Your research has uncovered some fascinating information about your ancestors. In fact, you probably have piles of information about generations of ancestors. Where do you begin writing their stories? How do you choose just one ancestor to begin your writing adventure? Spend a few quiet moments reflecting on your research time. Then ask yourself a few simple questions to help identify that starting point.
- Is there one ancestor or relative that stands our in your mind as being interesting and/or intriguing? Begin with a story about those interesting or intriguing characteristics and how they shaped your ancestor’s life.
- Did one of your ancestors have an interesting tale about his or her immigration? Begin the story with that immigration tale. You can then use the flashback story writing technique to fill in the person’s life before immigration.
- Do you have a cluster of ancestors that immigrated to the same locale? Write about the locale and the interaction between your ancestors within the context of where they lived.
- Does one of your ancestors come from an interesting or different locale? Describe the city, town, or region and the impact living there might have had on your ancestor.
- Are you going to write a “whole life” story or select scenes and vignettes to write about
When deciding what and who to begin writing about, focus on one branch of your tree. With the volumes of research and data you have collected, you may want to climb the entire tree at once. Step back and carefully examine the different branches of your tree. One branch may stand out as a logical starting place. You might want to begin with the branch with the most information, the most generations, or in your mind, the most interesting or complete. Begin writing the generation you know the most about or are more comfortable with. It needn’t be the most recent generation. It might be one in the middle. You can then work backward into the past, or forward to more recent generations. Starting with what’s most comfortable, or a person who interests you most, will make the writing more enjoyable both to you and ultimately your readers.
Choose a Format for Your Family History
Who is the audience for your family history book? Will it be a book to be shared only with family members? Will it be rich in historical content with wide-spread appeal? Will it be a reference book for other genealogists? Will it be a book focusing solely on one surname with all descendants and collateral lines? Will it be a book written to appeal to the younger members of your family?
Your audience will influence the structure and scope of your book. The more widespread your audience, the more formal and structured your book will be. If you are writing for family, then there may be a more casual flair to it.
You will want to choose a format for your family history book that will work well with the ancestor or cluster of ancestors you have chosen. With the ancestor(s) in mind, think about the following formats and how each would enhance the story you will write.
Narrative: A narrative tells a story and typically encompasses a group of ancestors. Your story can focus on one family line, or several interconnected family lines, and can extend back for several generations. The narrative form is a good choice if you want to interweave the lives of several people.
Biography: A biography is best when you want to focus on a single ancestor’s entire life. Your family history book could be a series of interwoven biographies of your colorful ancestors.
Cookbook: A different approach, and one quickly gaining popularity, is a cookbook. Share those tried and true family recipes while writing about the people who created them. A family cookbook, interspersed with stories and photographs, can become a treasured heirloom.
Photo Album: Perhaps you are fortunate enough to have a box full of family photographs. Tell your story using photos.
Regardless of the format you choose to write your family history, be sure to intersperse it with photographs, maps, copies of documents, quotes from diaries, or other interesting tidbits that were gleaned from your research.
Writing a Life
After you have selected the subject(s) for your book, gather all the information your research has uncovered about those people. You have most likely amassed a wide variety of documents. Put all the documents in chronological order. This will help to identify gaps in your research.
Our ancestors’ lives were a sequence of events, each one impacting the next. Spend some time reviewing your research, going through your ancestor’s life in chronological order. Look for a trend, theme, or focus for your writing.
Create a timeline with information gleaned from your research. A timeline lists the events in an ancestor’s life chronologically. This is a very helpful tool to analyze the information you have collected, to help pinpoint social history events related to your ancestor’s life, and is a good first step toward writing an outline for your book. Working chronologically will help you to arrange your thoughts and determine if there are gaps in your research.
Your ancestors were affected by the world around them. Incorporate local, world, and social events that affected their lives. These pertinent dates can be added to the timeline and may help to explain why your ancestor made a particular decision. Historical, economic, and social events and trends may have impacted your ancestor, or they may have had no impact at all. You must assess the appropriateness to include these external events in your written narrative.
Personal events likely played a greater role in shaping your ancestor. Those life events, such as the death of a close friend or relative, financial problems, disability, marital issues, and personal impact from disasters may have significantly impacted your ancestor’s life.
Your ancestor was not an island. The family and the community both affected him or her just as your ancestor affected the family and the community. Learn all you can about your ancestor’s parents, siblings, spouse, and children. Each of these people had an impact on your ancestor’s life.
As your review your documents chronologically and add pieces of information to the timeline, keep in mind the idea that your ancestor was a piece of a larger whole. Don’t remove him or her from context.
An Outline is Your Roadmap
Just as most people would not go on vacation without a road map, many writers would not write a book without first creating an outline. Working from an outline will give you direction.
Forget about the outlines your English teacher required in high school. This one needn’t be formal or structured. This outline is simply a way to organize your thoughts and map out a plan for your narrative.
Using your research notes and timelines, begin with the main points you want to cover. Then fill in details under each of these points. Sort these details in the order you want to write about them. They needn’t necessarily be in chronological order. Be creative when writing your story.
When you begin writing your narrative, keep your outline handy. Allow it to be fluid. Tweak it as you write, adding details as they come to mind. Your success as a writer will be enhanced with the practice of using an outline to guide you along the path.
Create a Writing Schedule You Can Live With
Decide how much time each week you want to spend writing your family history. It could be an hour, a few hours, or a whole day. Schedule an appointment with yourself to write and mark it on your calendar.
Think about the best time of day to write. Are you an early bird whose creative juices run rampant along with your morning coffee? Or do you have a clearer mind after lunch before the pace of the day picks back up? Perhaps you are a night owl who prefers to write into the wee hours of the morning. It doesn’t matter when you write, just that you do it. So think about a time that would work well, when other demands of your busy life aren’t tugging at you, and write at that time.
You might choose to write in one hour chunks several times a week. Or your schedule, and your writing style, might be better suited for one long session each week. Whatever you decide, write your plans into your schedule. Set aside that time just as you would a visit to the doctor or the hairdresser. Don’t let the phone, or the children, or your friends interrupt you. Ignore your email, let your phone calls go to voice mail, and the doorbell was probably just another solicitor.
Immerse yourself into your writing and into the lives of your ancestors. You’ll be so happy you did when you begin to see the pages of your written family history become a book.
A Writing Journal is Perfect for Those Random Thoughts
Keep a journal to write down those ideas that come to mind during the day. The journal can be as simple as a small spiral notebook that fits into your purse or pocket. Or you might invest in a pretty hardcover journal. Regardless of the style you choose, keep it close at hand. Memories and thoughts for your family history will pop into your head when you least expect it. You won’t want to forget them, so write them down.
A writing journal can also be a place where you plan your family history book. While you’re waiting in line at the bank, waiting for the concert to begin, or waiting for your daughter to finish her dance lesson, you can make notes in your writing journal for future writing sessions.
Once you begin using your journal, it will become your inseparable friend. Your family history writing project will benefit from the random thoughts that were not lost because you captured them and wrote them down.
Don’t wait until your research is done before you start writing. Begin writing with the information you have collected to date. You can add other details as your research progresses. The important thing is to begin writing to preserve the research that is complete.
Updated July 2017