Strings of Cause and Effect: Writing Our Ancestors

When I wrote my second memoir, Turning Bones, I combined twelve years of research into my father’s side of the family with my imagination. These ancestors had left few documents behind, and furthermore, my family never talked much about them when I was growing up. My ancestors, then, were mysteries to me. They were, for the most part, gravestones in cemeteries. After my parents were gone, I inherited a few old family photos and two pages from a family Bible upon which someone had scrawled births, deaths, and marriages. With these in hand, I set out to see what I could discover. When I wrote Turning Bones, I used the facts I found to imagine storylines for my ancestors. In the process, as I chose this or that, I revealed as much about myself, if not more, than I did about my ancestors. I created interior lives for them, and I admitted I might be wrong at every turn, but how could I be wrong really when the person I was writing was myself?

One of these ancestors was my great-great grandfather, John A. Martin. His first wife, Betsy, died in 1867, and then in 1874, John remarried a widow, Eliza. He was 64 at the time; she was 28. In my book, I speculated about what may have brought them together, and I imagined the division their age difference may have caused in John’s first family. I knew that two of his sons had moved nearly two hours south of where he lived, and I guessed that the second marriage may have had something to do with that.

A few weeks ago, the president of the Lawrence County (IL) Historical Society, presented me with a CD on which he’d documented John A. Martin’s petition to receive the Civil War pension of his son, William. In his deposition, John talks about his advancing years, his debt, his lack of help on the farm. Neighbors testified that after his second marriage, his first family deserted him. They also testified that his second wife was extravagant and “ran him up at the stores.” It would appear that there was a good deal of accuracy in what I’d imagined. And yet there were details in this document that I never could have guessed. My great-great-grandmother, Betsy was a weaver, but “she was never a stout woman,” meaning that she was sickly for some time. Her daughter, Sarah, testified that her mother never got over the William’s death and stayed bedfast for a year after a bout of pneumonia before finally dying of bronchitis. All of this led to John’s marriage to Eliza and then to his sons deserting him and then to his dire straits that caused him to petition for William’s pension, a sum of $12 a month.

Our lives are so often lived on strings of cause and effect. For the writer of memoir, who’s interested in telling the stories of ancestors, these causal chains are invaluable. Once they’re in place, it’s easy to cast those ancestors as characters in a narrative. You can put them into action, you can give them dialogue, you can create distinct scenes that dramatize their stories. You can do all this as long as you’re clear with the reader that you’re using the facts of those ancestors’ lives to imagine their stories. When you imagine someone else’s story, you reveal much about who you are. You also provide a possibility for the inner lives your ancestors might have lived. You show us what it may have been like for them to move through their individual worlds. Above all, you make them dynamic characters who are much more than the facts you’ve discovered.


  1. Heidi Stauff on June 25, 2017 at 6:48 pm

    Turning Bones is next on my reading list. I just finished a marathon reading of The Bright Forever and Break the Skin is waiting for me in my beach bag.

    I wonder sometimes, if intuition plays a major role in good writing–that ability to connect the missing dots in human behavior.

    I like your approach to memoirs. I’ve been wanting to write one about my grandfather, but the details of his past, family and childhood are scant.

    • Lee Martin on June 27, 2017 at 10:14 am

      Heidi, I do think that when we’re open to all possibilities when we write that our intuition kicks in and makes those connections.

  2. […] Martin, an established author with several books under his belt, wrote a blog post in June, Strings of Cause and Effect: Writing Our Ancestors. I found it interesting how his imagination is able to fathom how events had happened for his […]

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