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10 Steps to Writing Your Family History


Mother and daughter using a laptop computer.
Geri Lavrov/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images
Yes, the research is the fun part. Writing a family history book just seems too daunting to be fun. But when the relatives start nagging, try these 10 easy steps for making your family history book a reality.

1) Choose a Format for Your Family History

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? Or, perhaps, a family newsletter, cookbook or Web site is more realistic, given your time restraints and other obligations. Now is the time to be honest with yourself about the type of family history which meets your interests 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, family history cookbooks help carry on the family traditions 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 story, photos and family trees. So, don't be afraid to get creative!

2) Define the Scope of Your Family History

Do you intend to write mostly about just one particular relative, or everyone hanging from your family tree? As the author, you next need to choose a focus for your family history book. Some possibilities include:
  • Single Line of Descent - Begins 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... - Begins with an individual or couple and covers 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.

  • The Grandparents - Includes a section on each of your four grandparents, or eight great-grandparents, or sixteen great, great grandparents if you are very ambitious. Each individual section focuses on one grandparent, and works backwards through their ancestry or forward from his/her earliest known ancestor.

Again, these suggestions can easily be adapted to fit your interests, time and creativity. For example, you may choose to write a family history covering all people of a particular surname in a particular region, even if they aren't all necessarily related to one another!

3) Set Deadlines You Can Live With

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 hairdresser.

4) Choose a Plot & Themes

Thinking of your ancestors as characters in your family history story, what problems and obstacles did your ancestors face? A plot gives your family history interest and focus. Popular family history plots and themes include:
  • Immigration/Migration
  • Rags to Riches
  • Pioneer or Farm Life
  • Rising Out of Slavery
  • War Survival

5) Do Your Background Research

If you want your family history to read more like a suspense novel than a dull, dry textbook, then it is important to make the reader feel like an eyewitness to your family's life. Even when your ancestor didn't leave an account of his or her daily life, 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 like during your time period of interest. Research timelines of wars, natural disasters and epidemics to see if any might have influenced your ancestor. Investigate your ancestor's occupation to gain greater understanding into his daily activities. Read up on the fashions, art, transportation and common foods of the time period and location. 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.

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