Adding historical context to family history stories

Adding historical context

Although researching and writing your family history gives you the opportunity to explore and write about the lives of people you have a personal connection to, there will also be many experiences they shared with their contemporaries. By adding historical context you can add so much more interest and depth to your narrative which will take your research and stories to a whole new level.

Nobody’s ancestors lived in isolation and with some additional research it is possible to create unique stories which combine historical details with the anecdotes and stories you have uncovered about your family members. 

How do you start?

Pick out just one or two of your ancestors (may be ancestors with a particularly fascinating story) and then start to look beyond their personal lives. For example, what do you know about the social, political, environmental and economic conditions both in your ancestor’s community or neighbourhood and in the world beyond and what impact (if any) did these have on their lives?

Find out more about what people wore at that time, what they ate and drank, what they did to entertain themselves, whether they benefitted from an education, what means of transport they used and whether they ever travelled beyond their own village or town.

Rural areas witnessed the most dramatic changes during the industrial revolution and so how did this affect the lives and work of the local community in which your ancestors lived? Did they live through a war or a period of economic uncertainty and if so how did this affect their lives?  Look at old maps to find out whether your ancestor lived in or close to an area that experienced a significant historical event, a natural disaster or epidemic and how these might have shaped their lives.

Adding historical context through online research

The research needed to discover what life was really like for your ancestors can be very time consuming so here are a couple of online resources which provide some very useful background information for adding historical context.

The BBC Family History Research Timeline enables you to delve into four fascinating areas of your family history. Use the Family Secrets timeline to find out how to discover the skeletons and scandals in your ancestors’ closets. Search the Working Life timeline to find out how your predecessors made a living. Discover how wars and conflicts may have affected your family history using the Military timeline or follow the trail of ancestors who migrated on the Migration timeline. Even though all of these pages have now been archived and are therefore no longer updated, they still provide some very useful background information.

The HistoryLines website is a growing and valuable resource which enables you to explore the culture, lifestyle and historical events surrounding the lives of your ancestors using an interactive timeline. You can either enter the details of your family directly into HistoryLines or you can import your own family tree as GEDCOM file from a variety of family-tree creation websites.

HistoryLines automatically creates a narrative and a timeline for each ancestor you enter or choose from your family tree. In addition to the historical details on the timeline you can also discover more about the life and times of an ancestor from the clothes they wore and the food they ate to advances in medical science in their life time and the politics of the day. You can edit your stories, add your own photos and notes, create a PDF file for printing and share your stories on social media.

You can try out HistoryLines for free (in the free version you are limited to two stories) but if you want to create an unlimited number of stories I recommend that you get an annual or monthly subscription. The normal subscription price is $59 a year or $9.95 a month. However the creators of HistoryLines have kindly offered all my readers a 50% discount. Simply enter the Promo code CHRISL50 on the HistoryLines subscription page.

This offer is for a limited time only so take advantage of it NOW. HistoryLines takes all the hard work out of the background research needed to add colour and depth to your family stories – stories which will not only draw in family and friends but an even wider audience. And at the current special low price, it is too good an opportunity to miss.

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