Christmas Writing Task: Research Family Stories

by Sophie Novak | 18 comments

The year is almost gone. It’s holiday time for family gathering, food, drinks, and fun. I doubt that anyone is going to sneak out from the festivities and write (a solemn bow, if you do!).

Writers do more than write, though. We live and absorb life, which may or may not get processed into words at a later stage. We talk and listen, share and laugh, cry and suffer, enjoy and love.

Family Storytelling

Christmas revolves around family and, last but not least, the family table. In the heat of enjoyment and gratitude for being together, family members share stories. For me, this is the best part: the storytelling.

Christmas table, family, stories

Photo by Derek Key

This can get the shape of a myth with a story circulating for decades, building in the young minds as an epic. Other times, it’s a satire, a retold internal joke that never stops to be funny.

Occasionally, new stories emerge, out of buried memories and longing for the ‘good old times’. You may learn extraordinary things about your mum and dad, or your grandparents, or great-great-grandparents, distant relatives, or even next-door neighbours.

Your siblings may come forward and admit something they did when they were young, which they kept in the closet. A whole repertoire is in order really: from the heart-breaking and sad to the most grotesque. And because it’s about your very family, not fiction, it’s fascinating.

Absorb Stories

Is there anything more inspiring for a writer than an abundance of personally affecting stories? Absorb these gems, and be curious for more. You can even initiate a game of sharing stories.

And of course, the main point is not to use all of these stories in your writing, but to keep your mind alert, learn, and digest, because they are responsible for who you are today.

These stories are worth hundreds of books. They show where you’ve come from. They remind you of how you became what you are now. They teach you about human experience from the most personal angle.

They can sometimes be ground-breaking, as when they provide you with an answer to a long-standing question. They can make you think and re-examine yourself. They can make you see something you’ve been overlooking.

Use the power of family stories to shape your writing mind. They are a huge part of what makes the writing self.

What’s your experience with family stories? Do you enjoy them?


For fifteen minutes write about a family story that deeply affected you. When you’re done, post it in the comments. Of course, support others’ practices with your honest feedback.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone at the Write Practice! It’s been a shiny year, and I’m sure the new one will come with even greater glory.

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Sophie Novak is an ultimate daydreamer and curious soul, who can be found either translating or reading at any time of day.
She originally comes from the sunny heart of the Balkans, Macedonia, and currently lives in the UK. You can follow her blog and connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.


  1. EdieMelson

    Love this idea! I’m even going to enlist my kids and husband in this. It will give us a new perspective when the holiday events get long. What a great Christmas gift you just gave me!

  2. Claudia Mundell

    Family certainly is a source of stories for me, although the big Christmases are no longer exist for me these days. But you gave me pause to remember this morning. My 15 mintues:

    Fragrance of Christmas

    It is almost Christmas Eve and the ice coats the trees, covers
    the fence rails, drips from the mail box like glass fingers. I can smell the remnants for last night’s fir and balsam candle mix with yesterday’s bacon smells. The fragrances are warm and homey, but they are not the old Christmas smells I once knew.

    Long ago we cut our own tree or bought one at the local
    grocers. If we cut out own, it was often a prickly cedar. Trees bought at the
    grocers were pine. Once set up in our small bungalow, the aroma of the outside permeated the living room. Sometimes I stepped up to the tree and inhaled for an even stronger scent of pasture and forest.

    On Christmas the house was perfumed by baking ham, bubbling marshmallow-coated sweet potatoes, and cooling pumpkin pie. But the real bouquet of Christmas waltzed through the front door when my grandparents arrived. Grandpa in pinstriped suit and black derby hat looked dapper, a fresh sprig of some Christmassy
    flower or mistletoe stuck in his lapel, as he sashayed through our front door. With him came the bittersweet mix of whiskey on his breath and the overpowering sweetness of his shaving cologne. I smelled Grandpa and knew it would be a happy Christmas with his cheery laughter as long as the scent of drink and toilet water remained balanced.

    • Adelaide Shaw

      I enjoyed your memory of Christmases past.Times change and families spread out. I remember big Christmases as a child. My mother followed the Italian tradition of serving 7 types of fish on Christmas Eve. Aunts, Uncles, cousins dropped by to eat of this meal after which we opened gifts.

    • John Fisher

      I love the homey atmosphere of this story. And also love your last line, ” . . . as long as the scent of drink and toilet water remained balanced.”!

    • Susan Smith-Grier

      You post reminded me of the special smell of the Christmas trees we had when I was little. That’s one of the things I loved best. . . all the wonderful scents and aromas!

  3. Marilyn Ostermiller

    My most intriguing family story involved my great-great grandparents on my father’s side. This is the story my aunt shared during a family gathering:

    During the Civil War, Ferdinand and Rebecca Sales lived on a small farm in a mountainous area of northern Virginia that is now West Virginia. They had four children and another on the way.

    One day, Ferdy heard in town that the Confederacy was so woefully short of fighting men so that groups of soldiers on horseback were taking farmers they spotted working their fields and conscripting them on the spot, leaving the wives and children to fend for themselves.

    Ferdy hurried home to hatch a plan with Rebecca so that he would not be taken. He sided with the Union and was desperate not to be forced to fight for the Rebels.

    Ferdy and Rebecca took enough of the stuffing out of their goose-feather bed so that Ferdy could hide in it if they spotted soldiers on horseback headed their way. The children took turns sitting lookout on the roof of the barn.

    The day came when one of the children saw a group of four men on horseback heading their way. Luckily, Ferdy had just come in for the noon meal so he quickly burrowed into the featherbed on the back room.

    The ruse worked. The soldiers searched the farm, but grudgingly left when they couldn’t find him.

    • Victoria

      What a neat story! Thanks for sharing.

    • Adelaide Shaw

      How exciting. Sounds like a story for the movies.

    • Susan Smith-Grier

      I agree completely! I can easily see that in a movie.

    • John Fisher

      Wow. Great story of cunning and courage, on everyone’s part including the kids!

    • Marilyn Ostermiller

      Thanks, John and the others who commented. I’m glad that I was able to communicate this exciting bit of family lore.

  4. Adelaide Shaw

    Both my parents came from Italy. I have found inspiraton in their memories to write short stories based on their memories. I fictionalized these stories, but the initial inspiration was from them. My mother came to the US when she was 13 during the first World War.. She traveled in sterage with her mother, two younger brothers and a baby sister. Since my grandmother was seasick most of the 16-18 day voyage, the job of minding the children fell to my mother. One very scary episode was being in the path of U-boats, My mother told of the engines stopping and how the passangers were told to keep very still and be ready to don life jackets and go to the life boats if attacked. Fortunalely, they were not attacked. I have kept many of their memories alive with stories and with journals.

    • Claudia Mundell

      How wonderful you can keep the history of your family, to store it not only for yourself but for others!

    • John Fisher

      You do indeed have a deep source of inspiration in the story of your ancestors’ voyage to America. Can only imagine how a 13-year-old girl felt at having to hide from the enemy. I too wish to keep many of my forbears’ stories alive through my writing. My father’s German heritage and very Germanic appearance caused him some trouble in World War II, as I write on this same blog page.

      Hopefully we writers can keep their stories alive much longer than we’ll be around.


  5. John Fisher

    My great-great grandfather came over to America on a boat from Germany, from the area of Hamburg, in the mid-nineteenth century. By the time I came along nobody spoke German anymore and the “c” in the middle of the family name had been removed to Americanize it.

    Fast-forward to 1944. My father was a young Staff Sargent in the U. S. Army in charge of a Motor Pool Group, stationed in Northern Africa. His group worked on Army ambulances, kept ’em up and running. Dad said more than once he was grateful for this duty because it kept him out of the worst of the fighting, and as they were fighting German General Rommel, “the desert fox”, I know it got pretty bad out there.

    In his eighties, after suffering a series of mini-strokes, my dad told me a story about the War that he’d never told me before. The strokes left him subtly different, which may have been a prerequisite for this story’s ever getting told, at least to me. It seems that one day there in Africa two Arab-appearing men, in traditional/tribal dress, approached him. Turns out they were military intelligence, and on the basis of Dad’s facial features and coloration, they were going to arrest him as an enemy actor. A Nazi. I can only imagine the fear he felt. To hear him tell it in his terse way, the ordeal didn’t last very long; chain-of-command would have had all his records and would have known who he was. I can only think that those intelligence men must have been looking for someone who resembled my father, but who knows. Dad didn’t address that. But over my childhood and youth he had taught me, among many other things, that appearances can be deceiving, and not to let other people tell me who I am. I now have confirmation that he knew whereof he spoke.

    R.I.P. SSgt. John M. Fisher, Jr., 1919-2006.

    • Marilyn Ostermiller

      That is a moving story. I know that many of those who fought in the war never talked about it. It is great that your Dad finally shared it with you.

  6. Susan Smith-Grier

    My father used to tell us about some of his childhood memories.
    One in particular had to do with his walk home from school and how his brother used to take great pleasure in scaring him on occasion. There was a big empty oil drum that sat at the bottom of a hill on the path home. Sometimes Dad’s brother would hide behind the container then jump out and scare my dad.

    One day from his vantage point on top of the hill, Daddy saw Uncle Lafayette sneak behind the drum so this day he knew what his brother was
    planning on doing. Now that he had the upper hand he decided that he would
    strike first by throwing a dirt clod at the drum before Lafayette had a chance
    to jump out and scare him. He knew the resounding boom from the clod hittingthe barrel would startle his brother.

    As soon as he got close enough he chose the perfect clod and hurled it at the huge drum. He waited for the loud boom, but only heard a loud
    yelp from Lafayette. Instead of hitting the drum, he had hit his brother with
    the clod and of course, it hurt because it was a pretty solid piece of dirt.

    I’d heard this story from time to time over the years, but my favorite time hearing it was at a family reunion when I was an adult. Dad told the story and Uncle Lafayette happened to be in the room listening. When Daddy finished the story Lafayette said he thought that Dad had seen him and hit him with the clod on purpose. Dad told him his only intention was to make a loud noise by hitting the drum. He never aimed for his brother.

    For over 50 years Uncle Lafayette believed that Dad threw that clod at him on purpose and it was only now that he learned it had all been an accident. And Dad never knew that Lafayette thought it was repayment for scaring him all those times. All he knew was that his brother never again jumped out from the oil drum to scare him.

    I love it when family stories are shared and the back stories come out. People learn things they never knew before and sometimes you find out what you thought was intended was in fact only an accident.

    • Marilyn Ostermiller

      Susan, it’s great that you got the rest of the story

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