by Camille Cole

Every family has a story, lots of stories, in fact—some legends, some simple tales of the lives of ordinary people. Narrative history is a genre that allows us to write creatively about experiences and historical events by focusing on people who share our DNA and who were part of that history. Storytelling is one way we carry history and culture from one generation to the next. As a writer and storyteller, you have an opportunity to give meaning to your own past and discover your family history.

First, tap a skill set other than artist—be researcher and detective. Play Sherlock and find the elements of the story, the facts.

Search and Research

  • Library collections, paper and digital: local, state, university, Library of Congress
  • Historical research by other writers
  •  Historical centers and museums: state, county, city
  •  Online archives:,,,, etc.
  •  Census records
  •  Local histories
  •  Genealogical/antiquarian registries
  •  Family archives: associations, letters, diaries, photographs, film
  •  City directories
  •  Documentaries: PBS, Ken Burns, Frontline, etc.
  • Oral histories
  • Use the Search feature on Google books
  •  Historical maps
  •  Property deeds located in county offices
  •  The album or box filled with old pictures in your mother’s cupboard
  •  Indulge your curiosity

Note about newspapers: They are one interpretation of events and are sometimes incorrect with details and facts. In researching my book, The Brass Bell, I found at least one factual error in every one of the nearly one hundred newspaper articles I reviewed regarding my great aunt, the school she founded, and the surrounding community.

Second, dive into what you really love: writing. A simple personal profile is a character and an epic tale in the making. The drama of your story will help others understand their own. If you are successful in the telling, your readers will taste it, smell it, hear it, and feel it.

Distill the Story

Zero in on your subject/theme buried in the mountains of historical data you uncover and then talk to people, walk the streets that may have once been farmland and dirt roads. Read between the lines in letters, diaries, and journals and then bring your creative self to the fore, using the context of the facts as a framework in which your imagination can play. You will be surprised—the actual story resides in your DNA. Your detective skills found the facts, and the magic writer element will write a story that brings ordinary people to the front page and gives rise to meaning in your own life.

Don’t forget to craft a background story. Historical narrative provides occasion to make place and time a background story.


  •  Enduring social and cultural issues (don’t confuse now with then, or your attitude with your Uncle John’s)
  •  Historic side events
  •  Fashion, music—take a peek at old sheet music
  • Technology

Real people live in a world filled with prejudices, suffering, triumphs, secrets, joys, and dire consequences. Be careful not to gloss over all that. We are all motivated by a range of emotions that can help us make sense of a life lived before we were born. Hidden between the lines and behind the pictures you may discover what defined someone—a set of values expressed by actions, appetites, awards, and even arrest records, the ways in which a life was approached and lived. Of course, one incident does not define a person. The outcome of a life is its legacy, and in each there is a story to be unfurled.

Camille Cole lives in Portland, where she writes fiction, educational nonfiction, narrative history, memoir, short fiction, articles, and essays. She is the author of two books for teachers and The Brass Bell, a historical narrative of the legacy of her great aunt and the school she launched in a hen house in Camille’s great-grandfather’s cherry orchard. This year that school was the recipient of the national Blue Ribbon Award, one of only 250 schools nationwide. Indigo edited Camille’s most recent book.

Photo by Rachel Hadiashar