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Family Tree: Writing Historical Fiction Based on Family History Review by Amy M. O'Quinn

Jennifer Johnson Garrity
BrimWood Press
1941 Larsen Drive
Camino, CA 95709

Historical research plus writing is an exciting and inspirational concept in our homeschool! And since we have a rich family heritage complete with lots of stories, photos, and documents that have been passed down through the generations, there is much grist for the creative mill around here. So I was thrilled to review Family Tree: Writing Historical Fiction Based on Family History, published by BrimWood Press as part of their Tools for Young Historians series.

In a nutshell, Family Tree is a 76-page, soft-cover consumable writing guide to help children (ages 10 and up) learn how to create stories, novellas, or even books based on their own unique family histories. Both student and instructor are gently led "through the process of gathering historical information, weaving fact and fiction together to create a plot, and then refining both content and style to fashion a unique and exciting work of fiction." Also, the primary focus of this writing guide is "developing content and providing techniques for maturing a student's writing style."

The guide is divided into different sections/assignments that cover the research, writing, and editing phases. These divisions include:

  • Introduction
  • General Research
    • Interview - Phase One
    • Family Tree Chart
    • Interview - Phase Two
    • Interview Questions
  • Specific Research
    • Choose Your Branch
    • Blending Fact and Fiction
    • Make Your Best Guess
    • Anachronism
    • Historical Photographs
    • Historical Research Notes
  • Writing Your Story
    • The Plot
    • Fact or Fiction?
    • Write a Story, Not a Report
    • Creating a Roadmap
    • Beginnings
  • Editing Your Story
    • Adjectives
    • Adverbs
    • Passive Language
    • Sentence Starters
    • Completing the Project
    • Student Checklist
  • Instructor's Notes with Answer Key and Instructor's Checklist
  • Andrea's Homeschool Tips (written by homeschool veteran, Andrea Newitt)
    • An Introduction
    • Schedule for Younger Students
    • Grading Guide

If you visit the BrimWood Press website, you can download samples from this guide and also check out the other available resources from the 'Tools for Young Historians' series.

Family Tree is designed to supplement any writing curriculum, and the project (from beginning to end) will vary anywhere from four to ten weeks. But the result is sure to be a family heirloom. However, I think it would be great to repeat this fascinating project every two to three years as the students mature and their writing skills and interests change. Think of the collection of family stories that can be harvested from the children's imaginations! In addition, this guide is self-directed for the high school student or natural writer, so the possibilities are endless! However, it is assumed that the student has a basic grasp of sentence and paragraph construction in order to use the guide independently. Also, permission is granted to the purchasing family to make copies of the assignments, charts, and pages for multiple children and multiple projects.

I really like how the author stresses writing a story (not a report) and adding historical facts and tidbits without overwhelming the reading audience. She gives the following advice on page 39:

You want your reader, first of all, to enjoy the story. Secondly, you want him to learn a little about its historical setting as he reads. Just as you wouldn't dump a mound of salt onto a plate of food, you don't want to dump a mound of historical information into one paragraph and serve it to your reader. You sprinkle salt lightly over your food, and want to sprinkle factual information lightly throughout the story.

In my opinion, Family Tree is an excellent resource, and I plan on using it with my own children in a few weeks to create our own special stories. (As an extra note, I can see myself using this outstanding and comprehensive guide with my own writing.) I will allow my high school-aged twin daughters to follow the guide and work independently, but I will probably use the suggestions in Mrs. Newitt's homeschool section with my younger students. The result: they will all get to create a story, regardless of age or skill! And new literary heirlooms will be added to our rich family heritage collection to be enjoyed for years to come.

Product review by Amy M. O'Quinn, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, November 2007