Write your family history story by story

Feeling overwhelmed about how to start writing your complete family history? Well, why not make it easier and write your family history story by story.

Many family historians, including many who have attended my family history writing workshops, haven’t even attempted to start writing their family history because writing their story from beginning to end is just too daunting. However, if you want your family history research to reach more than the determined few who are prepared to wade through endless boxes, computer files or genealogy software to find out what your years of research has uncovered, then you need to start wring your family history. And the best way to do this is to start small by writing your family history story by story.

Brainstorm some ideas

So where/how do you find these stories? Start by looking back through your research and pick out a special event, person, family, place or whatever grabs your attention and scribble down some notes. Don’t restrict yourself to one idea. Pick out as many as you can so as you have a selection to work with.

If you struggle to find anything that inspires you, have a look through your collection of photos or family heirlooms or dig out family diaries. letters, postcards, family recipes or any other memorabilia you have gathered during your research. You could use any of these as prompts for a story or two.

Reach out to a wider audience

To give your stories a broader appeal, look beyond the lives and experiences of your ancestors and consider the social, historical and political background of the times in which they lived. For example, imagine what the lives of your ancestors and their contemporaries would have been like during a world war, a period of significant social and economic change or a natural disaster. With some additional research you will have the opportunity to create a collection of unique stories which combine social and historical details with the anecdotes and stories you have uncovered about your ancestors.

Don’t forget – you are not writing a complete family history

Just because you decide to write your family history story by story this doesn’t mean that you have to cover all ancestors and descendants. It is better to restrict yourself to the best and most interesting bits (at least to start with) to give yourself a fair chance of success. Complete family histories which plough through every person and event relentlessly and chronologically are not only challenging to write but they often make dull reading. On the other hand, a collection of well-crafted, engaging stories are much more likely to appeal to your audience.

How long should your stories be?

There is no right or wrong length for a story. The length of each story will depend on what you are writing about. You might be able to say it all in two to three hundred words or it may take 3000 words or more. It really doesn’t matter. The major hurdle for many new and inexperienced writers is getting started so don’t let any concerns about how much you write get in the way. Just get scribbling.

Bringing it all together

When you write your family history story by story you have the opportunity to share your stories as you write them. This means that you may get some useful feedback which will help you to improve and polish your stories as you go along. Once you have a good collection of stories, start to plan how you want to bring them all together to create a longer narrative or book.

The subjects of your stories may dictate an order or you may decide to present them chronologically. Or, you may find that you can group your stories by families or themes. If your stories don’t have an obvious flow or link, then just present them as a family anthology.

It doesn’t matter how you decide to present your stories, just get them out there. You are the only person that can write these stories. Don’t wait until you have finished your research (that will never happen) and certainly don’t let a fear of writing stop you. Your family history stories are your legacy – a legacy which must be preserved.

For more advice, check out my latest book How to Write Your Family History Piece by Piece This book is full of practical and easy-to-digest tips on how to look for the individual stories behind the names of people and the places and events you have uncovered in your research together with tips on how to get started scribbling.

“Within the pages of How to Write Your Family History Piece by Piece you’ll find help identifying what to write about, choosing an angle or theme, illustrating your book, grabbing the attention of your readers and options for publishing your labour of love.” Part of a review in Family Tree Magazine October 2019 edition.