Using Tag Words in Writing Your Family Stories


Using Tag Words

Typically in writing using tag words refers to dialogue tags. He said. She screamed. They murmured. She whispered. Dialogue tags is a whole other subject, which we won’t get into here. Common advice is recommending not getting too fancy with the words chose for dialogue tags. The experts, or those icons we follow and learn from, say that simply using ‘said’ is the preferred tag. It’s considered an invisible word, one that doesn’t register with the reader. It’s also recommended that you use an action in conjunction with the sentence to inform the reader who is speaking without using any dialogue tag at all.

For example: Sally pulled her hair back and gave it an exasperated tug. “I don’t believe this.”

But, for our post here, we’re talking about tag words, which have a different purpose.

As we’re writing our family stories, be they fully true and accurate or partially fictional, we’re usually writing about an event or a person from the past. It may be long before our time; ‘before we were a gleam in our father’s eye’ as Grandma would have said. We may have been at the event, but been so young we wouldn’t have remembered or been aware of what happened. But somehow we need to take this small snippet of history and bring the scene to life.

Yet, we don’t want to mislead or intentionally misrepresent either.

By using tag words, we can let the reader know we are speculating. Some tag words you might use are:

‘Probably,’ ‘perhaps,’ ‘most likely,’ ‘almost certainly,’ ‘for all we know.’

The Family History Writing Studio shares that author Lisa Knopp called this technique “perhapsing.” They also mentioned another method used by author John Phillip Colletta, where the speculation is addressed as an instruction at the beginning of the story.

So, even though you may not know exactly what happened, or what words were spoken, don’t let that stop you from telling your family tales. Use your research and the historical knowledge that can be documented. As the Family History Writing Studio states:

“We can then conclude or deduce a conclusion based on a premise and our accumulated facts. We can interpret the peoples and or their actions. We can close in on those missing pieces and ultimately write a family history narrative that will satisfy the reader and that we trust is based on sound research, historical context and speculation.”


Three Hats


Three Hats


Your role in writing your family stories will involve a variety of different processes. In a sense, you’ll be wearing three hats throughout this journey.

Journalist: As you gather family stories and anecdotes, you’ll need to wear the hat of a journalist. You’ll need to think and act questions like a journalist. Who? What? Where? Why? When? How? By thinking to ask these questions, you’ll end up with better details and more specific information.

Genealogist: As you dive deeper into research, you’ll be wearing a different hat – that of a genealogist. You’ll need to learn where to look for information, where to find archived information, what sites are the best for discovering pertinent details. You’ve heard of the hours and hours (and hours!) that a genealogist spends in looking up family history? If you haven’t learned that it’s true, you’ll find that out now while you’re wearing that hat.

Novelist: The third hat you’ll be wearing is that of a novelist as you begin piecing your scenes together into a cohesive story. This is where you’ll be thinking of setting the scene, developing your characters, including dialogue, developing the storyline, using action verbs, looking at point of view, showing versus telling, and all the other fine tuning details that will help bring the characters and your story to life.

Several years ago I joked about wearing different hats for all the genres I write in. I got several baseball caps at the local craft store. I was going to decorate them all to relate to whatever piece I was working on at the time. One for children’s stories, one for my vintage tales, one for the ghost hunting and cemetery books, one for the inspiration books, etc. I never did embellish the caps as I’d planned and I think I eventually put them in a bag that was donated to the local thrift store. But in case you ever feel like you’re doing the same thing as you work on your family stories…it’s an idea you might want to keep in mind.

Social History


Social History


Social history is more than just historical background. Historical elements will color your story and add their own unique perspectives, such as coping with post-Depression difficulties, being in the middle of World War II, or living through a flood in that area. Social history is looking more at the ancestors and looking at the social parts of their life to help bring them to life on the pages.

In Bringing Your Family History to Life through Social History, Katherine Scott Sturdevant writes, “Social history is the study of ordinary people’s lives.”

We look at the groups are ancestors were associated with and try to understand how these groups interacted with each other and the world. Our ancestors social groups would have differed based on:

Social Status
Civic and Fraternal Organizations

A farmer would have had a much different daily life than the owner of the local mercantile. A Jewish immigrant’s days would varied vastly from those of a Baptist preacher. Life for a woman in 1800 was tremendously different than for a woman in 1920, 1950, or 2000.

Understanding how some of the social aspects would have shaped our ancestors lives is a great step towards adding depth and dimension to the lives we’re attempting to portray with our words.

Roadblocks – Writing Your Family Story




There are so many possible roadblocks that have the potential to bring a screeching halt to the writing world we envision. Some of them keep us mired in the land of “Someday I want to…’ and we never even leave that land to begin the project that dwells in our heart. Here are a few things that threaten to keep us stalled and not writing the family stories that we long to.

Lack of time: Lack of time is possibly one of the most common excuses I hear from many writers. Yes, it exists. Time is limited. And when it’s taken up by a job, a family, a house that needs cleaned and maintained, it doesn’t always leave a lot of writing time. Yet, I’ve discovered that on the days when I have a large chunk of time that I think I can make some major progress on a project, I end up frittering the afternoon away and I actually get less done than when I have less time available to write.

Can you get up 30 minutes or an hour earlier and use this time for writing? Can you enlist the aid of the family and ask for an hour of uninterrupted time in the evening so you can work on your project? Are there pieces you can take with you to work – notes or an outline you can make on a break, editing you can do while you eat your lunch? Is it possible to set aside one day, or one afternoon a month that you can devote to your family stories?

Not knowing where we’re going: I find that I make better progress when I have at least a vague idea of where I’m headed with a story or a project. If I know that in the next scene I want to work on a certain story – or the next chapter will deal with a specific topic – I find that I dive in faster and get more accomplished. You probably won’t need every specific detail outlined ahead of time, but at least having a general idea of your next few steps alleviates a lot of the stalling.

Not having all the details we need: Sometimes what bogs down our progress is not having all the details we need. We either don’t have the pieces, so we avoid starting. Or, we’re missing pieces and stop writing to go look details up. I find that I accomplish more if I keep writing and use either ‘XXX’ or ‘_____’ as placeholders where I need to insert a specific detail – be it a date, name, number or other item that I need to look up or research. Then when I’m done with the scene or essay, then I stop and research the items I need to fill in later.

We won’t think anyone will want to read what we write: A lack of self-confidence can pervade our souls and keep us from writing if we don’t think anyone will want to read what we write. Keep writing anyway. Tell that little devil that’s whispering in your ear to go away. Don’t worry about whether anyone else will want to read your words or not. Write for you. Write for the desire that fills your heart.

Procrastination: Ugh! I’m certainly not one to lecture about this. I’m not just your run of the mill procrastinator. I’m a Master Procrastinator. I can have a list on my desk of what I want to accomplish that afternoon. And I check Facebook. I check email. I make sure all the cat bowls are filled with crunchies. I double-check the pot of sunflowers out front and make sure they don’t need water. I run out to the mail box – for the third time – to see if the mails run yet. I…yes, I can compete in the procrastination marathon with the best of them. But then at the end of the day I still don’t have a thing crossed off my list.

For myself, when I find myself starting to fall into this routine, I do best by forcing myself to choose one item on the list at a time. Okay – finish this ‘R’ blog…then I can go check the mail. Finish the draft of the Chicken Soup essay…then I’ll fill up the cat’s bowls. Add this one scene to the family story…then I’ll go take the chicken out of the freezer.

I know there are other tricks that help combat the procrastination bug, but this is what works best for me.

Fear: Fears are very real and can derail our writing faster than anything. We don’t think we’re good enough. We don’t think our stories are exciting. We don’t think anyone will like our work. We think we’re horrible writers. We think…

There’s a bazillion things we’re afraid of. (Yes, bazillion is an actual number, and well documented I’m sure.) But we can’t let that stop us. Just keep writing. Acknowledge the fears. They’re not imagined. They are real and they are powerful. But try to banish them and jump into the writing water anyway, despite the fears.

Perfectionism: This is another very real problem that can stop our writing before we even get started. And it gets worse when we read something that’s written very well. (At least it does for me.) I’ll read a piece that is simply wonderful. It’s beautiful. It’s lyrical. The words move the reader and read like a delightful sonnet. And I think…Oh, I can’t write like that! And somehow we expect that every word is going to flow straight from our hearts and minds, to our finger on the keyboard, and spill out onto the screen in front of us in absolute perfection. And if it doesn’t happen like that…then we’re just no good.

Rubbish! Even the best of the writers write, edit, cross out, revise again, and polish. I daresay that even Stephen King edits and changes from what he initially writes. Now, something they write on a second or third draft may be a thousand times better than what I have on draft 100. We’re all learning and growing with our writing. I look back at something I wrote five years ago – something that I thought then was nicely done. I’ll read it years later and think…Ugh! I wrote that trash?

Don’t let these roadblocks stop you or slow you down. In the words of a great many writing gurus…JUST WRITE!





I was going to go in a different direction with this post, but before I could write it – another avenue dealing with questions came to mind. This one may be more musing than sharing information, but here we go anyway.

Today, on a break at work, I started pulling my thoughts together for an essay I want to write about family stories from World War II. I was still in the preliminary phase. I’d started a handwritten introductory paragraph. I’d also pulled my notes from when I’d talked to my dad’s cousin four years ago. I had a general idea of a few stories she mentioned from war time, but I needed to go back and re-read my notes to make sure I was remembering correctly. And also, to see if I’d forgotten a tidbit or two!

As I was jotting topic ideas in the margin, trying to organize my ideas so they’d flow naturally, a few questions came to mind.

What years was World War II fought? I know early ‘40’s, but never seem to remember the exact years.

What year was Pearl Harbor bombed? December 7th is ingrained in my mind, but not the year.

As I re-read my notes, I saw a mention about how Dorothy read ten books at the library’s summer reading program and won tickets to go see Bambi. The second movie shown was Union Pacific. She hadn’t mentioned any year, or how old she was, and I wasn’t sure how it felt in the wartime memories she was sharing. One thing I’ve noticed as I try to collect family stories is that they don’t follow a timeline very well. Memories and thoughts seem to jump around. When was Bambi released? When was Union Pacific released?

There questions needed answered before I started getting into the meat of the essay, but I was sitting in my car on a break, miles from my computer or a local library. So out came the phone, I opened a browser and started typing away.

The war was fought from 1939-1945. Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941. Bambi was released August 13, 1942. Union Pacific was released 4/27/1939.

Wow! In less than three minutes I had the answers I needed and could start crafting the skeleton of the essay. Ten years ago I would have had to be at home, connected to a computer. Twenty or twenty-five years ago I would have had to have a set of encyclopedias, or make a trip to the library. And now, with a few swipes and taps, I can pull up unlimited information to answer just about any question I have.

When I’m at a family gathering or a social event and see all the faces buried in their phones, I gripe quite a bit about technology and what it has done to our world. But you know, I may have to take some of those grumbles back, because this handy access sure is useful too!

Point of View – Writing Your Family Stories


On Vintage Daze we’re participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge and celebrating days long past by sharing about writing your family story.

Point of View


Point of view seems easy in concept. It’s in the execution that the writer finds out it’s not as simple as it sounds. Ask my critique group, they’ll concur – point of view is still something I struggle with. I am far from an expert on this subject. But, it’s something you’ll need to be aware of as you gather information and get ready to write your family’s stories.

Each scene has a narrator – a character that ‘holds the camera’ as many books like to describe it. There are four choices for point of view. Now, the point of view (you might commonly find it written as POV) may change throughout the book, but it can’t change within the scene.

First Person – One person holds the camera and what’s seen in the book is what that one character sees. Think ‘I.’ I gasped as she strode across the room and threw the purse off the balcony. (I saw) It felt like the temperature dropped twenty degrees when he entered the room. (I felt.) Now with that in mind, there’s certain things the camera will not be able to catch. You’ll know what’s going on in the characters mind, but you won’t have access to what’s going on in the mind of others. Also, while you’ll be able to see reactions on others faces, you won’t be able to ‘see’ your reactions. You can feel them, but won’t be able to see them.

Third Person Limited – A single character narrates the story, but it’s told in third person. (Not through the lens of ‘I’.) There’s more flexibility with this point of view over first person, yet it still only gives you the viewpoint of one character. It’s also easier to slip out of your main characters head and into another, frequently called ‘head-hopping.’ I know, because this is one of my weaknesses that I’m working to try and improve.

Multiple Third-Person – Different characters can narrate different scenes, which enables you as a writer to impart more information through the characters. But remember, each scene still only gets one narrator. The knack to being able to use this point of view successfully is to be able to write from multiple views without having a story that’s disjointed.

Omniscient – The narrator who sees all and knows all. The narrator is inside each characters head and can go anywhere and see anything. As Hallie Ephron writes in The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel, “Omniscience is particularly useful for showing a vast landscape or giving the perspective of a scene viewed from the future. It’s best used sparingly, and for effect.

You won’t need to know this until you start writing, and even then since viewpoints can shift within a book, it’s not a vital decision you need to make. But I think it helps to be aware of point of view so as you start forming story or scene ideas in your mind, you can get a feel for who is going to be telling the story. Is it from your point of view and will reflect what you saw taking place in the family? Will it be from your grandmother’s point of view? Your uncles? Or a mix? This is just a little fine-tuning detail. Be aware of it, but please, don’t let this stop you from telling the stories that are meant to be etched for future generations.

Occupations – Writing Your Family History




Your ancestor’s occupation may seem insignificant, a mere minor detail that you use to fill in one line on your list of facts. Yet, this tiny scrap of information plays a vital role in shaping the character that you write about in your family story. After all, it was an important enough detail that occupations are listed on ship manifests and on census sheets.

You may not know what activities filled your ancestor’s daily life, yet their occupation will give you many clues. The daily life of a great-grandfather that owned the mercantile store in town would have been vastly different from the great-grandfather that worked in a coal mine.

When I was researching Athelstan, Iowa and the 1934 quilt squares, for Memories on Muslin, I found an old reprinted newspaper article that mentioned the stores in the early town.

At one time Athelstan was a bustling little berg. Never as large as Bedford, the county seat about eighteen miles away, it still had its share of commerce. Besides the ‘gallon’ store on the Missouri side, the reprinted article mentions these businesses:

Charles Merrill, drugstore

Mr. Winston, drugstore

Ace Nighswonger, general store

Hal Brown, general store

Miles Martin (first postmaster), general store

W.J.W. & Pearl Townsend, store

Sid Merriman, store

Miles Martin (postmaster & general store owner), hotel

Ed and Avon Johnson, butchers and sausage makers

Flint and Coats, coopers

Dr. Childres, first physician

Schoenmann and Sons, lumber yard

I’d never heard of a cooper and had to look it up. According to Wikipedia, “Traditionally, a cooper is someone who makes wooden staved vessels of a conical form, of greater length than breadth, bound together with hoops and possessing flat ends or heads. Examples of a cooper’s work include but are not limited to casks, barrels, buckets, tubs, butter churns, hogsheads, firkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, pipes, tuns, butts, pins and breakers.”

Besides the job of cooper, which no longer exists today, many other occupations don’t exist anymore. Think switchboard operator, milk man, service station attendant, or ice man. Just for fun, here are a few web sites that mention other occupations that have disappeared, such as a knocker-upper, rat catcher, bowling alley pinsitter, or a lector, among others.