Family legends are precious. Parents caution children with tales of wayward aunts and cousins. They inspire budding talent with accounts of Grandma’s life on the vaudeville stage, and encourage resilience with stories of ancestors who pulled covered wagons over snow banks to start new lives in the golden West. Stories like these bond families together over generations. And if you have a writer in the family, they may pop up in a memoir or a novel.
Both of my novels contain the stuff of family legends. If you want to work a time honored story into your writing, here some points to consider.
Feel free to take liberties. Your account does not need to be told exactly as you heard it. It does not need to align to how others remember it. Allow the legend to serve the story you are writing. You are after emotional truth, not historical accuracy. I’m writing a novella based on ancestral stories I heard from family members, source material I inherited, and genealogy I’ve researched. I want to include a bizarre tale of a trolley accident and a miraculous healing that is legend in my family. There are numerous gaps in my knowledge of certain facts, so I’m inventing some of the details. That’s what fiction writers do.
Consider how other family members might respond. How much consideration you give to friends and relatives who may have a different take on the family legend is highly personal. Frankly, I decided to wait until older family members who would have been offended passed away. I did not want to damage family relationships or feel restricted from telling the story the way I chose. Now, my close family is just as intrigued as I am to release the black sheep from their pens and let them have their say.
Treat your legendary characters with respect. Families often have whipping boys, an ancestor who gets blamed for every negative character trait that turns up through the generations. By all accounts, my great grandmother was one tough customer. On the face of it, she abandoned a marriage, put her career ahead of her children at a time when most women did not work, and used her high intelligence, quick wit, and acerbic tongue to make life miserable for my mother. How I wish I had asked the questions that might have provided a more balanced picture (or not), but we don’t think to probe until it’s too late. Rather than perpetuating a family tradition to vilify, try seeing the legend from a different point of view. Our legend is not clear on what prompted great grandma to leave her husband and go to work. Therein lies a story.
Do you have a family story that wants telling? Tell it with creativity, love, and respect and you have a jar of preserves spiced just right to appeal to a reader’s taste, and one that will last in a family’s memory.
Sydney Avey lives in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Yosemite, California, and the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. She has a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and a lifetime of experience writing news for non profits and corporations.