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How to Write Your Family History


The typical family gathering or reunion is filled with stories: Stories that make you laugh and slap your knees, or stories that bring bittersweet tears. Other stories may be buried, in a general silent consensus that it's for the best. When the family disburses to individual homes and lives, what happens to the stories? A few will remember, but most will gradually forget. And that's a shame.

Are you interested in your family history, but never considered tackling this sort of project? Your interest makes you a prime candidate to collect the stories and give them the shape of a book. The following steps outline the process for you so you'll see there is a rewarding end to the beginning.

1. Write your memoirs

A project of this size needs a small beginning, and your memoirs are the perfect place to start. If your intention is to produce a record of your nuclear family, what you choose to write about can be more personal. Start with your childhood memories, especially the stories your kids beg you to retell. If you're married, record the story of your romance and wedding: how you first met, what attracted you to your spouse, and a few quirky details of your courtship (within reason). Record the events of the births of your children, and the memorable moments of their early days. Include accounts of family vacations, birthdays, and other scrapbook-worthy occasions.

That's it – you're done. You can proceed to step 7. If, however, you want a broader family history, you have a little more work ahead. The stories you write for a historical family record should include members of the extended family – reunions, parties, family gatherings for holidays, funerals, or milestone occasions like Grandma's 90th birthday.

Your own accounts will be sorted into a broader family history later, but by recording your own memories, you’ll have a better understanding of how to approach others for the same.

2. How big will the circle be?

This could be the toughest part of the assignment – deciding how far back to delve, and how many remote branches of the family to include. There are many ways to approach the scope of your book, but the first thing you need to choose is a central character.

Once you choose the central character(s), sketch out a plan of how deep and wide you want to go with the book. For instance, with a grandmother as the central character, provide details about her parents, her birth, siblings, marriage(s), children, and the geographical details of her life. With an earlier ancestor you'll work from that character and trace the lineage to your present-day family. Branching out to distant relatives is entirely up to you and the scope of your book. A family history that focuses on you and/or your spouse will flesh out your beginnings, both sets of parents and grandparents, and any linear relatives you wish to include.

3. Arm yourself with charts

You can purchase all sorts of blank forms to help you organize the data: Family trees, generation charts, family group sheets, interview forms, outlines for a person’s personal history, chronological/time line forms, relationship charts, and more. All are available to order online, through genealogical libraries, or historical societies. Some charts are not only helpful for your research, but will also add visual interest to the book.

4. Record accounts of living family members

You could ask relatives to write their own accounts, but that might not be the best way to go about it. People procrastinate. Writing is easy for some, and like pulling teeth for others.

One way to get around those glitches, especially for those who are wary of writing or whose age prevents them from doing so, is to gather audio stories from various family members. Be sure to include a variety of family members, as each will remember different stories, and different aspects of each story.

With the use of a recording device – a mini tape recorder or MP3 player – schedule a visit and set the interview in a quiet area free of wind and other background noise. Test your recording device before you begin. It is also a good idea to use a second recorder for backup.

Alternatives are video taping or taking notes. These methods have major disadvantages, however. Most people are so self-conscious in front of a camera that the story will be suppressed, and if you merely take notes, you're bound to miss some things and forget others.

As you conduct each interview, verify the date of the story and ask questions to clarify the details. After each interview, transfer the recording to text and make notes if you have further questions. You can purchase digital transcription software for this step, which, although unnecessary, would make the process less tedious.

5. Dig for facts

A broader, deeper family history requires research. If you are new to genealogy, the first and best strategy is to read genealogy guides for research strategy tips. There are many hidden details a beginner wouldn't realize and be led to draw the wrong conclusions. For instance, during the days of early U.S. expansion, county and state lines occasionally jumped around.

The easiest way to get your feet wet is to subscribe to an online service. One popular and reputable site is Ancestry.com. This type of resource will allow you to research from the comfort of your home, and connect with other genealogy dabblers and experts, who will be willing to share information. It would also be worth your time to join a genealogical society in your targeted geographical area of interest.

Begin research from your central character and work backwards as far as you care to go. As you find information, document the source carefully. When you refer to it in the book, cite the source in some way – a footnote on the page, or referenced at the back of the book. That doesn't mean you can't include undocumented information in your family history, but draw a clear line between speculation and documented truth.

6. Order the accounts

Gather your stories and decide what order you want to put them in. A time line flows naturally and is easy to organize. Enlist the help of older relatives who will remember the dates, if needed. A casual family history can be divided by stories, especially if you have several different accounts of the same occasion. For instance, titles may read “The Night Uncle Billy Went to the Wrong Bedroom” or “How the Family Funny Face Began.” Other ways to order the book are by geography or characters.

If you aren't following chronological order, you must decide which event or story will be chosen for the beginning. In that case, go for something riveting or pivotal that happened to a central character, such as a journey to a new country, a death or epidemic, or any account that left a deep print on a character or the family history.

7. Add narration

Every book and chapter needs an introduction, middle, and end. As the narrator, you will fill in the blanks between each story, diary entry, letter, and other tidbits, drawing links or showing their relevance. Merely reporting data can quickly become dry and boring. Make the script readable and interesting by paraphrasing and adding background details that help current generations understand a character. For instance, accounts of living through the Great Depression might explain why Grandma was such a pack rat.

What if you need to provide additional details to another's story? There are several ways to accomplish this, apart from breaking into the quotes to give your own wisdom in unquotes. Footnotes and sidebars will suffice for brief interjections, allowing the story to flow without constant interruptions. However, don't clutter the manuscript with too much fine print in the margins.

8. Format the text

Text is easier to read when there is plenty of “white space”, and that will be determined by the format. For instance, you may choose to indent the beginning of each paragraph with no blank line between, as you would find in a novel. A larger font may help readability, as well as ample margins, especially if footnotes are included.

However, a format similar to this article is superior in readability. If you publish a manuscript in 8”x12”paper, or even an e-book, provide a blank line between each paragraph. Add even more white space by blocking off a source's story, as in the following example.

Henry was creative in provoking his boys to think, as Dan related in this story:

“Daddy hired Jim and me to dig a well on the property. Before we started, he gave us a week to decide how we wanted to be paid – by the hour, or by the foot...”

Don't overlook the font. Traditional fonts for print are serif types – the fonts with “hooks” on letters. Common choices are Times New Roman or Clarendon. Avoid fancy script or bold fonts for the main body of text. Only use boldface for chapter titles or subheadings (optional). Use italics with great reserve.

9. Edit

Edit your work to prevent future embarrassment. Expect to spend at least as much time editing as you did writing. Here are some tips for easier editing:

Family Photos

10. Add photographs

Thanks to scanners and photo-editing computer software programs, adding photographs to your family history is easy and adds interesting layers to the book. Gathering the pictures may not be so easy. Hopefully, you have geography on your side, and older relatives with pictures stored in attics who live in close proximity. If not, ask for their assistance, and offer to compensate for postage. You'll want the originals, if possible, for the best reprint quality.

Store collected originals in acid-free sleeves, tucked away securely in a notebook or file. Organization will make your life and this project much easier.

11. Publish!

The appearance and quality of the finished book will depend on your budget, and your hopes for the book. A self-publishing company will produce a beautiful hardback with gold leaf on the spine, if that's what you want. Or you can take your document to the neighborhood printer or office supply store and have it copied and spiral-bound with a plastic overlay for protection. If you're lucky (or plucky) you'll finagle funds from family members to help defray the costs.

By now you realize that writing your family history could take some serious time. In view of what you'll produce, the time will be well spent. You'll learn a new hobby, cultivate family relationships, and spend many fulfilling hours along the way. In the end, you'll hold in your hands what could become your family's most treasured possession.