Most family histories are set in the third person, past tense. Somehow the third person, present tense energises a story but it's very hard to sustain a book-length story of the past using this writing style. Some writers have managed it, such as Hilary Mantel in 'Wolf Hall'.
A recent writing exercise set by the GSV Writers Circle in Melbourne challenged us to tell a short story in the third person, present tense. I chose an example from my latest book Sentenced to Debt: Robert Forrester, First Fleeter to explain what happened to Robert Forrester's long-term de facto wife after his death in 1827.
Italics in the following short story show the use of the present tense.
In 1828 Jane Metcalf is still alive, working at Wilberforce as a seamstress and living with her Forrester stepsons Robert (Jnr) and William. In 1833 she comes before the Supreme Court, indicted as the receiver of meat from a calf stolen from a neighbour by her stepson Robert and his friend John Norris. Some sort of neighbourhood dispute is in play.
When the men are sentenced to death even their horrified accuser rallies to their defence. So does their neighbour and local magistrate, William Cox: “I never heard one of the family charged with doing wrong until now. Among the young men of these districts they are considered as standing high.”
The death sentence is waived and the two men with their wives and children are sent to Tasmania for seven years, where Robert (Jnr) works for a son of William Cox. Jane is sentenced to 12 months gaol at the Parramatta Female Factory. She is now in her late seventies.
|Second Parramatta Female Factory, 1818-1848|
By Augustus Earle (1793-1838) - National Library of Australia., Wikimedia
After gaol, Jane needs economic support. She issues a summons seeking maintenance from James Metcalf, her much younger legal husband, although they’ve lived apart for twenty five years. He agrees to resume co-habitation, with Jane keeping house for him.