Types of Narratives: Vignettes

Here at The Family Yarn we encourage you to pursue Narrative Genealogy – recording in written form the unique story of your family so that future generations can read with interest about where they came from.

Narratives can take a number of forms, and throughout January, we’re talking about different types of narratives and how they can contribute to your family’s story. So far we’ve covered various forms of self-authored narratives: autobiography, memoir, and journals or diaries.

It is a monumental task to sit down and write your family’s history.

Few among us would not be nervous at the thought of developing a fully-formed narrative about ourselves, let alone our ancestors. Generations of cousins scattered across countries and centuries, and you want me to write it all down?



I felt the same way when I began to focus on narrative genealogy (as opposed to just filling in pedigree charts) a few years ago. And to tell the truth, I only have two narratives (each for a married couple) that are reasonably close to being considered “done”.

It’s a big job, so big that many people never do it. Here’s my advice: start small. Start by writing vignettes.

A vignette is a short story recounting a single chapter of a person’s life. Vignettes are like memoirs, but you’re writing about someone other than yourself. If you think of an entire life story as analogous to a multi-season television series (a dramedy, perhaps?), a vignette would be a single episode of that series.

I can only hope that my family history is as well written

Though relatively short, a vignette should still be a complete story – introduction, climax, resolution. There’s not as much character development as a larger piece, but should still make sense on its own.

I wrote a longish vignette last summer about a trip with my two older kids to go hiking in Kentucky. This story will certainly appear in the narratives I write for each of them, but I'll probably edit it down for space.

If you don’t have enough material for a full vignette, then write a single scene and stash it away for later. I keep folders for each person or couple in my family and collect snippets of memories there; when I have enough collected, I can pull them together into a cohesive story.

It may not look like much now, but once you have all those vignettes recorded, one day you will look at them as more than just individual stories. You’ll start to see the threads that run through them and knit them together into the fabric of a larger narrative of your family’s unique history.

Start with one sentence, one paragraph, one memory. Describe your grandfather. Describe your childhood house. What was your hometown like? Did you ever ride your bike to the store? Did anyone in your family ever elope?

Photo Credits
Monumental Arch, Palmyra, Syria by yeowatzup
#22/365 - West Wing by Andrew Booth
Chateau de Chillon tapestries by Andy Hay

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