Writing Family Histories
Writing family histories is an exciting and fulfilling role! Here are our 5 tips for getting started, and making the most of this meaningful experience.
Perhaps you’ve spent years gathering materials and information about your ancestors. You might have boxes of old photos, file folders of records, and a computer database bursting with names. Or maybe you are just getting interested in genealogy and would like to get to know your ancestors better. Writing a family history is a wonderful way to collect and organize genealogy information, share what you have learned with other family members, and become acquainted with your ancestors and their lives.
Although it may seem like a daunting task, writing a family history can be fun and deeply rewarding. As you study the lives of your ancestors and immerse yourself in their stories, they will become not only real people, but true family members. As you are able to share what you’ve learned and gathered with living family members, your family connections will strengthen. And when you break the whole undertaking down into small, simple tasks, you will avoid feeling overwhelmed and may just find yourself enjoying the process of writing your family history.
There are five easy steps to writing a family history: 1) identify your subject, 2) gather information, 3) start writing, 4) revise, revise, revise, and 5) share with others.
1) Identify Your Subject
The thing about ancestors is that we have a whole lot of them. Your family history doubles every generation going back in time, and when you add siblings, spouses, and children — you can end up with more ancestors than you know what to do with.
When writing a family history, it’s wise to choose one key person as the main subject. Perhaps one of your ancestors was an important person in his community, or shares your name, or simply catches your interest. As you are preparing to write about this person, keep in mind his two family units – the one in which he was born (parents and siblings) and the one that he created (spouse and children). Although your chosen ancestor will be the star, all of these other people will have roles as well.
2) Gather Information
When writing family histories, it’s always better to have too much information than not enough. As you prepare to write, you will want to gather as many details about your subject and his families as you possibly can. Besides the traditional genealogic data of names, dates, and places, try to find stories and interesting details about their lives. Newspapers, journals, photographs, land records and maps, probate records, court records, cemetery records, obituaries, and local county histories are all good sources to mine for details. Try to squeeze every last detail out of each record. You might be surprised at the stories you can piece together from just census records!
If you have been researching genealogy for years, you may feel you already have as much information as possible about your person of interest. Now is the perfect time to review and take stock of what you have. Are there any possible sources you may have overlooked? Don’t forget the parents, siblings, spouses, and children. Your ancestor would not have been the person he was without the people around him.
3) Start Writing!
The best thing to do is just sit down and start writing. Don’t worry about getting every sentence right; just put your thoughts and stories down on paper (or in the word processor). You can go back and make it read beautifully later on.
You may be tempted to start with your key ancestor’s birth and continue on chronologically until his death. While this works, consider beginning with something that grabs the reader’s attention right away. A fascinating story from the life of your ancestor, a funny anecdote, some interesting facts about the town he grew up in — any of these is much more interesting than so-and-so was born on such-and-such date.
While it doesn’t have to be the sole focus of your family history, the genealogic data (names and dates and places) is certainly important to include in your family history. These are the details, after all, by which we identify our ancestors. Just try to weave them into the story of your ancestors’ lives, rather than stating them as individual facts.
While you write, be sure to refer to the specific sources from which you drew your information. Each fact or piece of information should have a source. Although we prefer footnotes at Legacy Tree Genealogy, you may choose to use endnotes, a bibliography, attach copies of documents, or simply refer to each source as you write about it. The goal is that your great-great-great-grandchildren in the future will be able to read your written family history and in addition to enjoying it, be able to accept it as accurate, and look up your sources themselves.
4) Revise, Revise, Revise
It feels so good to put the period on that last sentence, but you’re not done yet! Now, go back to the beginning, read what you’ve written, and make it sound good. Check for spelling and grammar, sentence structure, continuity, etc. Move paragraphs and sections to where they make the most sense, add sources you skipped the first time, and check your data for accuracy.
After you’ve gone through your writing a few times and feel it’s the best you can make it, consider asking someone else to proof-read it for you. Often, another pair of eyes can catch what our eyes don’t see. Another way to do this is to put it on the shelf for a space of time – a week, or several – and then come back to it with fresh eyes. You will be amazed at what you missed the first few revisions.
5) Share with Others
Now that you’ve gathered and recorded those precious family stories, it’s finally time to share the lives of your ancestors with the world. Thanks to modern technology, you have many, many options. Besides making copies and passing them out at the next family reunion, you can post your family history online, send it out via email, burn CDs with the written history and accompanying photos and documents, or order your own printed book. You can even digitize your family history and turn it into an ebook!
Whatever method you choose, keep in mind that the whole idea is to build the connectivity that is family. Stories and shared memories are what create family identity. Having dug deep into your ancestors’ lives, you will understand them as real people who lived real lives whose legacy, no matter how small, still impacts their descendants today. When you write their history, you are keeping that legacy alive.
Do you need some help finding the stories in your family’s history? Simply click here to contact us, and Legacy Tree Genealogists will help you discover them.