Randy Lindsay, author of The Milkman’s Son, shares tips for writing a family history others will want to read, PLUS a giveaway for a copy of his book.
In the summer of 2005, an ordinary trip to visit my dad changed my life. I should have known I was in for a surprise when he muted the sound on the television and had an actual discussion with me. Dad told me he was having dreams. He saw the faces of people he believed were his ancestors and even though none of these ghosts spoke to him, he knew they wanted their family history work done.
The responsibility for researching the family tree fell upon me. I became The Keeper of Names for both sides of my family. While I loved all of the work, the research into my surname was by far my favorite. The Great Lindsay Quest took me back as far as William “The Immigrant” Lindsay.” And that’s where I hit a serious brick wall.
William was born around 1800, in Ireland, but I could find no trace of him there. I switched gears and worked on other branches of the family tree. All that time, William taunted me. At least, in my imagination, he taunted me. Daring me to find him. Bragging about his skill in hiding from modern investigation techniques.
But I knew he couldn’t hide his DNA. I had it running through my blood. I pulled out the big guns, technologically speaking, and ordered a DNA test kit. Fortunately, they didn’t want any of my blood, just a little bit of spit. I sent in the kit and . . . waited.
Months passed by at a glacial pace. Then the results arrived. I scrambled to look through the information, looking for any evidence that would lead me to William’s location in Ireland.
I’m not a Lindsay. Not genetically. It turned out that I was a Petrauschke (pronounced Puh-trow-ski). Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Since high school, my siblings have teased me about being the milkman’s son. I don’t look like the rest of them. I don’t act like any of them either. The results sent a thousand thoughts reeling through my head. One emotional storm after another tossed my heart about.
It took some time, but I adjusted to having two families. Then my writer friends urged me to write about the experience. None of their efforts to persuade me worked. I wasn’t interested in writing about myself.
Then, one of my closest friends suggested that I had the ability to make this whole experience accessible to the many people who might be going through the same thing. In other words, it would help others.
Oh, horse feathers. How could I say no to helping others.
So, I wrote a memoir. People discovered I wrote about my family history and having my DNA tested and wanted to know how to do the same. These people realized they needed to make their family stories interesting or else nobody would read them.
Then it hit me. These stories were important. Future generations would benefit from know more about their origins by reading about the lives of relatives who had passed away. Since then, I’ve switched from writing fiction to helping others to tell their stories in a way that’s interesting for others to read. I mean, what’s the point of writing a family history if the readers are going to lose interest and put the story down after the first page?
Not only do I love teaching people how to write their personal and family stories, but I also want all of these amazing stories to reach as many readers as possible. Here are a few tips that I hope will help you craft an engaging story.
Limit Your Material
It’s impossible to write about everything that happens in a person’s life. Not only do you not have the time to write that much material, but even if you did the story would fill hundreds of books.
Find a theme instead. Choose a single aspect of the person’s life and write about that. Show the reader how the situation came about. Describe the related events that came afterward. Discuss how it affected the people in the story. And then tell us how it ends. Write only about that single event.
My memoir, The Milkman’s Son, is not the story of my life. It’s about how I discovered I had a family I didn’t previously know, how that discovery affected both sides of my family, and how it changed my life.
Don’t Start at the Beginning
The beginning of a story needs to grab the reader’s attention or else they probably won’t make it past the first page. True stories are no different. The beginning of your story should start at the point when things get interesting. There will be plenty of time to add in details you want the reader to know, once you have their attention.
An immigration story might start as the person, or family, boards the ship that will take them to their new home. That’s the point where everything is new and scary for the immigrants. Readers will be intrigued to see what happens on the journey across the sea and in the place where they plan to settle.
The Milkman’s Son starts with my dad telling me that his dead ancestors are visiting him in his dreams. Talk about an attention-grabber. My book starts where the story gets interesting.
Goals and Struggles
At the heart of every great story is a person with a goal. Humans are instinctively drawn to find out whether a person succeeds in obtaining any goal they might have. Then when obstacles are placed in the way of those goals, we have . . . struggles.
Struggles are the reason people read stories. We want to find out if the characters in a story can overcome adversity. Hopefully, to grow stronger and wiser in the process. That is a central concept in our lives. All of us face obstacles. All of us must deal with adversity. Reading about how someone else has managed to succeed gives the rest of us the courage to work through our own struggles.
The obstacles in a family story need to be related to the theme, or event, you are writing about. Obstacles in paying off a student loan might be a distraction in a story about a young woman dealing with a fractured relationship with her sister.
For example, the obstacles I used in The Milkman’s Son include long-established beliefs about what it meant to be family, emotional conflict over meeting my new family, and financial difficulties in making a second trip out to visit my biological father.
Include Plenty of Details
Details bring a story to life. Without them, the readers are basically staring at an empty stage. Without details, the readers have nothing to picture in their mind’s eyes. Writing about a trip to your grandparent’s house will have a greater impact if you give it a colorful description. The more details you include, the more vivid a picture you place in the reader’s mind.
Compare the following two sentences.
I drove my car over to grandma’s house.
I drove my cherry-red 1967 Camaro, along the crowded I-17 freeway, to Grandma Jenny’s paint-peeling, two-story house.
The first sentence tells what happens, but the second sentence allows the reader to visualize what happens. It’s the details in the second sentence that makes the reader feel as if they are right in the middle of the action. And for me, that’s what writing memoirs and family histories is all about, letting readers experience the lives of their ancestors.
Keep the memory of your family members alive with stories that are interesting enough to grab the attention of future generations. These simple tips are a good start to writing family stories that people will want to read.
Win a Copy of the Best-selling Memoir, The Milkman’s Son
The Milkman’s Son reveals author Randy Lindsay’s family tree, pulling back layers of new information as he gets closer to the truth—a biological father, siblings, and family members he never knew about.
This is a story of accepting, forgiving, reuniting, and, most importantly, it’s about the bonds that connect us and the unconditional love that makes us feel like we belong.
To learn more or to purchase your own copy, visit: https://milkmanssonbook.com/