Learn about how to search for the plot, characters and language in ancestor writings to gain the most meaning and understanding.

Whether you are reviewing a letter, journal, postcard or other writing of an ancestor, there are several strategies for evaluating and gaining the most from the “total presentation.” Not only are you looking at the written word, but you are looking at paper, images, and handwriting, which all provide clues and information about your ancestor.

Plot, Characters, and Language of the Script

Think of the last article, story, or even movie you watched. Who were the main character and subordinate characters? What was the plot? How was the script written? As you review writings, you gain a feel for the individuals involved, their roles, and the plot’s events.

Becoming acquainted with the characters

In the diary, we depend upon the writer to introduce us to the individuals in their life. Sometimes persons are named; other times, we are left to figure them out for ourselves. When it comes to letters, the introductions to characters are hit and miss. The writer wasn’t writing to us, but usually to one who knew them.

Try to understand who the friends and family members were, mainly if you use unedited communications. Some family rarely uses given names in correspondence. In such cases, start slow until you can determine the identity of “Dear Son” or “Your loving Daughter” The same holds for nicknames. During my father’s years as a youth (1930s and 40), I know it was common to have nicknames, Frip, Jiggs, and Stu.

What inspired the plot?

As you survey the writing, think about whether a particular circumstance inspired the writing. Is there a large-scale “story” holding the writings together? We find this type of inspiration in writings during the period of war or during changes in one’s life. In other cases, diaries and especially letters are focused on the ordinariness of the writer’s life. In either case, though, surveying the text for a sense of the main narrative thread is an excellent way to prompt questions about the text as you begin to read more closely.

Look for a unique language

Think about your use of instant messaging. In our writing, we use words, phrases, and acronyms, to help us communicate faster. For example, TTYL (Talk to you later), :>) Smile, K (OK), T.Y. (Thank you), Dido (I agree). Like us, our ancestors also had interjections into their correspondence that stood for something else. For instance, many modern readers are puzzled by some correspondents’ interjection of “D.V.” amid specific sentences expressing hope (“by now, D.V., you are safely at home”) when these letters are not the recipient’s initials. Then, finally, one writer solves the puzzle for us by spelling it out: Deo Volente, God willing.

Such puzzles will help you be alert that the meaning of certain words or phrases is coded (to say in the mid-nineteenth-century that a woman had “taken a cold” almost always meant that she was pregnant).

How does the writer relate the experiences of their life?

Personal texts are usually begun with the accounts of critical events that occur over time and are important enough to write about, such as a death, a child leaving home, a marriage, a natural disaster, work, etc.

The story of events also reveals the interrelationships of the writers, friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers. The relationships shape our understanding of how the writer fits into the events and through which eye we see the interpretation of what is written.

Most letters are written by “news” or rich with events the writer tries to describe in detail. You may see how the writer describes (filters) the same event/news to different people in his life. For example, an experience about crossing a river and almost drowning may be written in full detail by a friend and a mother. The description may be only that the writer became wet when crossing a river.

In letters, you will find other parties sensitive to the absence of one another. Some, however, focus on the distance apart. In contrast, other letters focus on bringing one closer together, such as lovers or parents and children blaming each other for neglect or praising each other for timely and satisfying letters.

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