Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Writing an Ancestor's Story - Reflections of the NANOWRIMO Experience

During the month November, I participated in NANOWRIMO, an online platform that allows writers to get their story out of their head and onto paper, and to bring it to life. The acronym stands for National Novel Writing Month, thus the acronym NANOWRIMO. I decided to participate in the "NANO" experience several months ago and somehow never expected that it would really be anything that I would stick to. I personally felt that if I finished a week's worth of writing, I would be satisfied, and get some of the "I-want-to-write-a-novel" feeling out of my system.

Surprisingly what came forth was a story where I brought characters to life, whom I have known for over 25 years. The story that came pouring out was a story of my maternal ancestors. Now, I have written about this family line before, and the number of living relatives (cousins) that I have who are interested in the genealogical research on this line, is actually very small. I would say that less than 10 people are interested in this family history story. Well, that is, until I ran into another genealogist whose own ancestral story bumped into mine. So I have a few more possible readers of my story.

The story I chose to write for my NANOWRIMO project was that of Amanda Young. Now, I have have written about her in the past, and I have used parts of her story in a blog post when I discussed my research journey. Several years earlier, I also wrote a similar piece about part of her story. about her as well. However, my focus for my NANO project was not going to the the famous meteor shower of 1833. I decided to tell my ancestor's freedom story. Actually much of the information used in then narrative came from data extracted from a Civil War widow's pension. Within the file and now within my novel several stories of freedom are contained. The historical fact is that within this one family line, some seized freedom as they could, some fought for it, and some had to wait until it came to them. But all of these stories are part of the same family story.

The focus was the family itself, my great great grandmother, her sister, and the men in the family. I chose not to write the typical "slave story". The story is a freedom story choosing instead to tell the  story of their becoming free, from the very first days, through the subsequent months, then years. Thankfully I have some amazing depositions in a Civil War pension file that explained my ancestor's saga. And part of the story was Amanda's effort to find out what happened to her family when they went different places during the war. Her husband left to join the US Colored Troops. Her sister emancipated her own self, and became a contraband on President's Island, in Tennessee, and Amanda was taken further south in Mississippi so she could not escape.

 I placed myself and my imagination on the ground right there with them and told their stories as they moved from enslavement to freedom. The story ends fifty years later when I solve some of the questions that Amanda had about what happened to her family. It was a novel because I inserted dialogue reflecting some of the events that happened, based upon what I learned from research. The story reflects how some made it, and how some, became "lost" in the freedom that they sought.

The exercise of writing was an interesting one, and during the times when I was not writing, pieces of the story would come to me and I had thought them out before sitting down to write late at night. I shall spend the next several months enhancing the story, before seeking an editor and putting it into shape for some initial readers.

The support from the NANOWRIMO folks was quite good--there were words of encouragement, and writing prompts and challenges along the way. I even attended a Write-In at a local library the first week! The support was there if I needed it, and the biggest part of it was the exercise of writing itself, and the continuous encouragement from staff and from writing buddies.

I recommend this exercise for others who have found themselves telling ancestral stories. Get on the ground with the ancestors, walk around, and see the landscape and travel with them. I had to use maps and other tools to move my characters from one place to another. I know that they did not live in a vacuum, even during those turbulent times in the Civil War so I had to incorporate neighbors and close relatives in the story.

Telling the story was not only a good experience, it is something that I recommend that other genealogists undertake. I have some other stories to bring forth, and perhaps next year's NANOWRIMO will allow me to bring forth Uncle Sephus's story and put it out there, for readers as well.

Should others think about using NANOWRIMO as a vehicle to tell the family narrative? Indeed they should!