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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
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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.
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My Family History Essay Example
Family history is a journey that can take many different shapes. For some, it’s the story of how they became who they are today. For others, it might be simple curiosity about their roots or where their last name came from. It could also be an investigation into family secrets and mysteries for those with a more adventurous personality.
Writing an essay on family history is really challenging when it comes to describing every important aspect of it. That is why the essay sample serves an important purpose for the students here.
Essay Sample on My Family History
- Thesis Statement of My Family History Essay
- Introduction of My Family History Essay
- How Did Our Family use to live under a Single Roof?
- What are the Values that we learn by living in Joint Family?
- Causes that Separated the Family into little pieces
Thesis Statement of My Family History Essay This essay talks about my joint family or family tree in which we used to have a lot of fun and enjoy being together. Various glimpses of this happiness of togetherness is described in the essay below. Introduction of My Family History Essay Like every other family, we have our own family history which is illustrated herein details to the readers. The essay talks about how we used to live under a single roof and we have no need to set appointments to ask our elders for dinner. These joys of togetherness bring certain values in us as well like how to be happy among the people of different nature and hope. What is the result of being in togetherness that could be found in this essay? Readers will come to know about the instances that separate us from a joint family to a nuclear family in recent times. Main Body of My Family History Essay Here a detailed description of the family history is given to let you know about the era of happiness that used to exist in our life. Each and every single detail is given in this essay for better clarity of things. How Did Our Family use to live under a Single Roof? It dates back to the days when we were small kids and our grandmother used to feed us with a variety of dishes. Every day was like a festival for us as we were not supposed to go out for school and used to sit in the vicinity of our grandmother to listen to the different stories from her. We used to dine together and no one was supposed to watch television at the time of food. This is how we were spending our days happily. My parents were also very melodious towards us and everyone who visits our home at that time was bringing some refreshments to us. Hire USA Experts for My Family History Essay Order Now What are the Values that we learn by living in Joint Family? The joint family not only gave us happiness but at the same time, we adopt many values from our elders as well. For instance, living happily and ignoring the mistakes of others is the most important feature of residing in a joint family. That is what happened to us. We never fight with each other our siblings and always used to abide by the instructions of the parents whatever they ask us to do. More patience, compromise for small things, and becoming happy in the joy of others are some important things that we gained from our family history. The roots of love between the family members could easily be traced in those days. Causes that Separated the Family into little pieces As well said by a great philosopher that every good thing comes to an end eventually similar happened in our case as well. My grandmother died of cholera and we remain behind with the parents. As our age was gradually increasing we were sent to a school where the boring routine makes us remind of the old days and then the pressure of study starts suppressing our joy of being with the grandmother. We used to miss her for the entire long day, be that in the school hours or in the evening. Even the parents fail to continue the same routine of dining together owing to their jobs and all that we find around us was chaos in life. Buy Customized Essay on My Family History At Cheapest Price Order Now Conclusion The above essay draws a conclusion that it is a very positive thing to live in a joint family as it teaches values to us. But at the same time due to time constraints and technology-driven lifestyle we cannot suppose to cope up our life in joint families. This is how the family history has been narrated and it gives us a lesson that we should do something to save the ancient culture of staying together happily.
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