department? What did the job pay? How many hours a day did they work? Was there a pension plan?

Read local and ethnic histories. These can provide clues as to how your relative may have lived and provide interesting texture to your story. For example, I want to read newspaper accounts of the impact the the flu pandemic was having on Winnipeg.

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2 responses to “Bringing the Dead to Life: Writing a Biography of an Ancestor.

  1. How do you take a “I remember story” and put it into an “I story”. I interviewed a lot of relatives about my great grandfather, and they said “I remember this about your great grandfather”. How do I take this and put it as a personal record of him?

    • @Dawna. You can’t really put the story of your great grandfather into an “I” story…because I assume he’s dead. What I’d suggest is that you fill out the narrative with references to stories by his relatives. If there’s a particularly good anecdote you can directly quote the relative. Otherwise, just use the information you’ve gathered to tell your great grandfather’s story.

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