Writing Your Family History
Writing your family history is the type of huge task best manage by breaking it down into manageable parts. 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)
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.
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)
(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.
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
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)
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
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.
Even MORE Content & Substance
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).
39. Read up on creative nonfiction techniques and try applying them to your family history.
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.
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
50. Don’t plagiarize.
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.
(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).
Looking for more like this?
Read posts about family history tools, tips and tactics here!
Share your best angles, tips and prompts for writing your family history in the comments below!
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