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Avoid Writing Dialogue in a Family History

While a fictional novel would fall flat without conversations, writing dialogue into family history books is not necessarily needed. When you put words into your ancestor’s mouth is unnecessary, you can do more harm than good.

In short, do not include dialogue in your family stories unless you heard the conversation first hand.

Many family history writers refrain from adding conversations to their projects. They do not want to paint an inaccurate picture of the past. 

Perhaps they’ve heard American writer Gore Vidal say, “The only thing that I react really violently to is being misquoted.”

Well, at least I think he said it. I mean, I found it on the internet!

If you have avoided writing dialogue in your family histories, then you can relax as you avoid the recommendation to make your ancestors speak.

Recreated vs. Recalled Dialogue in Family History

When adding conversations to a non-fiction book, you have two options. 

First, recreated dialogue uses your imagination to develop a script your ancestors might have said. 

While recalled dialogue draws upon your memory of conversations to retell the past discussions. 

In family history, you can create a vivid story using words you invented. However, chances are you’re going to botch the job and damage your account.

Your writing won’t necessarily feel ‘dry and dull’ because you excluded conversations that never happened. 

(Don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise.)

Avoid recreated conversations in your family history

After reading many of my fellow family history writer’s blog posts and lectures about writing family, I have the following four counter-arguments. Don’t add dialogue to your family history stories because:

  1. You won’t get the tone correct. 
  2. You will skew your reader’s perception of their ancestors 
  3. Your readers will misattribute quotes to their ancestors  
  4. You likely need more training to write good dialogue, than if you excluded it. 

If you still want to attempt to add imagined conversations to your family history project, be sure to read books on how to do this well.  

Add Recalled Conversations to Your Family History

There is one exception to the rule to void writing dialogue in your family history books. It involves whether you participated in the conversation. Or, if you interviewed a relative and they recalled the past discussion.

Follow these tips to include recalled conversations to your project: 

  • Capture the essence of the conversation, even if you make a mistake in the verbiage used.
  • Add words to help us know you’re ‘recalling’ a conversation using trigger words like:
    • I remember
    • I think he said
    • The way I remember it is
  • Don’t correct improper grammar. 

For more tips, watch this video. 

Family History Writing: DON'T Add Dialogue to Your Family Stories ✍

Add Context Rather Than Writing Dialogue in Your Family History

Now, some of you may get fired up about me telling you to leave out the dialogue. You might still be in the ‘Put Words in Their Mouths” camp.

So long as you let your readers know you invented the conversations, go for it. 

Just stop telling new writers they have to add dialogue to family history for it to not be boring. 

More family history writing tips and tricks, explore these ideas

  1. Enliven Family Histories With One Simple Trick
  2. Stop Writing Boring Family Histories -- Tips for Writing Family Histories
  3. 5 Tips for Writing About Your Immigrant Ancestor
  4. How Do You Write About In-Laws Antics?
  5. Why Did You Include Stalin in Your Family History?
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Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

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