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Writing Your History << Writing a History <<

Writing the Family History

ancestral picture Before writing your family history, you'll need to decide on the scope and topics you intend to cover. You may find it helpful to visit a larger library and browse through any family histories it may contain to get a feel for styles and approaches that appeal to you. Then you'll want to make some basic decisions:

Do You Want to Write an Essay or Book?
What final product do you envision? Do you hope to complete an essay or chapter-length history? Do you hope to produce a nicely bound book, a photocopied booklet, or perhaps a picture book with text? Or, for that matter, is a written family history the best approach for you? Would a family newsletter or website be more realistic, given your time restraints and other obligations? It's better to be honest with yourself than to have a half-finished product nagging you for years to come.

How Many People or Generations Should You Include?
Do you intend to write mostly about just one particular relative? About one couple and their family? About two or three generations of one side of the family? In short, what will be your focus?

Who Is Your Intended Audience?
Are you writing just for the family insiders, or also for the community beyond the family? Are you writing for the adult readers in the family, or do you want your history to appeal to teenage readers or even children as well? You choice of audience will shape what and how you tell your story.

What Style Will You Use?
Most family histories are written using a chronological style, a topic style, or a combination of both. To see typical outlines for both the chronological and topic approach, go to the Family Records episode Family History Content extra. Many prefer to intertwine the two, going through the phases of an ancestor's or family's life, and covering the different topics - such as hobbies, health, and friendships -- within each timeframe. Another popular approach for profiling couples - say, your grandparents - is the "his story, her story, their story" approach, where you open with their marriage and then alternate between their respective childhoods, until you return to the phase-of-life style for the rest of their lives.

Whatever approach you choose, you'll want to be sure to develop an outline to make certain you have a story that will be easy for others to follow. This may reveal the need to do some additional homework to provide necessary background to the reader, just as Taylor researched the Mexican Revolution so that his family members would know enough to make sense of and fully understand the events his grandparents had experienced.

If you're like most of us, you will probably have to cope with some skeletons in your family's closet. It is your choice what to do with them, but the most common approach seems to be one of "tell, don't dwell" - meaning don't whitewash history by excluding the story, but don't embellish it or make it the focus of your family history. For help in handling those skeletons in the closet, see the Newspaper Records episode Skeletonsextra.

If you plan to include any illustrations - and ideally, you should - be sure to provide detailed captions for them. Photos, pedigree charts, maps, and other illustrations can make your family history all the more interesting, but unlabeled illustrations are almost useless. Take the time to make sure the reader will understand the importance of each illustration to the story you are telling.

 Video Clip
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Ancestors expert Craig Foster explains some important things to do when organizing a family history.

Two more items in the must-have category are an index and source citations for the information you're sharing. If you really want your story to reach others in your extended family, an index is critical. Many researchers won't even browse through a book without an index. Just think how frustrated you would be to find a book you think might be on your family, but have no means of finding where your branch might fit in. Source citations are also essential. Otherwise, the reader has no way of knowing that the book is not a work of fiction. Every good researcher knows to leave a trail that others can follow to verify the research. Make it easy for the generations who come after you.


The information contained on this page comes from a variety of sources, but relies heavily on The Everything Family Tree Book by William G. Hartley (Adams Media, 1998) and Ancestors: A Beginner's Guide to Family History & Genealogy by Jim & Terry Willard with Jane Wilson (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997).

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