When I begin to write about a person’s life, I try to walk beside that person in real time. I try to tell their story as if I were standing beside that person, living it with the person at the moment, and hopefully, tugging at my reader’s heart. For the most part that means I’m writing in present tense.
Choosing present tense isn’t intuitive for anyone writing about family history. Writers automatically write in the past tense. When you use past tense, you limit your use of livelier action verbs that create a livelier picture for your reader.
In addition to using the present tense, I try to limit the use of the verb to be (am, are, is). When you force yourself to look at every sentence that includes a form of the to be verb and search for other verbs or edit to create a different sentence structure, you immediately strengthen anything you've written. You won't always be able to avoid the use of the to be form; however, awareness of it can make you a more creative writer.
Use the Thesaurus. MS Word includes a built-in Thesaurus. Double click a verb (or any other word), hold down the Shift key, and press F7 to open a Research pane. The pane includes a list of synonyms with the part of speech in parentheses and sometimes antonyms. If you look at the top of the pane, you can click a drop-down arrow that gives you access to lots of other research options; for example, Thesauruses in other languages. Frequently, the Thesaurus can provide synonyms that you are unaware of or that you just don’t use in your everyday writing and speaking. Surprise your reader. Use peruse instead of read. My favorite things to read always send me scurrying for a dictionary.
Here’s an example of an introduction written in present tense.
Jane massages the tips of her sore pricked fingers as she makes her way home from the workshop. She spends her days sewing leftover bits of fur into hats to be worn by moneyed women. As she rubs her fingertips, she wonders if her job as an Irish maid in an affluent household had been so bad after all. Jane takes solace in the fact that she at least has company when she sews.
Jane lives with her brother Robert and his family but still must earn her way in the world. She needs to raise money to get to her family in Illinois. Once there, Jane can begin to search for a suitable husband and start a life of her own. At nineteen, Jane’s search for a husband is already underway but she has time on her side. Most of Jane’s siblings were well into their twenties before they married.
As Jane nears her home, the din of the tenement where she and her family live rouses her from her musings. Who would have thought that life would be like this in America? Life in Ireland had been rural and quiet, but meager. The meagerness of life in Ireland had been what caused Jane’s family to come to America in 1837.
Do you want to know more about Jane? I hope so. I hope that by using present tense I’ve made Jane come off the page as a real person—a person you want to get to know. After you have an introduction that will catch your reader's attention, you can write a transitional paragraph that allows you to provide past or future information in any tense you like. The point is that by using the present tense you’ve engaged your reader’s imagination and they will want more.
Writing in real time and shadowing your ancestor takes some practice. However, you should take heart in that writing is a learned skill just like driving. The more you practice the better you get at the skill. So the next time you begin to write about an ancestor, try picking just a small incident and see if you can work it into an introduction that will tug at your reader's heart.