How to start writing your family history step by step
Don’t let your years of family history research go to waste. Stories are so much more engaging and interesting than lists of names and dates etc. so read on to discover how to start writing your family history step by step.
As a family history researcher/genealogist your job is to focus on facts and so you will no doubt have lists of names, dates and places, family trees, genealogy charts and numerous other documents and artefacts supporting and supplementing your research.
However, although your research provides the vital information, it is the stories behind your research which will make a readable and enjoyable family history. If you struggle to find anyone interested in your research then why not use it to create stories that will be of real interest to present and future generations. Family, friends and future generations won’t be interested in printouts from your genealogy software program nor will they want to to rummage through endless boxes and computer files so it is up to you to make sure that your years of research doesn’t go to waste.
Don’t wait until you have finished your research to start writing. Irrespective of how far into your research you are, it pays to start thinking about the writing process as soon as possible. So, if you haven’t done so already, start organising and sorting your material so as you are ready to get scribbling your stories.
Writing a complete family history from start to finish is a daunting task and so start by picking out a special event, incident, person, place, experience etc. and write a bite-sized story about it. If you write enough bite-sized stories you may even end up with a full-length book.
Only include the facts that are relevant to your bite-sized story. Save the bits you don’t use for other stories.
If you find it difficult to recall individual events, create a timeline and highlight the key events and people.
If you still struggle to find who or what to write about from your research, look for something else to prompt or inspire you to get scribbling. For example:
- diaries and journals
- letters and postcards
- holiday souvenirs
- theatre and concert programmes
- newspaper and magazine clippings
- videos, records, CDs, DVDs
- family recipes
- family tree or timeline
- school reports and school, college and university certificates
- military service records
- birth and marriage certificates
Grab your readers with a memorable title and a gripping opening sentence/paragraph (this could be a tragic or exciting event, an amusing anecdote, a quote from a letter or diary or anything else that will hook in your reader).
Whether you are writing fiction or non fiction all good stories have a beginning, a middle and an end so try to structure your story with this in mind.
The basic elements of a short story are characters, setting, plot, conflict, theme and dialogue. These may not all be relevant to your story but understanding how these elements can come together to create a story may help you to start building up your own story.
Every story has a cast of characters. These are the people who take part in the action of the story and give the reader someone/something to identify with or relate to. Make a note of the main characters in your story.
The setting is the time and place that the event(s) in a story take place. A description of the landscape, the weather, the seasons, the buildings, the town, the city etc. all help to give the reader a stronger sense of time and place. Think about which of these element you could include in your story to help set the scene.
The plot is the sequence of events and actions of the character(s) that happen within a story. This leads to a climax where loose ends are tied up and the final outcome is revealed. A plot doesn’t have to be dramatic or life changing. It can just be a series of events or a period of time which you can use to build your story around.
Conflict refers to the struggles and problems between the characters. However, conflicts don’t necessarily have to be between people. For example a conflict could be against society or the forces of nature. Don’t introduce conflict just for the sake of it. Only use it if it is relevant and appropriate (you don’t want to offend anyone).
The theme is the main idea which recurs throughout a story. In family history, themes can focus on a wide range of topics from individual ancestors, specific family lines, the lives of women, education, religion, war service and survival, the depression years, rags to riches, home, leisure and sport to much broader topics such as local or regional history, occupational history, institutional history, convicts and criminality, immigration and economic and political history.
Although you do not have to include any dialogue in your story, conversations between characters is an important part of many stories. Dialogue breaks up the narrative and helps to bring the people in your story to life. Because you will typically be writing stories based on your research you are unlikely to have any records of actual conversations but you could imagine conversations between your ancestors to add interest to your stories.
Many family history researchers overlook how historical events would have influenced and affected the lives of their ancestors but nobody’s ancestors lived in isolation. With some additional research it is possible to create unique stories which combine historical details with the anecdotes and stories you have uncovered about your family members.
As a family historian you are also a social historian. Social history looks at the events and times surrounding the lives of ‘ordinary’ people. By embracing social history you have the opportunity to look at your research and/or family trees in a different way. For example, you can start to imagine, for example, what the lives of your ancestors and their contemporaries would have been like living during a world war, a natural disaster or during a period of social and economic change.
There are many other different approaches to writing your family history which may involve some additional research. For example:
- Visit a place or house where an ancestor lived and imagine what life must have been like at that time.
- Discover what the villages, towns or cities might have been like during the time of your ancestors to help build up a picture of what the communities were like in which they lived.
- Find out more about the local customs, food, music, social life, traditions, work, schooling etc. of the communities in which your ancestors lived.
- Write down a list of taboo subjects and secrets in your family history. Think about why these are off limits and whether there may come a time when you could consider writing about them.
- If you have a collection of family recipes you could use them to create a family history recipe book which not only includes special family recipes and recipes that have been passed down through the generations, but also something about the people, anecdotes and stories behind each recipe.
- Tell the story behind a photo. There are stories behind every person, setting and situation in photos so do a bit of research and detective work to find out more about each photo. For example, what might have happened just before and after the photo was taken, what are the relationships of the people in the photo, what do their clothes tell you about the period, is there anybody missing from the photo, is there anything significant about the location or setting of the photo and so on? Ask family members, friends or anyone else who might be able to help you with some of the details you don’t know.
- Look at timelines of epidemics, natural disasters, wars etc. to help you understand how world events and local events might have affected the lives of your ancestors and the communities in which they lived.
- If your research has uncovered an event that happened on a specific day check out what else happened on that day using websites such as This Day in History, Today in History and On this Day Note that these are US websites but they do cover world events. There is an archived BBC website which includes events which happened on specific days but this site is no longer updated.
- Compare the lives of two ancestors that lived in the same period but led very different lives.
Once you have chosen your theme or topic, try using the 5Ws journalists’ technique (Who, What, Where, When and Why plus the additional How) to start building up your story. Once you have these basic facts you can begin to fill in the detail.
Illustrate your stories. Adding images such as photos and scanned documents to your stories will help your readers visualise the people, places and events you are writing about.
For more help on how to write a family history take a look at Writing your family history – some tips on how to get started.