Tuesday’s Tip: 57 Angles, Tips, & Prompts for Writing Your Family History

Write Your Family History

write your family history-00

If you’ve ever struggled with ways to turn your pedigree charts and research notes into a shareable, readable history for your family to enjoy, read on. This list of story angles, creative tips, and writing prompts is for you. Some of these ideas might seem on the border of embroidering the truth. Let me clarify upfront that my intent is to suggest fullest use of available facts, as well as drawing well-reasoned, logical conclusions wherever possible. That said, I welcome discussion in the comments! And now, without further delay . . . !

Basic Structure & Style

1. Choose an ancestor and place births, deaths, and other impactful events on a timeline. Don’t forget their in-laws. (Tweet this)

2. Keep basic narrative structure in mind as you write (exposition, rising action and climax, resolution--i.e., beginning, middle, and end) but also realize that true stories are rare in real life. It's okay to leave a story open-ended.

Image courtesy of luigi diamanti at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

3. Don’t be afraid to be a little repetitive if that works with how you’ve structured your history. Your family is all connected, of course, but ask yourself if your articles make sense as stand-alone works.

4. Utilize the word count function in most word processors. Aim for 150-300 words for a biographical blurb, 400-600 words for a family legend or interesting story, and 1200-1500 for an involved dramatic account. (And remember that even a broken guideline can aid the structure of your story. If you need to run longer, do, but ask yourself if the narrative contains a natural break where it would makes sense to divide it into parts.)

5. Use bullet lists or timelines if they make more sense than a narrative structure. (Tweet this)

6. Don’t get boxed into a format. Tell each individual story in the way that makes the most sense.

Picture This

7. Answer as many of the 5 W's as you can about your favorite family photo.

Image courtesy of scottchan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

8. Got an obvious family resemblance? Put photos side by side and write about it.

9. If you can take a 3-, 4-, or 5-generation photo, stop reading this and do it, right now. (Tweet this)

10. Try to recreate modern versions of old family photos.

11. Group scanned documents, newspaper clippings and photos by decade to create a visual history. (Tweet this)

Details, Details

12. Check your ancestor's home turf and include any insights in your write-up.

Image courtesy of aopsan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

(Even better if you can find a historic map.)

13. Got a story about a particular day? Check the weather to help set the scene.

14. Search a “today in history” archive to give your story context.

15. When details are sparse about a specific person, tell about the time and place where they lived to create a slice of life.

1906 postcard; public domain.

16. Find a moment of truth–in your ancestor’s life or in your search for him or her–and record both facts and emotions. (Tweet this)

17. Highlight apparent contradictions or discrepancies in the facts. Think about who would have supplied the data and brainstorm possible reasons. For an age variance, did your ancestor lie about their age for vanity, to guard themselves from age discrimination in the workplace, or to dodge–or qualify for–military service?

18. Spend some time researching your ancestors’ friends, associates, and especially neighbors. See if you can find a connection. Adding relevant details will enrich the story.

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Content & Substance

19. Write your family legends, just the way you heard them.

Image courtesy of kanate at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

20. Resist the urge to do a Federal Census recap–unless it reveals something significant. Highlight the details beyond where and when.

21. Write about surname origins. If your findings conflict with what you know or believe about your ancestors’ homeland, highlight the puzzle and try to piece together a plausible answer to it.

22. Resist writing about your search–unless you’ve got a great search story! (Tweet this)

23. On second thought, if you take a genealogy road trip, you'll definitely want to write about your experiences.

Image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

24. Profile the community where your ancestors lived (especially if they stayed for more than a generation in one place).

25. Write about questions you have without pressure to supply answers. (Tweet this)

More Content & Substance

26. Write about heirlooms.

Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

27. Write about pets, hobbies, or personality traits. (Tweet this)

28. Type up family recipes (along with associated food memories). If you can, ask the person handing down the recipe where it came from.

29. Contrast lives of two very different ancestors who lived in the same time period.

30. Write about generational patterns you notice–attitudes, beliefs or sayings. (Tweet this)

31. Ask living relatives if they are named for anyone. (This might not be obvious, especially if they are named for a non-family member!)

32. Write what you can infer about relationships. If a clipping lists your relative among a group of unfamiliar names (out-of-town wedding or funeral attendees, for example), see if you can draw connections to others listed.

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Even MORE Content & Substance

33. If the car had a name, it deserves a place in your family history.

Image courtesy of Ron Bird at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

34. Interested in genetics? Find a list of dominant and recessive traits and see how far back you can trace yours.

35. If your ancestor got political, write about a controversial issue of the day. (Tweet this)

36. Write about a law that may have impacted your ancestors. (Tweet this)

37. Interested in medical mysteries? See if you can WebMD a “diagnosis” for a sickly ancestor (but be sure to delineate between fact and speculation).

38. Use prompts to generate more ideas. Geneabloggers has over forty day-of-the-week prompts to get you started and The Armchair Genealogist is a treasure trove of helps for the family chronicler.

Get Creative

39. Read up on creative nonfiction techniques and try applying them to your family history.

40. Write a letter to an ancestor you wish you could have known.

Image courtesy of Tanatat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

41. Write a poem or song about an individual in your family tree. (Tweet this)

42. Posing questions with answers you know, write an imaginary interview with your ancestor.

43. Got a frustrating ancestor with hardly any paper trail? Pen a tongue-in-cheek madlib-style profile and celebrate those maddening blanks for once.

44. If you feel you don’t have enough to say, make brevity the goal and format your stories for Tweets, Facebook posts, or 3×5 index cards.

Collaborating & Sharing

45. If an older generation isn’t forthcoming with stories, make it easy for them. Ask what they remember about ONE photo, person, or place.

46. Think about how to share your writing, whether via blog, CD’s, expensive bound photo books or photocopied printouts in a binder.

47. Looking to bring existing audio interviews into the 21st century? Maybe your family history will work best as a podcast!

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48. Ask a sibling, cousin, aunt or uncle to write out their version of a well-known family story. Compare notes and see if your relative highlights additional details or remembers it just a bit differently.

Words to the Wise

49. Take on a writing challenge (such as the Family History Writing Challenge in February or #52Ancestors in a year) to stay motivated.

50. Don’t plagiarize.

51. Don't let a brick wall or missing detail stop you. Go ahead and embrace the fact that your genealogy will never be "finished."

Image courtesy of Just2shutter at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

52. Do a little at a time. It’s easier to write a 500-word ancestor profile than it is to “write your family history.” (Tweet this)

53. Stick with the facts, but don’t feel compelled to cram every detail you’ve learned into one article if they don’t support the story you’re telling.

54. Treat stories of ne'er-do-wells and scandals with the appropriate respect for the living.

Image courtesy of Kamnuan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

(If Grandma is embarrassed by her father’s stay at the state penitentiary, realize that what’s interesting to you might have been awful for her.)

55. Don’t wait to get started. (Tweet this)

56. Don’t be afraid to suppose (but clearly state as much, so your assumptions don’t come off sounding like facts).

57. Illuminate your family's history. Make it fascinating for the reader.

Image courtesy of nuttakit at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Your Turn

Share your best angles, tips and prompts for writing your family history in the comments below!

Friday’s Faces from the Past: Introducing Laura Broadway (AND a book update!)

Since today is my birthday (woo-hoo!) I’m sharing one of my very favorite finds with you!

To know her is to love her

I “met” Laura Broadway at the local antique shop. Sadly, this cabinet card lacks a photographer’s mark, but I’m guessing she lived in Illinois based on clues from other photos in the same group. Inconveniently, there are no guarantees that the whole pile of pictures all came from the same attic, so it’s really just a guess.

Laura Broadway

I made her acquaintance via her note penned on the back.

Dear Cousin Orpha I send you this my Photo as you know I am much Better looking than this is when you want the Milk to sour quick hold this Photo over it your affectionate Cousin Laura Broadway

(If you love this as much as I do, you can see the scan here.)

Don’t know about you, but I like her. She’s got vinegar–enough to sour milk, evidently!

The search begins

Of course, while poking around on FamilySearch, I couldn’t find her. Or rather, I found Laura Broadways, but I had no way to narrow down the field. The name was simply too common…

…which gave me the idea to look for Orpha Broadway.

This too was a guess–after all, cousins may or may not share a surname. None of mine are Heinemans, after all. That’s just how the apples fell from the tree.

However, I did find an Orpha Broadway. In Illinois, no less.

I do believe this tree bears more shaking than I have room for today, but this is a mystery I want to revisit, and soon…!

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“As you know, I am much better looking than this is”… [Tweet this]

Finally, a use for those unflattering photos! [Tweet this]

Also, I have a novel update!

Just in time for my birthday! Whispers in the Branches is in the final stages of production and may be available as early as next week. It’s received several warm endorsements, including this one:

In Whispers in the Branches, debut author Brandy Heineman pens a fast-paced, entertaining and ultimately touching story mixed with ghosts and genealogy and sprinkled with God.  Her delicious prose sizzles and soars as she introduces grieving Abby Wells who uproots her life in Ohio to search for family secrets in Georgia.  Abby encounters a haunted house, a feisty great aunt and a young, handsome caretaker in her new surroundings as she grapples with grief, the truth of her family’s past and the unseen presence of something deep and spiritual.

–Elizabeth Musser, author of The Swan House,The Sweetest Thing,The Secrets of the Cross trilogy

It’s exciting and humbling that I’ll soon have my very first book out there to offer to all of you. :)

What I know…

I have some good tid-bits for your this time–

The ebook edition of To Win Her Heart by Karen Witemeyer is on sale. Pretty sure this deal ends today, so if you want it, get it now. Karen is one of my favorite authors, and I loved this book so much!

Also, those of you on Twitter should know about two fun genealogy chats:

#GenChat meets every other Friday night (10 ET/ 9 CT). It’s hosted by pro genealogist Jen Baldwin, and covers a specific topic in a Q&A format. It’s a fun way to learn and get a variety of perspectives on how to approach various research opportunities.

#AncestryHour is a newer gathering held every Tuesday at 7PM Greenwich Mean Time, which is in the middle of the afternoon for USA tweeters like yours truly. This is an open-ended link-sharing and question-asking free-for-all, and is an especially good place for UK and Scottish researchers.

That’s all for now!

Thriller Thursday: A Moment That Changes Everything

Interior Dancing Pavilion, Exposition Park at Conneaut Lake, PA

On my last trip to the antique shop, I found this postcard with a note to Mr. Carl Shartle of Meadville, Pennsylvania on the back.

I forget sometimes that rural Pennsylvania life wasn’t all churning butter and butchering chickens. The dancing pavilion was a fixture of Exposition Park at Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania. In its time, it was called “one of the best equipped summer resorts in the State.” (Source, 1911.) It also boasted a bathing house on the lake, a hotel, and a racetrack. For Carl and his family, dancing, boating and betting were only ten miles up the road if they cared to indulge.

I will say that I knew the odds of this being a relic of a forgotten romance were slim to nil when I bought the postcard. As I was researching, though, there came a moment that changed everything. This light-hearted “Mystery Monday” post transformed into a grimmer “Thriller Thursday” entry. Ye faint-hearted, proceed with caution.

Mr Carl Shartle Meadville, Penna RFD OK. Sat eve Well see you about 8:30 At the foot Of the dancing Pavillion

I should have known. Something about the lack of enthusiasm in the note planted a question mark in my mind. I know I’m bringing a modern sensibility to this, but the phrase “OK Sat eve” just doesn’t brim with excitement, does it?

No endearments. No signature. Presumably, Carl knew who accepted his invitation for Saturday night, but I’m thinking like a woman here. My husband knows who he’s married to, but I don’t miss an opportunity to scrawl “<3B” on my little notes to him, even if they’re just about heating up leftovers.

Although the photo side of the postcard is dated August 24, 1909, there’s (once again) no stamp and therefore no postmark dating the message. Did Rural Free Delivery require postage? And actually, since we have no way of knowing whether the postcard found its way to the antique shop via his old collected papers or hers, there’s nothing to say this note was ever actually delivered.

Perhaps it was, and Carl enjoyed a lovely evening with the sender. Or endured a wretched one.

Perhaps it was not sent, and he was left without an answer.

Maybe she wrote out her response, and then changed her mind. I have unsent letters socked away in shoeboxes—maybe this was one of hers. Who knows?

First, a little context

Here’s what we do know.

Carl R. Shartle was the son of John E. Shartle and Eliza Bower. He was born in Vernon, Crawford county Pennsylvania in August 1890 (though there’s some minor conflict over the exact date), and he died of tuberculosis in Cornplanter Township PA on December 7, 1937. (Source: Death certificate.) Only 47 and single.

I took a stroll through the census records, as one does when meeting a new quarry for the first time. It looks like he lived in Vernon for most of his life (although y’all might know how I feel about making that particular assumption). Harmonsburg Road still exists, and on the aerial map view, it’s surrounded by lots and lots of green. Here’s what I learned:

1900: At age 9, Carl attended school 8 months that year—better than a number of the neighboring children.

1910: Carl was enumerated twice. On April 16, 1910, he’s listed as the brother of John Fred Shartle, staying with his wife and daughter in Sharon PA. He’s working as a storekeeper of the Gun Works.

He’s also listed on April 20, 1910 as the son in his parents’ household. John and Eliza married in about 1888, his second marriage, her first. She is listed as having one child, and “Karl” is listed with them. This time, Carl’s occupation is given as bookkeeper of the Gun Works.

In the overall context of his life in farming, I looked on his job at the Gun Works as a possible manifestation of the rebellion of youth. It looked to me like striking out on his own, away from his parents’ farm. Then I found a more likely reason for his job.

As for his actual residence, my conclusion is that Carl was actually living with his brother. Moms have a tendency to believe that their babies’ real homes are with them, always.

1920: Maybe she was right, too. Carl lived with his parents, working as farm labor.

1930: Carl took his father’s place as head of household, and his mother lived with him.

(A peek at the 1880 Federal Census to find Fred before Carl’s time reveals that the brothers also had an older sister named May; other sources here and here suggest she later became Mrs. Powers H Kineston.)

Asking questions, digging deeper

Carl’s 1917 draft registration card poses a question, too. The biographical details are consistent with the other sources, and the card gives us his basic physical description, so we know that he was tall, of medium build, with light brown hair and gray eyes. He also claimed his mother and father depended on him for support, and in the section about physical disabilities, he reported that his right eye was weak.

If catching the mood of an email or reading between the lines of a text message is tricky, then so is deciphering a man’s circumstances (and honesty) from the sparse remarks on a draft registration card. Sometimes it’s hard to know just what a man was hoping for. Did this fairly represent Carl’s reality, or was this an overstatement of his hardships?

The Moment That Changes Everything

I needed to find more on the Shartle family, and I wasn’t finding much in Ancestry’s newspaper collection. I thought I’d try Fulton History—mostly a source for New York papers, but my rural Pennsylvania folks turn up sometimes. Maybe Carl would, too.

My search only found one result, but it was enough to change the tone of this story and nestle the puzzle pieces into a sad, sensible picture.

The Post, Ellicottville, NY, Wednesday November 25, 1908.

“Carl Shartle, aged 17, of Beatty Station, near Meadville, Pa., was accidentally shot in the face, Friday, and he is in serious condition, though he may recover. He was helping with the fall butchering. James Kineston, a brother-in-law, had shot a hog with a rifle, but did not kill it, and Carl seized the animal and, not being able to manage it alone, called for help. Mr. Kineston responded, first laying the rifle across a barrel, and a moment later the gun was discharged, the bullet striking Carl in the left cheek. The bullet passed through the boy’s cheek and the roof of his mouth and the base of his nose, lodging under the right eye.”

A confirmed bachelor.

A woman’s reluctance.

A desk job for a farm boy.

A weak eye confessed on a draft card.

A man with a disfigured face, the awful souvenir of a moment that changed everything.

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Sometimes it’s hard to know what a man is hoping for… [Tweet this]

She said yes… but with no endearments, and no signature. [Tweet this]

Greetings for Washington’s BirthDay

Washington postcard 1  Washington postcard 2

Confession time: I bought this postcard at the antique store quite a while ago. In fact, before I fell off the blogging wagon for a time, this was supposed to go up last February.

“Better late then ever,” indeed. [Tweet this]

Gertrude Walker of Hudson, Michigan was born April 6, 1898, a daughter of James and Della Walker (1). Since this postcard wants a stamp and shows no sign that it once had one that was lost along the way, let’s hope it was hand-delivered. Or, depending on how late the greeting was, perhaps Agnes realized Gertrude’s birthday was coming up and tucked away this belated card in favor of a more timely one.

And for those of us who are not buying a car or new furniture this Presidents’ Day, maybe it’s a good day to call or text someone just to say, “Hey! Haven’t talked in a while. How’ve you been?”

Better late than never.

9 Great Reads for Valentine’s Day

Spoiler Alert: If you’re boycotting Valentine’s Day, this post might not be your favorite… but, if you love love and you’re looking for themed reads to go along with your conversation hearts and chocolate-covered cherries, I’ve got nine great romance recommendations for you!

9 Romantic Reads for Valentine's Day (Pin it!)

1. The Edge of Recall by Kristen Heitzmann. Christian romantic suspense. If you like to fall in love from the edge of your seat, give this one a try. I loved this book so much, I read it twice back-to-back. I just wasn’t ready to leave that story!

2. Grand Central. Collection, foreword by Kristin Hannah. General market post-WWII romantic fiction. I’m taking a risk recommending it before I’ve finished, as I’m actually reading this tender collection right now. Full of short post-WWII stories set at Grand Central Station, this one boasts some names you’ve heard me mention before, like Karen White and Sarah Jio, as well as eight other bestselling and critically acclaimed authors. Plus the gorgeous cover is completely irresistible. (Again, this one is general market fiction, so for those who usually stick to Inspirational/Christian fiction, consider this your salty-language warning/disclaimer.)

3. Love on the Mend by Karen Witemeyer. Christian historical romance. Speaking of short fiction: another of my favorite authors has a new novella out! This connects to her previous release, Full Steam Ahead (which I loved!) but can also be read as a stand-alone. Novellas are enjoying a resurgence thanks to eReaders, and I’m really liking these quick reads.

4-6. Rich in Faith series by Lindi Peterson. Christian sweet romance. Lindi’s books are such a feel-good treat. I’ve read and enjoyed Rich in Love and Rich in Hope. As the titles suggest, these books bring a glamorous setting and stories of things money can’t buy. The third and final book, Rich in Faith, just came out so I’ve got that one on-deck to read soon!

7-9. The Royal Wedding series by Rachel Hauck. Christian contemporary romance. These modern-day princess stories are so fun. Once Upon A Prince and Princess Ever After imagine strong Southern women caught up in the glitz and decorum of Royals. The third book,  How to Catch a Prince, doesn’t come out until later this month. but there’s a neat pre-order contest on for it. Details here!

9 Romantic Reads for Valentine's Day


A Valentine’s Romance Round-Up: @KFHeitzmann @LindiPeterson @RachelHauck #KarenWitemeyer & more [Tweet this]

Love-themed reads to go along w/ your conversation hearts & chocolate-covered cherries! [Tweet this]

And now you should be loaded up on love!

How about you? Got a rec for me? Let’s hear it!

What I know….

I’ve been lax about my new blog feature, so hopefully this is a good enough item to make up for not including it lately! Y’all remember a while back when I reviewed Top Hat Photo Repair, right? And they cleaned up the fun picture of my great-great-grandfather nursing a pig with a baby bottle? Well, they’re offering a coupon code, good through Valentine’s Day, for 15% off any one service. You can get a worn picture fixed, or add color to an old favorite at a reduced price. You can see their portfolio on their website at Top Hat Photo Repair.

Use promo code: Valentine

Full Disclosure: I was in no way compensated for mentions in this post, and my opinions are my own!

Those Places Thursday: A Love Note from Star Lake NY?

When I found this postcard, I wanted it to be a whisper in a love story. There’s nothing to say it isn’t, but as is so often the case with my antique-store finds, I can’t prove a thing.

STARLAKE N.Y. 6AM Sep 2, 1911 Miss Katharine Place Adirondack League Club Little Moose Old Forge N. Y. I too am having a little of the Adirondacks. They are certainly fine. It’s getting to be time to think about school. How were your exams? Humphrey Hustis

Star Lake from Maple Mountain Adirondacks New York 1911

The first time I read Humphrey’s postcard, it struck me as a shy overture. His note isn’t about mountains or exams. It’s about distance and time.

Right now, I’m close to where you are, but before long we’ll both be back at school.

However, he didn’t make an appeal. Maybe he feared rejection. Maybe I am mistaken.

I tried to skip straight to their happily-ever-after. The first thing I sought was a marriage license for Humphrey and Katharine, but I didn’t find one. I couldn’t even find them both associated with one place at the same time, other than while temporarily vacationing in the Adirondacks. They had school in common, but not the same school: he went to Harvard; she went to Vassar.

They both married other people in weddings that received huge society write-ups, and that is how I discovered what else they held in common. Abridged for length:

J. F. Adams Weds Katharine Place

The Sun. (New York, New York.) Friday, November 10, 1916.

“Miss Katharine Place, daughter of Ira A. Place, vice-president of the New York Central Railroad, and Mrs. Place, was married to James Fairchild Adams, a son of Mr. and Mrs. William Crittenden Adams, yesterday afternoon in the Church of the Messiah by the Rev. John Haynes Holmes, pastor of the church. . . .

“The bridegroom was graduated from Princeton in 1915 and the bride from Vassar last June.

“After the marriage ceremony there was a reception at the Hotel Biltmore. . . .”

Wedding of Miss Wood And Capt. J. H. Hustis Jr.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. New York, Tuesday, June 24, 1919.

“Miss Elise Wood, daughter of Mrs. Wood and the late Dr. Philip M Wood, who was a prominent physician of Long Island, was married last evening to Capt. J. Humphrey Hustis Jr., son of Mr. and Mrs. James H. Hustis of Winchester, Mass. It was a home wedding, taking place at the Wood residence, 431 Fulton st., Jamaica. The Rev. Rockland Tyng Homans, rector of Grace Episcopal Church of Jamaica, officiated. . . .

“A reception followed the ceremony. Upon their return from a honeymoon tour, Mr. and Mrs. Hustis will reside in Manhattan.

“The bride was graduated from Packer Collegiate Institute, class of 1917. She is a member of the Motor Corps of the National League for Women’s Servise (sic), and during the war was active in Red Cross work.

“Capt. Hustis’ father, James H. Hustis, is receiver for the Boston and Maine Railroad and District Director of the United States Railroad Administration for New England.

“Capt. Hustis was graduated from Harvard, class of 1915, and is a member of the Harvard Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. When the United States entered the war he was granted a leave of absence from the New York Central Railroad to take a commission in the Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army. He sailed for France in July 1917, with the 14th U.S. Engineers, which was among the first regiments to see active service at the front, being brigaded with the British Army. Capt. Hustis returned from France in April of this year, and will resume his connection with the New York Central Railroad.”

How . . . Romantic?

Humphrey and Katharine were the well-connected children of important railroad executives, and both had ties to the New York Central Railroad. It makes me wonder if their relationship might have been different than I first imagined. Perhaps they were “a sensible match,” but the spark just wasn’t there.

Ah, well. I’ll end it my way: star-crossed at Star Lake.

We’ll always have the Adirondacks. Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.

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Is this 1911 postcard a whisper of young love? We may never know. [Tweet this]

No skipping to the Happily Ever After of this love story… [Tweet this]

Question for You

Be honest: got any old love notes that might end up in a genealogist’s future research?