How to Write Your Family History
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Choose a Format
Define the scope, set realistic deadlines.
- Choose a Plot and Themes
Do Your Background Research
- Don't Be Afraid to Use Records and Documents
Include an Index and Source Citations
- Certificate in Genealogical Research, Boston University
- B.A., Carnegie Mellon University
Writing a family history may seem like a daunting task, but when the relatives start nagging, you can follow these five easy steps to make your family history project a reality.
What do you envision for your family history project? A simple photocopied booklet shared only with family members or a full-scale, hard-bound book to serve as a reference for other genealogists? Perhaps you'd rather produce a family newsletter, cookbook, or website. Now is the time to be honest with yourself about the type of family history that meetings your needs and your schedule. Otherwise, you'll have a half-finished product nagging you for years to come.
Considering your interests, potential audience, and the types of materials you have to work with, here are some forms your family history can take:
- Memoir/Narrative: A combination of story and personal experience, memoirs, and narratives do not need to be all-inclusive or objective. Memoirs usually focus on a specific episode or time period in the life of a single ancestor, while a narrative generally encompasses a group of ancestors.
- Cookbook: Share your family's favorite recipes while writing about the people who created them. A fun project to assemble, cookbooks help carry on the family tradition of cooking and eating together.
- Scrapbook or Album: If you're fortunate enough to have a large collection of family photos and memorabilia, a scrapbook or photo album can be a fun way to tell your family's story. Include your photos in chronological order and include stories, descriptions, and family trees to complement the pictures.
Most family histories are generally narrative in nature, with a combination of personal stories, photos, and family trees.
Do you intend to write mostly about just one particular relative, or everyone in your family tree ? As the author, you need to choose a focus for your family history book. Some possibilities include:
- Single Line of Descent: Begin with the earliest known ancestor for a particular surname and follows him/her through a single line of descent (to yourself, for example). Each chapter of your book would cover one ancestor or generation.
- All Descendants Of...: Begin with an individual or couple and cover all of their descendants, with chapters organized by generation. If you're focusing your family history on an immigrant ancestor, this is a good way to go.
- Grandparents: Include a section on each of your four grandparents, or eight great-grandparents, or sixteen great-great-grandparents if you are feeling ambitious. Each individual section should focus on one grandparent and work backward through their ancestry or forward from his/her earliest known ancestor.
Again, these suggestions can easily be adapted to fit your interests, time constraints, and creativity.
Even though you'll likely find yourself scrambling to meet them, deadlines force you to complete each stage of your project. The goal here is to get each piece done within a specified time frame. Revising and polishing can always be done later. The best way to meet these deadlines is to schedule writing time, just as you would a visit to the doctor or the hairdresser.
Choose a Plot and Themes
Thinking of your ancestors as characters in your family story, ask yourself: what problems and obstacles did they face? A plot gives your family history interest and focus. Popular family history plots and themes include:
- Rags to Riches
- Pioneer or Farm Life
- War Survival
If you want your family history to read more like a suspense novel than a dull, dry textbook, it is important to make the reader feel like an eyewitness to your family's life. Even when your ancestors didn't leave accounts of their daily lives, social histories can help you learn about the experiences of people in a given time and place. Read town and city histories to learn what life was life during certain periods of interest. Research timelines of wars, natural disasters, and epidemics to see if any might have influenced your ancestors. Read up on the fashions, art, transportation, and common foods of the time. If you haven't already, be sure to interview all of your living relatives. Family stories told in a relative's own words will add a personal touch to your book.
Don't Be Afraid to Use Records and Documents
Photos, pedigree charts, maps, and other illustrations can also add interest to family history and help break up the writing into manageable chunks for the reader. Be sure to include detailed captions for any photos or illustrations that you incorporate.
Source citations are an essential part of any family book, to both provide credibility to your research, and to leave a trail that others can follow to verify your findings.
- Celebrate Family History Month and Explore Your Lineage
- Scrapbooking Your Family History
- 5 Great Ways to Share Your Family History
- Fun Family History Activities for Family Reunions
- Tracing Your Family Medical History
- 8 Places to Put Your Family Tree Online
- Best Things to Make With Desktop Publishing Software
- How Are Cousins Related?
- How to Find the Theme of a Book or Short Story
- What Is an Autobiography?
- Creating a Digital Scrapbook on Your Computer
- 10 Fabulous Sources for Family History Books Online
- Publishing Your Family History Book
- Make Your Own Family Photo Calendar
- Filling out Genealogical Forms
- Researching Famous (or Infamous) Ancestors
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9 Tips for Getting Started on Writing Your Family History
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Written by Diane Haddad, unless otherwise noted.
Once you’ve been doing genealogy research for a while, and you have a family tree or a computer hard drive or a filing cabinet with a bunch of notes and old records, you might wonder what to do with it all. Or perhaps you’ve always harbored the dream of sharing your family history, and you’re not sure how.
It’s a hard truth: Few people have much use for an unstructured assortment of documents and computer files. Even folks who are curious about their family history—and that describes most I’ve met—aren’t likely to sort through your research and rebuild the store of knowledge you’ve amassed over years.
If your family research is to live beyond you, you’ll need to do the work of putting it into some shareable, lasting form. That usually means summarizing your finds in writing, maybe enhanced with photos and images of interesting documents. Whether you go all-out with a self-published hardback or just pass out stapled pages at the next family reunion, you’ll create a legacy—a framework others can use to understand your family’s story and the genealogical evidence you’ve gathered.
We can’t promise the project will be a breeze, but we can promise it’ll be easier when you follow these tips and use our handy organizing worksheet.
1. Know Your Purpose
Before you begin, it’s important to know what you hope to accomplish with this writing project. Do you want to summarize all your research, share your family legacy, pass down the stories Grandpa told, tell how your family fits into local history, share the story of an ancestor or family you admire, celebrate your ethnic heritage, or something else?
A strong focus makes the project more manageable, says Sunny Jane Morton, author of Story of My Life . “A small, finished project is better than a three-volume tome that exists only in your dreams.”
Need help narrowing the scope? Morton advises looking at your research for the most compelling story or interesting person. Author Sophia Wilson, who penned an 160,000-word history of her family, started her project by writing as many family stories as she could think of, then turning them into short biographies of the people involved. She wrote every day for at least 15 minutes, but sometimes for hours at a time. Taken together, those biographies served as the starting point for her project.
Alternately, you could choose a topic that commemorates an upcoming family milestone, such as your parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. Or you might start with whatever is most doable.
Your audience is an important aspect of your goal. For a project just family will see, you might use a casual writing style, refer to relatives with familiar titles (“Great-grandpa Thornton”), and use in-text source information. If other genealogists will read your work in a newsletter, journal or published book, you’ll want a more authoritative style with an emphasis on your research process, and formal source citations in footnotes and source lists.
Think about your audience’s age (or level of maturity), too. Wilson recalls how her research turned up stories that might not be appropriate to a younger audience. “Instead of shifting the focus of my book, I decided that children could simply read the unvarnished truth once they were mature enough,” Wilson says. “Age-appropriate stories could be extracted and adapted for a younger audience, for whom I would also write at a lower reading level.”
“I kept coming back to what I wanted the project to accomplish (preserving and sharing memories for the younger generation) and letting that guide my decisions,” she says.
2. Make a Plan
An outline gives you a framework for building your project, especially if it involves multiple people or a long time span. Make a list of elements you want to include. Don’t worry about organizing the list yet.
Here’s an example for my maternal family history opus:
- a family tree of Mom’s family
- information about the places the family came from with a map, including why so many immigrated from each place
- names and immigration details of all the immigrant ancestors: Henry Seeger, Eduard Thoss, Mary Mairose, Thomas Frost, Edward Norris, Elizabeth Butler, Henry Hoernemann, Anna Maria Weyer, and so on.
- where these families settled in the United States, their jobs and their children
- Eduard Thoss tavern in Northern Kentucky
- info on Cincinnati Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, where so many settled
- Dierkes boys in family cemetery plot
- Henry Seeger’s cigar store, with photos and timeline, and two babies who died as infants
- Thomas Frost/Mary Wolking divorce
- Ade Thoss and the Covington Blue Sox
- possible family connection to Windthorst, Kan.
- death of Elizabeth Teipel Thoss and several of her children
- Benjamin Teipel trap-shooting invention and death
- Civil War service of Frank and Benjamin Thoss
- firefighter Raymond Norris and Newton Tea & Spice Co. Fire
- how Grandma and Grandpa met
Your list might cause you to rethink your project scope. For example, I’m seeing that I could divide up my project by family branches, breaking it down into smaller parts (and this is only part of my list).
When you know the topics you want to cover, arrange them in an order that makes sense to you. You could do chronological order, geographical order (group all information related to Germany, all immigration information, all second generation information), family branches one at a time, or some other arrangement. You could opt for a general overview then add several shorter profiles of specific ancestors or families.
Wilson shares how she thought about structure while planning her project:
One option would be maintaining individual biographies, organized in the book by birth year, generation or location. Or I could combine all biographies into a single narrative chronology, or even organize the stories by theme (women, farming, culture, etc.). I opted for the most straightforward and comprehensive order: chronological. With this approach, I gained a deeper understanding of how my ancestors’ lives developed over time, and how one event flowed into another.
Next, create an outline by organizing topics into sections or chapters. Read published family histories for examples. One of my favorites is Family by Ian Frazier.
3. Say It with Pictures
Pictures and graphs will engage your readers, help them follow complicated lineages and show what you’re talking about. “Plan as you go which pictures, documents, maps, charts and genealogical reports will best illustrate your narrative,” Morton advises.
Depending how many photos and documents you’ve found, you’ll want to winnow the options to those from key moments in your family history, selecting those that will reproduce well in the finished product. Consider adding transcriptions for hard-to-read or foreign-language documents.
Keep copyright in mind. If you plan to publish your work (including on a website), get permission from the copyright holder or owner of any images you didn’t create or that aren’t in your personal collection. For a quick read about understanding copyright laws, check out this article .
4. Get Organized and Utilize Apps
Now you’re ready to write. As you work, go over your records for families and people you’re writing about. Wilson developed a filing system that automatically sorted documents by individual. “I created a separate document for every event so I could easily insert new findings, titling each with the event, the date and the location,” she says. “I then grouped the documents into folders, one folder for each year.”
To help you organize source references, add in-text references with the title, author and page or record number in parentheses when you use information from a record, article, book or website. Also create a bibliography of sources as you go. This should include everything needed to find that source again: title, author, publisher or creator (such as the National Archives), publication date and place, website, etc.
Later, when your project is mostly complete, you can keep the in-text references, or number the references and create footnotes (short-form citations at the bottom of the page) or end notes (short-form citations at the end of a chapter). Include the bibliography at the end of your work. For help with source citations, use the book Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Genealogical Publishing Co.).
You might have a writing head start if you can pull together blog posts or short essays you’ve already written about your family history. Your genealogy software or online tree might offer a timeline you can follow, or even generate a narrative report for you. For an ambitious project or if you do a lot of writing, you might invest in software such as Scrivener . Additionally, writing apps can help you create an outline, organize and edit your story.
Read: How to Create a Genealogy Source Citation
5. Generate Ideas through Prompts and Research
If you’re still having trouble knowing what to write, try answering the family history writing prompts in a book such as Stories From My Grandparent or from Family Tree Magazine . These will help you flesh out ideas and take your family stories in new directions.
Revisit your research for story ideas, and let what you find in documents inspire you. Wilson consulted books (both digital and physical) about her ancestors’ location and ethnic group, as well as documents on genealogy websites like Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com. One book on Ancestry.com contained all the church records for her ancestors, some written by her great-great-great-grandfather’s best friend.
Wilson also revisited local histories and newspapers she had found early in her project. “Now that I was further in my research, I recognized more names and better understood the relationships among them,” she says. “People I had dismissed as “townsfolk” turned out to be in-laws and close friends of my lineal ancestors.”
6. Seek Out Help
Look for writers’ groups and classes in your community. From online groups to friends and family members, having a community you can rely on for feedback and encouragement is essential.
Reaching out can also lead to new research finds, important for sourcing the details in your stories. Wilson connected with other family historians, as well as genealogical societies and libraries (who scanned entire chapters of reference books for her to consult). One cousin-in-law even sent her photos and a relevant family keepsake they found on eBay.
7. Begin in the Middle
Don’t let the “how to start” roadblock stall your project right out of the gate. If you don’t know how to begin, just start writing a story you like—maybe it’s about an ancestor’s immigration, military service or venture to the wrong side of the law. The words will flow from there.
“My goal wasn’t perfection, just to get memories on the page,” Wilson says about her first step of writing family biographies. “I didn’t waste time checking spelling and grammar—that would come later.” An interesting or dramatic event is often the best way to begin a story, anyway. Remember, you’re not carving in stone: You can always rearrange things later.
8. Write Naturally
If you’re writing for relatives, pretend you’re telling your family story to a friend. If you’re writing for a publication, tailor your work to that publication’s style.
Wilson had to wrestle with how to balance facts she found in her research with storytelling. “I thought of how much I hated history class growing up—all those names-places-dates to memorize, and no story to latch onto,” Wilson says. “I resolved to … strive for historical accuracy without resorting to the dry tone of a textbook.”
9. Take Your Time
A deadline can motivate you, but give yourself plenty of time. You want this project to add fulfillment to your family research, not cause stress. Start now and work on your writing project a little at a time, once a week or every evening if you can manage it. Imagine where you’ll be a year from now.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2018 issue of Family Tree Magazine , written by Diane Haddad. Sophia Wilson’s article on the steps she took to write her family history narrative appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Family Tree Magazine .
Editors of Family Tree Magazine
7 creative forms for sharing your family history.
How to create an outline for writing an interesting family history.
How to share family history stories on the big genealogy websites.
Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, Storytelling
10 story-building strategies from the finding your roots team.
How to write up your family history
- Consider using an index to help readers locate a particular topic
- List your sources
- Have a ‘further reading’ section for books you found helpful
Originally published March 2020. Reviewed February 2023.
Choosing the Right Format When Writing Your Family History
Home » Blog » Choosing the Right Format When Writing Your Family History
CHOOSING THE RIGHT FORMAT WHEN WRITING YOUR FAMILY HISTORY
You’ve dreamed of writing a family history book for years. In fact, you’ve even started wading through old documents, photos, and records.
But after countless hours of research, you’re stuck.
What do you do with all of the materials you’ve gathered? What’s the best way to present your family’s history? What kind of a story do you want to tell — and how do you want to tell it?
Where do you even start?
The great thing about family history projects is that the options are almost limitless.
Want to keep things simple? You can stick to a just-the-facts family tree.
Want a sweeping epic that spans generations? Consider writing a novel-length family biography that weaves your ancestors’ stories together with important historical events.
Not a huge fan of writing? You can tell your family’s story through a collection of letters, journals, photographs, and other documents.
Of course, the drawback to all of these choices is choosing the right one for your family and your goals for the project.
Not sure which option is right for you? Join us for a deep dive into some of our favorite options — along with the pros and cons of each one.
Traditional styles are, by far, is the most straightforward way to organize your family history. The traditional, basic format shows how each person in your lineage is connected.
Considering this approach? Try one of these options:
Family Tree Style.
This style offers the bare facts of your ancestors, including names, birth and death dates, and how they relate to each other within the family line.
Family tree diagrams are great for illustrating smaller family relations, but can easily become quite cumbersome for larger families.
Also known as a 'pedigree chart,' this option is similar to -- but more complex than -- a family tree and is a popular choice for historian archivists.
These charts can vary in layout, but they are always organized with the information starting in the present and moving backward into the past along the direct lineage. The information is organized based on a specific numbering and charting system that tracks family units or groups.
Another popular option with historic archivists and professional genealogists. Also known as the “Descendancy,” this style is the opposite of the Ahnentafel as it works from the past into the present from a common ancestor. Like the Anhentafel, though, this option uses a numbering system to organize people into families. However, registers also feature a very basic paragraph about each person that includes: the place of birth/baptism and birth/baptism date(s); place of death/burial and death/burial date(s); and place of marriage and marriage date.
Why go traditional?
All three styles of traditional genealogy are a great way to organize your research and data while compiling your family history.
And, since these options are focused on names, dates, and places, they’re great options if you’re not interested in doing a lot of writing.
They are also perfect for the genealogist and anyone else who wants to organize their information before starting a more writing-intensive option.
Drawbacks to consider:
While these formats make it easy to organize the data in a logical way, they’re not very exciting.
The end result is a dry, bare-bones list of names and dates, with no in-depth details about your family’s rich history.
Also known as a “heritage scrapbook,” this style of family history includes names and dates, but it keeps things interesting with the addition of photos, notes, stories, documents, letters, journal entries, newspaper clippings, and anything else you can think of.
You can use a scanner and simple layout software to create your scrapbook digitally. This gives you the option to print multiple copies for several members of your family.
Or you can keep things old-school and create a one-of-a kind, paper-crafted scrapbook that that is placed within a binder.
Why this is a great option:
With the journaled scrapbook format, you can use a lot more of the documents and old photos you found in your research instead of letting them sit in a box.
Photos help give a rich element to your family history. You can even embellish them in a creative way with written narratives and any other documents you like.
Things to consider:
Printing can increase the overall cost of your project — especially if you’re using lots of photos and other graphics.
On the other hand, if you choose to do a paper-crafted scrapbook, you can save money — but you’ll be limited to only one copy to share with your family.
Theme-Based Family History
A theme-based family history is a great way to capture that interest while also chronicling the people along your lineage.
Did your family love to cook? Write a book of recipes shared across the generations, along with the stories about where the recipes came from and other interesting details.
Were there a lot of military men and women in your family? Write about their bravery and experiences during their service, and how that affected the family line.
Maybe there were plenty of “black sheep,” adventurers, or renegades in your family line. Base your family history around their colorful experiences.
Really, there is no shortage of ideas on topics you could use to present your family histories.
Why choose a theme-based option:
There are lots of topics you can choose from within your family history to write about.
Whether visual or narrative in form, it is a great way to present a special family theme that can be shared with all your relatives. You can mix photos, documents, and narratives along with items like recipes, letters, etc.
What to know before you start:
Just like with a journaled scrapbook, theme-based history books often include lots of photos, notes, and other documents, which means it can be costly to print.
Creating a book with a special theme or narrow scope also means leaving out many other aspects and stories — or even people — that don’t fit within the book’s focus.
A family biography is a narrative story of a whole family’s history, and it can provide a look at a direct family line/surname or a broader view of several directly connected lines.
This format is a lot like a novel.
You write a narrative about your ancestors using notes, memories, and a bit of creative license here and there.
Your family’s narrative is set against a historical backdrop and often includes information about historical events, politics, economic conditions, and other historical circumstances that influenced your descendants.
Why a biography?
This format gives you the ability to use all the facts you collected in a more compelling way while bringing your family’s history alive.
You can get in-depth and provide meaning and context. You can also tell some amazing stories without worrying if they’ll “fit” within a specific space or theme.
Drawbacks of a biography-style book:
This option works best if you have plentiful resources to draw upon, such as old letters and journals actually written by family members you are writing about.
Without that firsthand perspective, it’s all too easy to make assumptions about your ancestors’ actions, beliefs, and decisions.
This format an anthology, which is a collection of stories typically written to fit into a certain subject or theme.
To use this format you would select which family members’ stories you want to highlight and write each one separately.
Each family member’s story would be a chapter or section in our book, and each story would work together in some way to illustrate a certain theme, idea, time period, or even a memory.
Again, there is no shortage of ideas for compiling an anthology-style family history. You could write stories about all the women or all the men in one direct line.
Or you could even transcribe family members’ memories or interpretations of a certain important family event.
The benefits of an anthology:
This format can include more in-depth information into each individual, creating a more complete portrait of each family member you write about.
You can also ask family members to write their own stories and send them to you, which means less writing work for you — and more colorful and varied stories for readers.
The challenges of an anthology-style approach:
While it is said everyone has a story to tell, not every family member’s story will be equally compelling.
You’ll need to make sure that you have enough stories to make an interesting book, and you should be willing to scale the project up or down as needed.
For example, you might find that, out of ten women in your family, only six have stories that would be interesting to others.
And if you are having other family members write their own stories, you may find they don’t write well and may get narrative back that needs to be rewritten.
CAPTURE THEIR VOICES, TODAY
Preserve your family history
HIRE A GHOSTWRITER
Another interesting way to write your family’s history is by capturing certain events and writing about how they affected your ancestors.
Going from past to present, taking a large, or even smaller, historical event that your ancestors experienced can be an interesting way of presenting the facts of both the event and your family and show how it shaped the family line.
Examples: Did you have groups of ancestors who documented their experiences during the Civil War?
Maybe you have a relative who was alive during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake?
Or maybe you’d like to focus on a direct ancestor’s arrival in America and how that changed his life and future of the family.
The pros of taking a historical approach: Writing about your ancestors in a historical context can bring out stories you may never have thought of before.
And learning how certain events influenced them or pushed them to do certain things and see life in a certain way can add a great richness to your family history.
A few cons to consider: Certain events — such as war, natural disasters, and the like — can be difficult or even depressing to write about, and you may even hear a few stories that you wish you hadn’t.
This isn’t to say that every story in your family history has to have a happy ending — but it’s best to be prepared to hear some less-than-positive details.
A memoir is a historical account written from one’s own personal experience.
To write a memoir about your family history, you, the writer, would write an account of your family history and the members of your family.
You could also consider writing about an important event as it relates to your family from your own memories, interpretations, experiences, and your conducted research.
While some people choose to interview family members for their perspectives when writing a memoir, most memoirs are written solely from the perspective of the author.
Depending on your age and your memory recall, the time span of your family’s history would be closer to the present and be more subjective in nature than complete fact.
Example: The Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
This format offers you flexibility and creativity to blend family facts with your own memories and personal interpretation. If you enjoy writing, you’ll likely find that this is one of the most interesting and compelling ways to highlight your family’s history through your own personal lens.
The (potentially) not-so-good:
One of the biggest problems with this sort of family history is the subjective nature of the writing.
It is typically based mostly on your own interpretation and assumptions with no room for other family member’s input. You may find that you are too personally entwined with the events, which it can cloud your memory and hinder your ability to write objectively.
Instead of relying solely on YOUR memory, you can collect all the memories you can from living relatives and combine them with surviving historical documents to produce a single narrative, anthology, or scrapbook.
Examples: To help get you started capturing the memories of your family members, consider these resources: Your Story: A Guided Interview Through Your Personal & Family History by Gift to the Future2000 Inc (Author), Inc Staff Gift To The Future 200 (Author) ; The Story of a Lifetime: A Keepsake of Personal Memoirs by Pamela Pavuk (Author), J. Richard Huxen (Author) ; To Our Children’s Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come by Bob Greene (Author), D. G. Fulford (Author)
What’s great about this option:
By including stories from multiple family members, you’re sure to get a wide variety of viewpoints, ideas, and stories to include in your book.
Your relatives will feel more included and this format really makes the book a true family story.
What ‘s challenging about it:
People often remember things differently — and with so many different voices and viewpoints, you might get conflicting memories to the same stories.
You may also get stories that don’t work cohesively together (this is why it might be helpful to provide family members with pre-written questions or to interview them in groups).
Of course, if you love the idea of putting together a family history — but feel apprehensive about the amount of research or writing required for your preferred format – a ghostwriter can help. Bringing in an outside resource can help you stay organized, keep your project on track, and help you fine-tune your writing.
Whether you choose a handmade scrapbook, an anthology of personal narratives, or a short-and-sweet family tree, you’ll find that this project will be rewarding for everyone involved. And you’ll likely learn a thing or two about your family along the way.
6 thoughts on “ Choosing the Right Format When Writing Your Family History ”
I want see about my last name for corff family tree please thank you
Hi Catherine! We’d love to help you with your family tree project! Please feel free to contact us through our website ( https://www.thewritersforhire.com/contact/ )or by calling us at 713-465-6860.
I would like to write a book about one branch of my family from when they arrived in America to current living family members. I have photos, documents, letters, many stories about certain members, much research about their occupations in some case. I have also researched inventions of the times that changed their standard of living. I can easily add current events of their time. What format is best to use in your opinion?
It sounds like you have put a lot of work into your family history! If you have a lot of images and documents that you want to include, you may want to consider a journaled scrapbook. However, if your content is more heavily story-based, we’d recommend going the biography or anthology route.
Good luck! And please let us know if we can help you with your book.
The payoff for all this detective work is nothing less than time traveling through your family history. You will get to know your ancestors in a more intimate and meaningful way.
We couldn’t agree more!
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How to write a family history
Are you ready to turn your family history research into a book? Janet Few shares her top tips on writing your family history
You’ve been researching your family history for a while, you have notes and files, you have copies of documents and an unwieldy family tree. This is a sign that it is time to pause researching and write your family history, making sure that your family research is collated and preserved for the future in an interesting way.
When you set out to write a family history, you will discover that databases and scattered notes aren’t what captivates your audience; it is the stories that grab their attention. Maybe your family’s story doesn’t seem to have a wider appeal. You have ancestors who were born, got married, had children (not always in that order) and died; that is hardly going to be enthralling for anyone but the hardened genealogist. Here are ways to add the context that will make your family story interesting.
Take a look at the social history of the time: find out what life was actually like for your ancestor. Write about their home. You may not have an exact address, but you can describe the typical housing for someone of their social status in their town. You can also think about the furniture that might have been in that home. Move on to what they would have worn. When writing about clothes, add details of how they were made and laundered. Then there is food. Explain what they would have eaten, and how it was prepared, cooked and stored.
The history of medicine is another aspect that you might consider. This could be appealing to younger relations, who tend to have a fascination with the gory bits. All of our ancestors except the most recent ones are dead, so what did they die of? What were the symptoms and treatment for that condition at the time?
Investigating your ancestors’ occupation gives you more scope for developing an interesting narrative. You can write about what their work involved, what training or uniform was required, what tools would have been used, and what the hazards of that job might have been.
Visit the places where they lived, either in person or on Google Maps. It is important to think about where your relations were living, and to set them in their local historical context. Perhaps there are websites or books that can tell you about life in their town or village. You should make use of the expertise of a relevant local-history society, or someone doing a one-place study of the community where your family lived. Old newspapers are a mine of information about local events as well.
We often believe that national events would not have had much bearing on our ancestors’ lives, but some would have had a significant impact, and can provide hooks to help your audience view the characters against the background of their times. As soon as you say “Queen Victoria” or “the Agricultural Revolution”, this triggers certain associations, so it is useful to provide these pointers, along the lines of “Grandma was six when the First World War broke out”.
Some aspects of national history will be more relevant to particular ancestors than others, so you should prioritise those. You might want to refer to royalty or politics, telling your readers who the monarch or the prime minister was. Write about wars and conflicts that were going on at the time. Would your family have been involved as combatants, or would they have experienced hardships at home?
You might also like to consider what was happening religiously: was this a time of persecution, or rising nonconformity ? How about the world of science, technology and inventions? Then there is the arts: what books were being written, what music was being played, what pictures were being painted? You can also note any special events that occurred. Did your ancestor attend the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, take part in the General Strike of 1926, or campaign for the right to vote for women and working-class men?
If this all sounds a bit daunting, take it one ancestor, or small family group, at a time. Begin with a simple timeline of the events in their life: birth , marriage , death , schooling , house moves and so on. You may have family history software that does this for you. Add national and local events to that timeline. Then expand each fact into a paragraph. If the first fact is “Annie Pepperell was born in 1855 in Croydon, Surrey”, there are several questions that you can answer. Was she named for a relative? What was her position in the family? What is the meaning and geographical distribution of her surname ? What was happening in 1855, and in Croydon in particular? You can then repeat the process for subsequent facts, and weave in the social history. Congratulations! You now have a story to share.
It will enhance your narrative if you can add illustrations. You will want to include family trees and if possible old photographs of people and places, gravestones, the local church, the ships they sailed on, or the clothes that they might have worn. You may be able to add old maps and facsimile documents too, but remember that just because an image is online, it does not mean that it is free of copyright or can be used without seeking permission.
Finally, you also need to decide the most suitable medium for your story – writing a book or an article is far from the only option. For example, video presentations are increasingly easy to produce. Alternatively, you could create a website, a blog or a podcast. You could even think right outside the box and tell aspects of your family history in art, Lego or needlework. Whatever you decide, make a start and enjoy bringing your ancestors and their times to life.
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