The Forgotten, Unnamed People of the Past are Here to Help!


Need a good story idea? Go visit a thrift store or antique store and seek out old family photos, abandoned by their own family members, forgotten to time unless someone bothered to jot a name or a date on the back. These are real people, having lived real lives, documented by photograph.

Somewhere in each photograph is a story to be told, a character, an event, a conflict, a loss, or a joy. At one point in time, someone took that photograph, framed it, added it to an album because it meant something. Back then.

Of course, after a life ends, the personal effects get divided up, some going to immediate family, sons or daughters to carry on the family name and document it. But often that does not happen. For whatever reason, many reminders of the past are lost, discarded, sold or given away.

Discovered in an antique consignment store, several families lost to time offer wonderful fictional opportunities for a writer., a genealogy site, reminds people that family history fades in just three generations. And Deseret News says that a third of Americans cannot even name all four grandparents.

Some people consider their family history a waste of time. Many believe that the past is lost to the past and worthless to the present. And yet without the knowledge of the past one is subject to the whims of the present without any past knowledge to help navigate.

“It’s an understandable obsession, of course. The preoccupation with who we are and where we came from has plagued humanity since the dawn of civilization,” says author Nathan H. Lents, Ph.D. in a posting on Psychology Today titled: The Meaning and Meaninglessness of Geneology. Lents believes the past is meaningless insofar as how people are related, given that people are uniquely themselves and the information of past affiliations serve no purpose. He adds that going back far enough we have a common ancestor, so ultimately we are related to everyone, a daunting task to document.

And that is assuming the information recorded is factual. In many periods of the past, it was necessary to live in secret, to hide from authorities, to not have a trail that could, in many cases, lead to your death. In America, with racial divides in our slavery past, identities were often disguised to avoid revealing slave-owner parentage. Likewise, fatherless children might have had names added to birth certificates that were not necessarily accurate.

Real people.

With some identification, you have the basis of a historical story that can be referenced, such as this Class of 1919

For me, looking at these photographs conjures up a time and a place, a character that once seen visually can have traits attributed to them, accurate or not. As nameless as many of these real people wound up in discarded photographs, there is a tangibility that can be useful. And since most are long gone, any issues of copyright over the imagery are moot.

Real people, real lives that can be had for a few bucks that you can STEAL and recreate, make live again as new people in a new story thus garnering IMMORTALITY.

Some years ago I reflected on how the past seems to improve in quality with each passing decade, and how this was an illusion. See what you think.

Have you ever used an old photograph to further your stories? If so, share your experiences in the comments.