‘Why’ and ‘How’ – Understanding Family History


Why? and How?

‘Why’ and ‘How’. Two very short words, but words I have increasingly struggled with as I’ve tried to make sense of the information I’ve gathered for my book.

My current WIP is based on my family history. Thanks to the internet, I have discovered more details about my ancestors than I ever thought possible and it sits there, chronologically categorised, ready for use. While some of it is routine, there is a lot that is not, and this has raised a myriad of questions that I can’t begin to answer.

The biggest question is Why? ‘Why did these events take place?’ and ‘Why were they allowed to occur?’ Shortly afterwards comes the How, usually in the form of ‘How did that happen?’

As I was struggling with these questions, I came across a quote from Aldous Huxley:

“The trouble with fiction is that it makes too much sense,
whereas reality never makes sense.”

How true that is. It reminded me of something that had always struck me as odd. The 1911 census showed that my grandmother lived at number seventeen, whereas I had always thought she had lived at number nineteen. Was it a transcription error or had she really moved to the house next door? I couldn’t make sense of it but when I mentioned it to my dad, he confirmed that she had never actually moved house. The council (who owned all the houses in the street) had been having trouble renting out house thirteen and so they decided to renumber all the houses, to exclude number thirteen, hence number seventeen became number nineteen.

Pretty mundane I know, but I would never have come up with that explanation on my own. It made me realise that, even with all the facts available, my book will always be a work of fiction. I will never know the real characters or even people who knew them.  I will never understand their way of living or the motivations for what they did. I will never understand the ‘Why’ and ‘How’.

All I can do is look at the information and make my own assumptions. They will almost certainly be wide of the mark, but because I know they are fiction it gives me a sense of freedom. Rather than just regurgitating facts, I can try to make them as exciting as possible to create a good story.

Fact and fiction are now very much intertwined in the book, but I would suggest that it is those parts of the story that look the most improbable, that are based on the truth.


About Val McBeath

Born and raised in Liverpool (UK), I live in Cheshire with husband, youngest daughter, and cat. In addition to family history, interests include rock music and Liverpool Football Club. Prior to writing, I trained as a scientist and worked in the pharmaceutical industry for many years. In 2012, I set up my own consultancy business and now split my time between business and writing.
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