©2009-2016 Becky Higgins

Friday, May 3, 2013

Cultural & Heritage Generalities

I’m aware it’s not correct to place generalized cultural or heritage characteristics on an individual. Each person has his/her own personality. Each person develops differences from the next even within the same family based on events, environment, and even familial placement. That said though since we are a culmination of all those who make up our heritage, doesn’t it make sense that, at least, some of our characteristics are inherited? If so, then some generalizations surely hit the mark.

I bring this up because I’m trying to work through how to make some ancestors come to life in my writing. Obviously, the people I have actually known are not a problem. Over the years I’ve seen how they acted under many circumstances; I’ve talked with them and know their sense of humor. They’ve related stories to me about themselves and others which revealed their priorities, their beliefs.

The problem comes with those I’ve never met. In some cases, I have the stories relayed about them by those I’ve known. I, then, can see these unknowns through the eyes of the known. That, of course, could be a biased view; however, it’s more than I know about many others. For the people truly unknown to me, I really have nothing more than a picture of them through historical and cultural events and locations.

Historical timelines are certainly helpful in determining significant events in a given location at a given time. Reading specific histories about how developed or under-developed a place may have been can aid in a setting. Having as many documents as possible to define a personal history is essential. Finding a journal or diaries from someone else during the same time and location is a true benefit.

All these things help a writer understand the times in which a person lived and even some personal events they encountered. For the most part, what they don’t do is show how that person viewed what was going on around him/her.  Without a document like a divorce or court record (they can provide a picture of at least one of the petitioner, although it’s important to remember the purpose of the testimony) or like a letter or two that give a peek into the writer’s feelings, one is left with conjecture.

What is that conjecture? We’re back to cultural and heritage characteristics. How did other people feel and act during a given time? Are the people of that time and place generally described are stoic or passionate? Did they live in a close-knit community? Would fear have played a role in the general population? Was there an expectation of bravery during their time and place in history?

Sometimes conjecture is all we have left. Sometimes in order to give a person life on a page we need to use that conjecture to give them a personality. Look at your friends and family. Is it the events in their lives that make them who they are or is it how they deal with and feel about those events?

I’m not talking about the writing of a genealogy reports recording the facts of a person or family. We need those to identify the facts and show our sources. I’m talking about actually writing their story. Is it right or wrong to use some generalities to describe an individual?


  1. I think you can use generalities as long as you are clear about how the facts that you have (and present) are tied into the generalization. You can present "like many people in the county, [A] did x/y/z ..." or "unlike most farmers, [B] did not x/y/z ...". There may even be cases of conflict that contrast the generalities with the specific facts -- "Although [C] is recorded as having done x/y/z..., this seems to have been an uncommon response to ... and may have been related to [C's] a/b/c ..." Most lives are a struggle against being described by the generalities that may apply and should be celebrated when possible.

  2. Glenn,
    Thanks for the comment. That's my leaning too:)

  3. Hi Becky
    Thanks for great information