Friday, 22 August 2014

Gifts of the Journey – Writing about Family History

Author, Bernice L. Rocque has kindly agreed to tell us how she wove her genealogy research into  a heartwarming family story.

Ten years ago I started to write stories about my family. It was a desperate move, really, an emotional reaction to an epiphany about “essence,” triggered by the slow goodbye with my parents. I hated the thought that who they were as people would be lost—in a relatively short time.

Records exist for people who lived centuries ago. The “essence” of most people, though, disappears in 3-4 generations. Just ask ten people older than fifty (non-genealogists) to describe what their great-grandparents were like.

I’ve researched my family history for decades, yet failed to comprehend the implications of this fading phenomenon—until it became personal. The insight hit with a thump and set me thinking. What could I do to preserve the essence of my loved ones for future generations?

Within days, I spotted a notice. The public library’s writing groups were welcoming new members. The next step I took—brought many unexpected gifts.

The first gift was membership in a writing group.
Member feedback on writing pieces, topics, and exercises acts like a magnifying glass. With insights, ideas, and encouragement, this fellowship has fed my efforts to capture the essence of my family members—first via nonfiction vignettes, and then in my fiction novella with its Author’s Notes.

The second gift was that writing stories became a passion, like gardening and genealogy. As my skill improved, it was clear that writing stories WAS illuminating the essence of family members, with a magic similar to those fascinating holograms from the movie, Star Wars. The greater surprise, though, was that the PROCESS of writing gladdened my heart.

The third gift was that researching the book reconnected me with my relatives.
Working on the book, Until the Robin Walks on Snow took me “home” to Norwich, Connecticut a few times a month, for interviews with family and others, as well as research at the Otis Library. Telephone calls and emails with cousins caught us up on each other’s lives while generating information and reflections for the developing book and future stories. One of my cousins shared a 1920s family artifact I did not know existed. As we gazed at the large copper pot, my uncle explained how my great-grandfather made liquor from mash. A few weeks later my uncle surprised me with a small model of the distilling system. His engineering mind drew on the memories of a “child” whose hands had carried the snow inside to cool the vapor stream!

The fourth gift was the change in research pattern from “vertical” to “horizontal.”
What a pleasure to plop myself down in an era, like my cousins and I once did in the meadows of our youth. So, instead of “vertical” research to further my family tree back in time, the “horizontal” approach behind the book concentrated on life in the early 1900s. I used an iterative method to develop Until the Robin Walks on Snow—alternating waves of interviews, writing, and library-type research. Residing in the narrow time period deepened my understanding of everyday life and produced numerous authentic details. It also yielded bonus items. During interviews, sudden diversions in memory recall, such as my uncle remembering the fingerlocks that secured the farm building doors, led to useful conversations and colorful detail for this book and future stories.

The fifth gift was a second “aha.” Fiction was less difficult to write than I imagined. Writing fiction is not easy, but writing Until the Robin Walks on Snow, was easier for me than writing a strictly factual narrative. I knew where the story would start and end, but chose not to prepare a detailed outline. The process of recreating an event from my family history did feel organic. The facts suggested the skeleton. The family history and research (medical, setting, history, and weather) provided the organs and blood vessels. Knowledge and impressions of the characters (reconstituting their essence) fleshed out the book’s muscular tissue. Fiction and literary devices, much like sinew, connected all the story elements. The book’s format acted like skin. With a little patience, and sometimes a “sleep on it” approach to dilemmas, the most logical story emerged.

The sixth gift was the discovery—of other works of fiction based on family histories.
If like me, you are interested in reading more historical fiction based on family history, take a look at the Goodreads List, Fiction Based on the Author’s Ancestors. Many authors and readers helped me to assemble it, and to them I am indebted. Here’s the link:

The seventh gift has been the generosity of authors and readers. Communication with authors and readers from all over the globe has inspired me, as I acclimated to this new creative endeavor. In that regard, I would like to thank author Liza Perrat, for inviting me to contribute this guest blog piece. We’d love to know your thoughts on writing about family history.

Doris Kearns Goodwin recently said, “The people we love will live on so long as we pledge to tell and retell the stories of their lives.” I so agree. Every day, I am grateful for the gifts of this writing journey.

Bernice L. Rocque is a writer, educator, family historian, and avid gardener. She grew up in Norwich, Connecticut in the surroundings described in her novella, Until the Robin Walks on Snow. She has authored numerous business articles associated with her work in libraries, training and development, and project management. Articles she has written about her family have appeared in the Norwich Bulletin, Good Old Days magazine, and Family Chronicle. Ms. Rocque lives in Connecticut, USA.

Twitter: @UNTILtheROBIN

Retail links for Until the Robin Walks on Snow

Here is our full review of Until the Robin Walks on Snow.


  1. Thank you for featuring this author and her lovely book. It's a remarkable story of miracle and family. I absolutely loved it.

  2. Thank you. So appreciate your comments about Until the
    Robin Walks on Snow.

  3. I am deeply moved by Bernice's insight that we lose the "essence" of our family if we restrict ourselves to just fact and geneology. But that by intertwining history, fact, ancestry, and remembered story, a truly rich insight into one's family can be shared and passed on ... forever! What a gift. Her extraordinary example, Until the Robin Walks on Snow, surely proves the point.

    1. Barbara, thanks! You just summed up my mission! The vital statistics core of genealogy is really important, but without the context of who they were as people, family events, setting, & history, etc.

  4. This is what I enjoy most about genealogy-the stories behind the people. It makes my ancestors real to me. I wrote a small book for my mom before she died and her and my aunts just loved it. It was about a happy time period in her youth. I enjoyed learning about my grandmother and grandfather. I have traced several lines of my family back to the 17th century. I have been taking notes and thinking about a historical novel most of my life. I love your mission.
    I am very pleased that we have connected on twitter as it led me to your blog.

    1. I understand! In the years I did traditional genealogy research, I so savored the stories I found in old records or heard from relatives. I wish I had started the writing sooner!