Are you looking for ideas on how to write a family history? In this post, learn the basic structure of a good family history and how to go about getting started.
If you are interested in writing more than just a list or a chart of dates and places, this article is for you.
Many people who want to write a family history are the family genealogists. They are those individuals who have spent hours upon hours building a family tree and studying their ancestors.
Many of us will discover dozens of interesting stories about our ancestors and want to share what we have learned with our other relatives, and sometimes, even the rest of the world. Others might already know about a fascinating story and learn how to do family history research in order to verify or learn more about it.
Every single family could be the subject of a family history, so it is something that all of us can do, even if we think aren’t descended from anyone famous or even notable. One of the most beautiful aspects of a family history written by you is that you have absolute control of how your story is told and the scope of your project.
Even though someone else may write a family history someday that includes your family, it will not be the same as yours.
Steps for planning your written family history
There are several steps you should take before you write the first word of your family history. These steps range from deciding who your audience will be to choosing how to share your finished project.
Each decision will shape what you end up including in your family history, what gets left out, as well as other details such as whether to include pedigree charts, photographs, documents, or cite sources.
Why are you writing this story?
Take a minute to think about your motivation for wanting to write a family history. Is there a particular theme that you would like to communicate through the way you tell the story?
I’ve spoken with many people who are interested in writing their family’s story because they want to focus on a particular person, or a struggle that the family overcame.
For example, almost all of us are descended from people who migrated great distances, and some people might want to flesh out what motivated their ancestors to immigrate to another country or show the obstacles they overcame to build a new life.
Alternatively, your goal could be to simply provide context to the more general pedigree charts and genealogy records that you have attached to your family tree in order to create an family history experience more easily consumed by a non-genealogist.
Choose your audience
One of the very first things you should do is decide exactly who you are writing for. Will your family history only be shared with close or extended family, or are you hoping that a wider audience might find your ancestors’ stories interesting?
The answer to these questions will help you decide the scope of your story, as well as help you craft your history for potential publication, should that be something that interests you as a writer.
Decide on a format
As the author of your family history, you have complete artistic control over how the story is told. This is the advantage of doing the work yourself, but many potential writers feel overwhelmed at the number of formats that are available to choose from.
There are unlimited ideas for the format of a family history, but I have selected a few ideas to include below.
Compilation of stories about individual ancestors
This is a great idea for those of us who feel overwhelmed about trying to write our entire family’s story within one document. Instead, write smaller stories about an ancestor, or a married couple, that can eventually be combined into a larger document.
I am currently working on a digital project for each of my four grandparents similar to this one using Google Docs. The first page is an ahnentafel chart that lists the ancestors of my grandparent by generation, with hyperlinks on each of the ancestor’s names.
When you click on the link of an ancestor’s name, it takes you to a different page in the online document where you can read their story, as well as see photographs and records pertaining to their life. My hope is that I can share this digital document with my close family, as well as my first and second cousins, and that they will enjoy learning about our shared ancestors in an interactive way.
My stories are very fact-based, but I can also envision it being very fun to write a collection of short stories about ancestors that only use facts as a basis for the story. These stories could be open to more interpretation by you, determined by how you want to portray each ancestor.
Write a historical story with your ancestors as characters
Our ancestors were active participants in the historical time period in which they lived, and understanding the events that occurred during their lives can help us form a deeper understanding of why they made key decisions that have reverberated throughout the generations.
We can write a family story that focuses on a historical moment, or period of time, and include our ancestors as a part of the plot. This story can be purely non-fiction, or we can use our artistic license to fill in some of the blanks to move the story along.
Family story with you as the narrator
Those of us who have built family trees have spent a great many hours working on family history research. Often, our research is inspired by a question or mystery, and our quest for answers.
You might be interested in writing a family story as a way to take your reader on your journey through for the truth.
A distant cousin of mine wrote a very nice family history where he focused on his search for information about how our ancestors ended up in Newark, New Jersey. The story took him through a few countries and states, and he was able to tell an interesting story this way while also including more traditional biographical information (i.e. names of parents, children, etc.).
Write with the point of view of an ancestor
If you have an ancestor that you know a lot about, you might almost feel like you know them personally. Or, maybe you want to write about a recent ancestor who you really did know.
These ancestors are perfect for telling a story from their point of view, with you as the writer, of course.
You can decide to start your story at any point in their life, or even from before they were born, depending on the theme of your story.
Frame your story as a mystery
If your family story has more questions than answers, then you might enjoy writing up your family’s “unsolved mysteries” for your family’s enjoyment and for other researchers to use as a guide for further inquiry.
Where to write your family history
You can write your history in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or in a notebook or journal. The best choice for you will depend on whether you plan to share your family history with anyone else, and how you think you might do so.
Plus, some of us are more comfortable with technology than others. It is perfectly acceptable to write your family history in a notebook with plans to later transfer it to a computer file. Many writers find that their creative juices flow freely when they have a pen and paper versus a blinking cursor on the computer screen.
I mentioned earlier in this post the idea of writing a history on a website like Google Docs. If you plan to share your history with relatives, you can easily invite relatives to view the document online when you are ready, which would save on printing costs and allow them to share it easily, too.
What to watch out for when writing a family history
We have a lot of leeway when writing a family history. For many of us, writing a family history is the culmination of a lifetime’s work on a family tree, which is why we get to decide which stories are told and how to tell them.
However, there are a few pitfalls that we may encounter.
Don’t worry too much
When writing your family history, just focus on saying what you came to say and let the story flow. Don’t worry about what anyone will think about your writing, or even spelling or grammar.
All of that can be corrected later. You don’t want to get stuck in your writing because you are worrying too much because this can cause you to stop working on your project, which might cause it to never get finished.
I’m reminded of Stephen King’s advice about writing: Tell the truth. This is great advice, and I suggest it, too, but with one caveat (see below).
Don’t include details about living relatives in published works
We should make sure that avoid publishing private information about living relatives. If we are not sure if someone is still living, we should assume that they are, especially if they would be less than 100 years old.
Depending on the type of story we tell and the nature of personal details, we might also want to leave out certain information that could negatively affect living individuals. Since we are writing these stories for our relatives, we certainly do not want our work to cause them distress.
Check for copyright issues
If you plan to include photographs, newspaper clippings and other records in your family history, make sure that your work doesn’t infringe on any copyrights or intellectual property rights of others. This is especially important if you plan to publish your work for distribution, and essential if you hope to sell copies of your family history.
Laws will vary by country, but generally there is a period of time where photographs and written works are considered to be protected by copyright. This copyright period is typically a very long time.
I hope that this post has helped you get some tips for starting your written family history project and that you now have the motivation to confidently get started. Your finished product is sure to be treasured by your family members.
If you have any questions about something that you read in this post, or if you would like to share one of your goals for a written family history, I would love to hear from you in the discussion below.
Thanks for stopping by today!