How to Write Your Family History

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Writing a family history may seem like a daunting task, but when the relatives start nagging, you can follow these five easy steps to make your family history project a reality.

Choose a Format

What do you envision for your family history project? A simple photocopied booklet shared only with family members or a full-scale, hard-bound book to serve as a reference for other genealogists? Or perhaps you'd rather produce a family newsletter, cookbook, or website.

Now is the time to be honest with yourself about the type of family history that meetings your needs and your schedule. Otherwise, you'll have a half-finished product nagging you for years to come.

Considering your interests, potential audience, and the types of materials you have to work with, here are some forms your family history can take:

  • Memoir/Narrative: A combination of story and personal experience, memoirs, and narratives do not need to be all-inclusive or objective. Memoirs usually focus on a specific episode or time period in the life of a single ancestor, while a narrative generally encompasses a group of ancestors.
  • Cookbook: Share your family's favorite recipes while writing about the people who created them. A fun project to assemble, cookbooks help carry on the family tradition of cooking and eating together.
  • Scrapbook or Album: If you're fortunate enough to have a large collection of family photos and memorabilia, a scrapbook or photo album can be a fun way to tell your family's story. Include your photos in chronological order and include stories, descriptions, and family trees to complement the pictures.

    Most family histories are generally narrative in nature, with a combination of personal stories, photos and family trees.

    Define the Scope

    Do you intend to write mostly about just one particular relative, or everyone in your family tree? As the author, you need to choose a focus for your family history book.

    Some possibilities include:

    • Single Line of Descent: Begin with the earliest known ancestor for a particular surname and follows him/her through a single line of descent (to yourself, for example). Each chapter of your book would cover one ancestor or generation.
    • All Descendants Of...: Begin with an individual or couple and cover all of their descendants, with chapters organized by generation. If you're focusing your family history on an immigrant ancestor, this is a good way to go.
    • Grandparents: Include a section on each of your four grandparents, or eight great-grandparents, or sixteen great-great-grandparents if you are feeling ambitious. Each individual section should focus on one grandparent and work backward through their ancestry or forward from his/her earliest known ancestor.

    Again, these suggestions can easily be adapted to fit your interests, time constraints, and creativity.

    Set Realistic Deadlines

    Even though you'll likely find yourself scrambling to meet them, deadlines force you to complete each stage of your project. The goal here is to get each piece done within a specified time frame. Revising and polishing can always be done later. The best way to meet these deadlines is to schedule writing time, just as you would a visit to the doctor or the hairdresser.

    Choose a Plot and Themes

    Thinking of your ancestors as characters in your family story, ask yourself: what problems and obstacles did they face? A plot gives your family history interest and focus. Popular family history plots and themes include:

    • Immigration/Migration
    • Rags to Riches
    • Pioneer or Farm Life
    • War Survival

    Do Your Background Research

    If you want your family history to read more like a suspense novel than a dull, dry textbook, it is important to make the reader feel like an eyewitness to your family's life. Even when your ancestors didn't leave accounts of their daily lives, social histories can help you learn about the experiences of people in a given time and place. Read town and city histories to learn what life was life during certain periods of interest. Research timelines of wars, natural disasters, and epidemics to see if any might have influenced your ancestors.

    Read up on the fashions, art, transportation, and common foods of the time. If you haven't already, be sure to interview all of your living relatives. Family stories told in a relative's own words will add a personal touch to your book.

    6) Organize Your Research

    Create a timeline for each ancestor that you plan to write about. This will help you arrange the outline for your book, as well as spot any gaps in your research. Sort through the records and photos for each ancestor and identify the ones you'd like to include, making note of each on the timeline. Then use these timelines to help develop an outline for your narrative. You may choose to order your material in many different ways: chronologically, geographically, by character, or by theme.

    7) Choose a Starting Point

    What is the most interesting part of your family's story? Did your ancestors escape a life of poverty and persecution for a better one in a new country? Was there an interesting invention or occupation? A war time hero? Pick out an interesting fact, record or story about your ancestors and open your narrative with it. Just like the fiction books you read for pleasure, a family history book doesn't need to begin at the beginning. An interesting story will grab the reader's attention, with the hope of drawing them in past the first page. You can later use flashback to fill in the reader on the events which lead up to your opening story.

    8) Don't be Afraid to Use Records and Documents

    Diary entries, will excerpts, military accounts, obituaries and other records offer compelling, first-hand accounts of your family's history - and you don't even have to do the writing! Anything written directly by your ancestor is definitely worth including, but you may also find interesting accounts that mention your ancestor in the records of neighbors and other family members. Include short excerpts within the text of your writing, with source citations to point readers to the original record.

    Photos, pedigree charts, maps and other illustrations can also add interest to a family history and help break up the writing into manageable chunks for the reader. Be sure to include detailed captions for any photos or illustrations that you incorporate.

    9) Make it Personal

    Anyone who reads your family history will likely be interested in the facts, but what they'll most enjoy and remember are the everyday details - favorite stories and anecdotes, embarrasing moments and family traditions. Sometimes it can be interesting to include varying accounts of the same event. Personal stories offer a great way to introduce new characters and chapters, and keep your reader interested. If your ancestors left no personal accounts, you can still tell their story as if they had, using what you've learned about them from your research.

    10) Include an Index and Source Citations

    Unless your family history is only a few pages in length, an index is a really important feature. This makes it much easier for the casual reader to find the portions of your book that detail the people in which they are interested. At the very least, try to include a surname index. A place index is also useful if your ancestors moved around a lot.

    Source citations are an essential part of any family book, to both provide credibility to your research, and to leave a trail that others can follow to verify your findings.

    Kimberly Powell,'s Genealogy Guide since 2000, is a professional genealogist and the author of "Everything Family Tree, 2nd Edition." Click here for more information on Kimberly Powell.