How Embracing Family History Can Result in Poignant Stories

italian american

Click image to be directed to PBS:
The Italian-Americans.

There’s a lot of buzz in Pittsburgh right now about a PBS special called The Italian Americans. It’s not just running in Pittsburgh; I was able to watch the series here. I just don’t think people are talking about it here like they are at home. (Probably because my family and I are the only Italians in Arkansas. Hyperbole, anyone?)

My husband and I watch the History Channel a lot, so watching a documentary on PBS isn’t much different from our usual viewing. What was different, however, was my visceral response to the program. I was already aware of much of this history—my grandparents have shared some of their stories with me—but seeing it brought to life? Totally different. I thought I knew our history, but there was so much I was unaware of. Probably even more that you don’t know. You should check it out; it’s an honest portrayal of the good and the bad. I’m lucky my grandparents shared what they did. I’d love to hear even more.

When your grandparents tell you stories, they may make you laugh. They might make you cry. But they don’t often share their feelings about the events. It’s kind of like the hard parts are filtered out, like they’re trying to protect us—or themselves—from experiencing the pain.

It takes a special storyteller to not just scratch the surface but dig deep down to the heart of the issue. (Agree? Tweet this.)

That’s what I strive to be—a special storyteller. My history not only shapes me as a person, but it shapes me as a writer. (I think that’s true of all writers, to an extent. Writers often say their characters are a reflection of themselves in one way or another.) Not all of my characters are Italian-American, but all of them find familial bonds to be of the utmost importance. That’s my heritage, and that’s reflected in my writing.

Italian Americans

My Great-Grandmother, My Grandfather, and His Siblings…
Italian-Americans, and Proud of It

When I write a story, I don’t want to scratch the surface; I want to dig deep down to the heart and soul of these characters and have them express powerful emotions brought on by their situations. I want to write words that make readers laugh, cry; feel outrage, indignation; question situations, opinions.

And when someone reads my work? I want them to experience everything right along with the characters.

For Readers:
Think about your favorite book. What did you respond most to? The plot? The setting? The characters? The next time you read that book—or any book—consider the hero of the story; consider the villain. Do you know enough about them to relate to their perceptions of the world? Does it matter if you can relate? Would you like to know more about them and their situations? What would make them more relatable?

For Writers:
Are you just scratching the surface in your work? You’ll know if you are by the level of comfort you feel. Telling deep, resonating stories requires you to leave your comfort zone and tap into the pool of emotions you’re used to suppressing. If reading your work doesn’t move you, it’s not going to move anyone else, either. My current WIP, Bleeding Heart, delves into Italian-American family life, and I’ve been able to enrich my characters by drawing on personal experience.

For Everyone:
I’m a family person. If you’ve followed my blog or read my work, you know family and history is important to me. What about you? Do you know where you come from, what your history is, how it’s shaped the person you’ve become? Do you prefer stories that barely get into a character or do you enjoy the ones that dig, even to the point of exposing raw nerves? Let’s talk about it. Comment below.

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Writer. Editor. Wife. Mom. Daughter. Sister. Friend. Dog owner. Award-winning author and recipe creator. Conservative Catholic with an avid interest in the supernatural. Think all that doesn't go together? Then you have to get to know me better.

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8 Comments

  1. Thank you for letting us know about The Italian Americans, Staci. I’ll look it up. As for what draws me into a story, it’s definitely the characters. My favorite books are those where the story is told through the characters’ eyes. And you’re right, you can tell if a writer has “tapped into her deepest emotions.” That’s not an easy thing to do–I struggle with it often.

    • Those are my favorites, too, Jan. If I can’t get into the character, the book becomes meaningless to me. I just can’t relate to the struggle/journey.

      And I’m surprised you struggle with tapping into emotions. I’m always moved by your work. You’re a master at it.

  2. Staci, that was a great special. We watch the History Channel as well. Like you, our Italian heritage is special our family. Growing up, we spent many days listening to Grandma and Grandpap tell stories. You are right, I think they edited for us. I love using my Italian background when I write. It is part of who I am, and easy for me to identify with. My hope is that all families will spend time with their parents and grandparents learning about their roots. Those stories are priceless.

  3. Thanks for directing me to this series. I’m working on a new book with an Italian American heroine from Pittsburgh. My first book set in Pittsburgh and I’m very excited.

    • You know that’s a book I’ll want to read! If you need to talk to anyone first-hand, you know where to find me. Good luck with it! (My next book release is about a family of Italian-American girls, and it’s set in Pittsburgh. It was great fun to write.)

  4. Staci,

    I love American history and especially family history and genealogy. I do think it’s important to know our “roots.” I agree with you – I like to read (and write) stories where we dig deep into the characters.

    • I’m a huge fan of history, too, Joan. I don’t think people consider it enough when they write fiction. What’s the saying? Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it? I think, for fiction, it’s necessary. Maybe someone should come up with a quote for that…

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