Flash fiction: writing family history

Learning to write about my ancestors was tougher than I thought it would be. The unit I’ve just completed – Writing Family History – not only taught us different techniques to ‘turn ancestors into characters’, we had to produce a short written narrative (250 words) every week. Following a different prompt each time, we were also encouraged to write fiction to ‘try out’ these techniques – the hook, flashback, dialogue, senses, 1st person…the list goes on.

After a shaky start (who to choose! what to write! how to stick to the word count!), I grew to love it. I loved giving these people a voice, putting myself in their shoes, imagining what it may have been like for them.

Very far removed from the here’s-a-fact…and-here’s-another-fact style I had been used to! The ‘flash fiction’ approached was great, and certainly forced us to sharpen our writing.

One of the activities from the course was to write “an account of a moment in one of your ancestors’ lives where they are in a frightening or menacing place. What is happening? How did they get there? And how will they adjust?”

I chose to write a fictional account of a moment in the life of James and Edward McGee, my great-grandmother’s brothers. Based on an actual event in 1905, I tried to imagine how that moment may have been for them.

A Brother’s Love

The two brothers stood hand-in-hand, shivering from the biting cold in their threadbare clothes. Having just been transferred from the Brunswick Police Station, they were now in Melbourne facing an uncertain future. Ahead of them behind wrought-iron gates loomed a grey-brick building, its façade worn and tired.

“Is that Gaol, Jimmy?” Edward asked quietly, his voice wavering.

James was scared too, but couldn’t let Ed know that. He was the big brother and took that job seriously – he couldn’t let Ed down now.

“Nah, Ed”, he laughed. “We’re not criminals!”

“What’s a word of…state, then? And what’s neg…neglected mean?”

James frowned, glancing at the officers waiting near the gates. Ed was constantly repeating things grownups said, and James wished they wouldn’t say so much in front of him. Ed was only four – he didn’t need to hear it.

“It’s ‘Ward of the State’, Ed. It just means we’re going to stay here for a bit until mum comes to get us. It’ll be great – food and everything!”

“For real? Mum’s coming?”

James kept positive for Ed’s sake, but knew better. Their mother might come, but they had to find her first. He’d overheard the grownups too, when they thought he was out of earshot. Ed may be too young, but not James. He’d be eight soon – almost a man! His dad must have thought so too – why else would he have cleared out weeks ago and left them alone?

Smiling at his little brother, James motioned toward the officers at near the now-opened gate.

“C’mon Ed, race you!”

If you’re in Australia and have the opportunity to do this course, I highly recommend it.

writing family history course

Now the next challenge will be to see if I can put it into practice when writing non-fiction, and keep it up!

9 thoughts on “Flash fiction: writing family history

  1. I like what you’ve created with your flash fiction writing. The glimpse of the boys’ situation, the institution they are about to enter – I want to know more about all of it! There is only one part that I’m not 100 per cent convinced by, and that’s two new wards of the state choosing to run through the gates of the institution. I hope I don’t sound too critical – maybe it’s just me. Everything else really works well. Regards, Andrew.


    • You don’t sound too critical at all! Thank you, Andrew – that’s great feedback. I guess I wanted to show James as being brave / positive for little Eddie’s sake (faking it), but can see how a different ending may have been more realistic. By heart broke for those two boys as I found out more about their lives (and later as men), and I do hope to write more on them one day.


  2. G’day Leanne,
    Great story. I just wish my writing was not all the “Fact style” you mentioned. Maybe I will do the course next time it is offered.

    Sue (aka tasteach when teaching)


    • Thanks Sue, I’m glad you liked it. 🙂 It was much easier writing fiction, I must say.

      My writing is very much ‘fact’ style, so it’s going to be a challenge breaking away from it. Having said that – I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with it either. It depends on your intended audience, and I also enjoy reading this style (I like the detail, I like the facts!).

      I think going forward I’ll be trying to incorporate a few techniques and play around with things. Maybe add more of my own voice in there (ask questions, pose ‘what if’s’ etc). We’ll see!


    • Thank you. 🙂 Yes I did see the surname McGee in your recent story! My McGees were originally from Lancashire, England. The first in Australia (also James McGee) arrived in 1830. I would love to find more connections one day – you just never know. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Leanne. Well done! I like your use of dialogue. It’s a great technique for putting the situation in the ‘present’ and allowing the reader to get an idea of the boys’ characters.

    I’m about to do this subject in the next semester. I’m looking forward to it.

    And thanks for the like on my blog.

    Cheers, Marg

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh that’s great that you are about to do the writing subject, Marg. I have done four units in the Diploma so far, and this one has been my favourite. Enjoy! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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