Writing the past… from local legend to diaspora tales

If you are interested in creative writing and story-making, have you considered taking inspiration from your family history or place of origin?

Some of the best poetry, fiction and non-fiction comes from a strong sense of place. By looking to the past you can find an anchor for your characters and achieve authenticity and emotional impact.

Place and family can yield a wealth of material for writers, from local legends and diaspora tales to sources for memoir and powerful narratives.

Mandy Ross is a published writer whose latest children’s book Dominic Grows Sweetcorn is based on her neighbour’s story of growing up in Jamaica and arriving in 1950s Birmingham.

Mandy believes both living memory and the distant past can provide inspiration, and reveals that her own family history stretches back to the pre-war Jewish settlements of Eastern Europe.

Mandy’s grandmother and great-aunt, circa 1910

‘We have quite extensive family trees on both sides,’ she says. ‘But the idea for this course emerged when I realised that apart from Fiddler on the Roof, I have no idea of my ancestors’ life in the shtetls of the Polish-Russian borderlands.

‘What was day-to-day life like? What were their fears, irritations and dreams?

‘I know that my great-grandparents left Russia because they were afraid they would lose their sons into the Tsar’s army. So they found their way to Manchester around the turn of the twentieth century.

‘How did they adapt? What kind of homes and communities did they live in? What did they miss? How must it have felt to leave all they’d ever known? And what emerged for the young men and women launched in a new country because of their parents’ protective ambition?’

Mandy is teaching a course called Writing Your Roots in January at the Birmingham & Midland Institute in Birmingham, where participants will be able to draw on their own photos, letters, and books set in their place of origin.

If you’re interested in creative writing or have started to write a personal or family history, this could be the course for you! It could also make a fabulous Christmas present for someone.

‘I hope we can use family photos and historical sources to conjure up real voices,’ Mandy says. ‘We can then imagine the hopes, rivalries and longings that might have driven the lives of our ancestors or figures from legend.

‘We will also weave in the threads that remain in our 21st century lives – whether that be through our food, our DNA, or our communities.

‘Whether you are aiming to learn more about story-making, produce creative writing or memoir for publication, or write for family record, I hope we can bring the past to life.’

Mandy’s course starts on January 4, and you can find full details at the Writing West Midlands website.





Mandy has written over 60 children’s books and also writes poetry and plays for grown up audiences.

She is artistic co-director of Secret City Arts and has worked with CBSO, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham Libraries, mac, various poetry festivals, Birmingham Museums Trust and has taught at Birmingham University and BCU.