Welcome to another installment of my advice column where I answer readers’ questions about writing compelling stories from family history:

Hope asks: I would like to write about a great-aunt who always fascinated me because she was locked away in an insane asylum. The family does not talk about her beyond very basic information. How do I go about this?

My answer:

This is a common quandary. When writing family stories, we invariably come upon intriguing characters about whom we don’t really know enough. Here’s how I would go about trying to write a story about your great-aunt:

  1. First of all, write down what you do know.

    You might find that once you put pen to paper, you actually do know a bit more than you think you do.

  2. Pinpoint why you find this person interesting.

    In your case, it sounds like your great-aunt being committed to an insane asylum piqued your interest. Why do you find that interesting? Write about that and bring yourself into the story.

  3. Next, research:

    • Ask as many family members as possible about what they know. Even if they don’t want to talk about her, insist that you at least need to verify basics. The name and location of the asylum, when she was sent, if she ever was released, etc., are helpful clues. Quite often, if you ask people one on one, you can get snippets of memories that give you more pieces to the puzzle.
    • Research the institutions. Institutions have their own archives and records. With any given organization, many other people were involved, so there has got to be more out there. If you have the name of the asylum, try to learn more about it. If it still exists, try to request medical records. Even better, visit it to get a feel for the location and the building and inquire in person. Depending on how long ago your great-aunt was there, you could find out possible roommates or personnel who knew her. Even if they aren’t alive anymore, you might find information in what they published or shared with their families.
    • Fill in the wider story. For example, learn as much as you can about what mental health treatments were like back then. There are other stories out there that can inform your understanding of her life, even if you can’t find out exactly how she was treated.
  4. Make your quest the story.

    Expanding on point 2, when you don’t have enough material to create a story about this person you’re fascinated with, make your trying to find out more about him or her the story. A quest is a classic story arc and because you are the narrator, we get rid of the problem of portraying someone we don’t know enough about.

  5. Speculation can be your friend.

    If, after following every possible thread, you still only have a rough sketch of this person, use whatever background information you have to speculate. You might not know exactly how your great-aunt’s life panned out in the asylum, but maybe you now know what condition she had and what her daily life might have looked like given the treatments of the time. Begin sentences with “I imagine…”, “I wonder” or “Perhaps…” to make it clear to your reader that you’re speculating.

  6. Consider writing historical fiction.

    With all the information you have gathered, you could embark on writing a fictional account “based on a true story.” This is often the premise of historical fiction. We don’t have enough facts to write a robust true story, so instead we write the story that could be true.

I hope this helps you make progress on writing something about your great-aunt. It certainly sounds like she would merit a tribute.

Further questions are welcome in the comments below or contact me!

PS: We found the image above in my husband’s bundle of old family pictures. On the back of this photo the woman’s name and the year are written in pencil: “Rose Wola, 1910.” That’s it. We don’t know who she is, except a relative on his father’s side, most likely from the town of Slonim in what is now Belarus, as that is where is father’s family was from.