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