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Western Michigan
Genealogical Society
c/o Grand Rapids
Public Library
111 Library Street NE
Grand Rapids, MI
Email - wmgs@wmgs.org


Librarians of the Grand Rapids Public Library’s Local History and Special Collections Department - OUR EXTENDED FAMILY feature

Members receive a printed version of the Michigana quarterly magazine; nevertheless, two sample issues of Michigana are available here for download. A "PDF" reader program is required.  



Periodically, we'll post articles that have been published in our quarterly, MICHIGANA.  The following article appears in a issue from 2004.

Using Photographs to Jump Start Your Writing

By Bobbi Schirado

The Beginning

When individuals first begin to consider writing about their ancestors, it's sometimes so overwhelming that newbie's often want to give up doing it themselves and just hire a personal historian, or a professional genealogist or writer, to do it for them. The internal discussion occurring in many minds may sound something like this:

"So, where do I start? That blank white page defeats me every time I look at it - the whole idea of writing anything about my family is just too overwhelming! I can t write, I don t know how to organize my thinking - everything just comes out all confused, and I don't want anyone to read the mess I make with words!"

Besides being an excellent example of self-defeating behavior, the above statements can be overcome by dividing the writing process into manageable parts, using props to stimulate latent creative talent, joining a writing support group, practicing and just by relaxing and going with the flow. Learning to enjoy the process of putting thoughts, facts and memories on paper can be fun and rewording. Besides, it's really just another phase of your own personal detective story. You get to be the Sam Spade or Kinsey Milhone in your own story.

Propping Up Your Writing Skills

All photographs tell part of a story without words - but not everything about the people or places where they were taken. They also create questions, show relationships, and give us glimpses into a specific time period or way of life. Pictures stimulate memories. They stop time. Sometimes by looking at them we suddenly remember forgotten information.

Photos are great props to help the beginner or seasoned author start to write about Family History. Combined with genealogical research, they can incite all kinds of written creativity. This is especially true when looking at the parts rather than the whole.

Step by Step

Using several photographs in this article as examples, you will be able to see how easy it is to start thinking like a writer. By following the steps below you will be able to use a photograph of your own to begin the writing process.

There are five steps a writer can use when creating a story about a picture. Some authors use them in other situations as well. They are:

  1. The 5 W s
  2. Check Your Memory
  3. Brainstorm Ideas
  4. Categorizing
  5. Interviewing/Additional Research

1. The 5 W's

Analyzing photographs is somewhat like a reporter asking questions about an event for an article. Who, What, When, Where and Why are the five W's, all newspaper editors want answered. As you ask yourself each one, write down brief notes. The notes need not be especially neat, but you must be able to decipher them later.

Your first consideration is to decide who is depicted. Are there any people in the photo? Can you identify all of them with certainty? If there are more than two, do you what the relationships are between them? Are they looking at each other? Can you see any specific emotion (laughter, anger, boredom, tears, etc.)? Are the people engaged in an activity?

The Kelley/Race Family photograph on the previous page is of my grandfather's family. It is a portrait and there is little emotion visible. None of the people are looking at each other. The names were written on the back of the picture. It is of three children, their mother and step-father. All of the children are leaning toward their mother and away from Bright Venus.

What are you seeing? Is this a candid unposed photo, or a formal picture? What are the people wearing? What are they doing?

The Kelley/Race Family - Standing: Erwin Norton Race, Sr., 1884 - 1979; Arthur John Race, 1880 - 1966, Seated: Bright Venus (B.V.) Kelley, 1857 - 1932; Edith May Race Scott 1883 - 1977; Nancy Violette Phelps Race Kelley, 1861 - 1915The picture to the left is formal and posed. The clothing looks to be of the Sunday-go-to-meeting type. The suits and dresses may have been purchased for the occasion, or they may have been handed down or borrowed.

When was this photograph taken? Are any dates written on the back or the front? Can you identify the general time period by the clothes that are worn? Do you have genealogical information that will help determine a date? If the picture was taken by a professional photographer, can you check newspapers or city directories to see when the studio was open?

There are no dates written on the back of the Kelley/Race Family Photo. From other pictures from the Race family, it is likely the picture was taken by the children's older cousin, Albert Race, an advanced amateur photographer. There is no name of a professional photographer on the photo or its backing.

Genealogical information is more helpful in dating this picture. Bright Venus Kelley and Nancy Violet were married in 1891, following the death of her first husband, Norton Senaca Race in 1886. The oldest child, Arthur John Race was born in 1880, while the youngest, Erwin was born in 1884. The photograph may have been taken as early as 1891 as a remembrance of the wedding. However, Arthur looks older than 11. So, it could have been made as late as 1895 or even 1896. Much later and Erwin and Edith would appear to be too young for this photograph.

Dating this photo by determining clothing styles is difficult as they are not consistent. Other pictures of other members of the extended family also have people wearing them. It's impossible to know who really owned Nancy Violet's and Edith's dresses.

Where was the picture taken? If outdoors, are there any recognizable landmarks or buildings? If you have identified the studio, in which town was it located? Was it taken inside a family home? If you can generally date the photo, do you know the geographical area where the people were living at that time?

Census, land and newspaper records indicate that both Bright Venus Kelley and Nancy Violet Phelps Race were long time residents of Newaygo County. This is also true of both of their extended families. Albert Race, the suspected photographer, also lived in the town of Newaygo. His home is the most likely location where this picture was taken.

Why was the picture made? Was it a special occasion such as a graduation, sporting event, funeral, opening of a new building, anniversary, picnic, vacation, etc? Was it a formal remembrance or a candid photograph? Can you determine if it was just before, during or after a war? Perhaps it was taken at a parade, rally, or political discussion.

We've already discussed the possibility that my photo was taken to commemorate the wedding of Bright Venus and Nancy Violet. It is a formal portrait and may just have been shot to preserve the children's appearance for the future. It's unlikely I'll ever know the exact reason.

2. Check Your Memory

Now that you've completed asking the five W's and written down some notes, you've undoubtedly also found your brain cells recalling snippets of research, verbal comments by friends or relatives, or your own memories. Briefly jot down these ideas or any questions that come to your mind.

Your relatives may have told you about specific instances or occasions relating to the people in your photograph. Food, recipes and eating are always two things that seem to be passed down from one generation to the next. Birthday parties seem to be one occasion where something memorable seems to happen; either for the guest of honor or the people watching.

Family tradition is sometimes nothing more than gossip. But it may also reflect actual events or happenings.

My partial list for the Kelley/Race photo after Checking My Memory:

  • Bright Venus is a weird name.
  • My aunt said Erwin ate pop corn and milk for breakfast food.
  • Erwin has ears.
  • B. V. was a farmer and itinerant preacher like his father. His father, William Kelley performed the first Baptist religious service in Newaygo County.
  • My grandfather, Erwin, said that B. V. did not believe in sparing the rod or spoiling the child. Erwin rarely went to church as an adult.
  • Nancy Violet lived with her brother, Asa Phelps, after her first husband died.
  • It must have been difficult to be a single mother with three children under ten.
  • All members of the family were buried in Newaygo Cemetery.
  • Nancy Violet is buried between her first and second husbands.

3. Brainstorm Ideas

Brainstorming is close to day dreaming. It's one of my favorite things to do because there's no way I can make a mistake. Anything goes. Look at your photograph and let your mind wander and see where it takes you. You can think in full sentences, a few words or one word at a time. Write down anything that comes to mind that's even vaguely related to the photograph. Write down notes so you don't forget either the great or really wild ideas.

My mind always seems to wander and I'll think about what I could make for dinner, appointments scheduled for the next day, etc., but I just gently edge my focus back to the picture in front of me. When no new thoughts come into view, I walk away and do something else for a little while. Sleeping on it works for better for some people. Inevitably when I return and look at the photo again, my mind will come up with more ideas. Our brains process information while we do other tasks - sometimes they don t need us to prod them at all!

A Partial Brainstorming List:

  • Write about the strange given names of the William Kelley family.
  • Research and locate all of my Race, Kelley or Phelps ancestors in the Newaygo Cemetery.
  • Check with other aunts and uncles about how my grandfather and his siblings got along with their step-father.
  • Who else has ears?
  • Find out more about how Nancy Violet survived after her first husband's death.
  • Research land records to learn where Asa Phelps and B. V. owned land.
  • Did Nancy Violet have a job?
  • Pop corn and milk for breakfast? Was this commonplace? Where could I find out?
  • Find books to date clothes more accurately - spend money at Schuler's Books! Yes! Cheaper to check online but not as much fun.
  • Locate Baptist churches in Newaygo County in 1895.
  • Dominant or recessive genes for ear size?
  • Uncomfortable clothes. Glad I live now, not then.
  • Is there anyone still alive who remembers Nancy Violet?
  • Find out who has Albert Race's negatives.
  • What does popcorn and milk smell like? Don't think I'd want to eat it.
  • What were the weather and growing conditions at the end of the Nineteenth Century?
  • What were Baptist Church services like then?
  • Find plat maps for Newaygo County and check for surnames.
  • What was the difference between everyday and Sunday dress?

4. Categorizing

Now that I have two lists they can be compared and contrasted. it's time to determine potential topics I might like to write about in the future that were generated when I looked at the photograph.

Reviewing my lists, the following topics appeared:

Personal interactions in the Kelley/Race family: How well did they get along? How did that affect my grandfather's life, then my mother's and possibly even mine?

Why did William Kelley and his wife name their son Bright Venus? I know from census research that their other sons were named Darius, Day Star, Gay Saturn, Grand Orion and Noble Herschal. Their only daughter was named Jane. There's got to be a story somewhere in that naming pattern!

Breakfast food in the late 19th and early 20th Century: Was/is popcorn and milk eaten for breakfast? If so, why? Is it nutritious? How did it affect my grandfather's growth patterns? Was it one of the first convenience breakfast cereals? Bet my sons (who would have lived on Frosted Flakes and Fruity Pebbles if I would have let them) would be interested in this topic.

The Ears: While Erwin definitely has them in this picture, they are far less prominent in later years. There's a whole book waiting for me to write about genetic dominant and recessive genes in the Race family. Two of my male cousins must have gotten the very dominant ear gene!

Widows in the late 19th Century: How did single or widowed women, particularly my great grandmother, Nancy Violet, survive while raising dependent children?

Religion: Nancy Violet and her first husband were married in Park Congregational Church in Grand Rapids. How did B. V.'s Baptist upbringing and the fact that he was an itinerant Baptist preacher affect their marriage and her children? What were the differences between the two beliefs in the 1890s and early 1900s?

Amateur photography and my cousin Albert Race: How did amateurs make pictures in 1895? What equipment would he have used? Who has his negatives and prints?

Geographical Connections: Who owned land where in Newaygo County and how does proximity figure in to the marriage of Nancy Violet and Bright Venus Kelley?

5. Interviewing/Additional Research

After Categorizing and determining possible topics, I like to look at my list and see if there are obvious gaps of information, if I've already found areas where I want to know more, or where I don t have the answers to critical questions. It may be I'll just have to go back and check something in my own research. Or, it may mean a trip to a library or repository. Often, it's more helpful to talk to another family member to find out more about a photograph. It's also possible to begin writing immediately.

During the previous steps my mind is already starting to sort though possible stories I might want to write. Usually one or two will rise to the surface as being more interesting or intriguing than the others.

Sometimes nothing catches my eye, or the one that does looks like it will take too long to develop for the amount of time I have available (or, it's more likely that I'm feeling lazy and don t want to work that hard).

That's the nice thing about this process - it's yours to do with as you wish. You can sit right down and write a page and be done with it. Or, you may spend hours diligently creating a long story about one aspect of your Family History. Or, you may put the whole thing away for a rainy day.

You may need to do more research or interview people for additional information before selecting a topic or before writing about one. The writer is the only one who can make these decisions.

Interviewing family members is a lengthy topic all by itself, and will be discussed in depth in the May/June issue of Michigana.

Looking at my categorized list, you can see I think in questions. You may not, and that's not a problem either. Play with the Five Steps and see what works best for you. Remember that they are just the beginning, and that the actual writing of the story or article is still to come. This is just a method to get your creative juices flowing and to start thinking about a subject that is important to you and your family's history.

As well as discussing the art of interviewing in the next issue, you'll get to see which topic was chosen, why, and the story itself.



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  *Includes Kent County and the counties immediately surrounding; namely Ottawa, Muskegon, Newaygo, Montcalm, Ionia, Barry and Allegan Counties. There is some extension beyond these counties into other areas of the Western Lower Peninsula.

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