We research our ancestors for lots of reasons. For me, it’s so they’ll be known and remembered—not just by me, but also by my family.
Lots of us genealogists have a goal to write our family history. It’s one of the best ways to organize research finds, draw conclusions, and neatly package our family history (instead of delivering it in a pile of records, notes and sources).
But we can’t wait until we’re “finished” researching to start writing. All genealogists know you never finish researching: There are always more relatives to discover and brick walls in the way. So how do you know when it’s time to start writing? Here are eight tipoffs:
1. People are curious. For me, it was when people in my dad’s family started asking about my research. I brought my binder of records (this was before I kept most documents digitally) to a family gathering. I promised copies to my aunts, and it occurred to me that I should add some context. Their paternal line was small enough that I could write a simple narrative in a Word document (here’s more on that), put it on CDs with PDFs and JPGs of records, and hand them out at Christmas.
2. An important anniversary is coming up. Your parents’ Golden wedding anniversary, or a 25th annual family reunion, is a great occasion to put together some form of a family history book. Or consider current events: The upcoming WWI centennial is an opportunity to share the stories of ancestors of that era.
You don’t have to write a complete family history—you could undertake one of these smaller, more manageable family history projects. Just give yourself enough time for whatever you plan to do.
3. You’ve found a story that wants to be told. Maybe your Civil War ancestor’s pension record is a windfall of information about his experiences, your father or grandfather told you about surviving the Great Depression, or you strongly identify with your pioneer great-grandmother. My grandfather who died before I was born grew up in an orphanage and put himself through college. These stories hold important lessons.
4. You’re at a brick wall. You might think you have to break through the brick wall first, but this is actually one of the best times to start writing. Writing about a research problem will help you analyze what you’ve found and come up with new ideas. Plus, if you wait until you solve every question, you might never start writing. You might even invoke Murphy’s Law of Genealogy: The moment you finish writing your family story, you’ll find the record you’ve been after for years.
5. You solved a brick wall or achieved a research goal. If you finally found your immigrant ancestor’s passenger record or identified a mystery photo, celebrate by writing that story and how you solved the problem. It’ll help you take stock of your research and figure out your next goal.
6. You need a break. If you’re feeling burned out on doing research, or you need to refocus, stop looking for new information. Instead, look through everything you already have and start writing.
7. You feel like you should be writing this stuff down. If you have a nagging feeling that you should be writing about the family history you’ve learned, there’s a reason for it. Obey the voice in your head!
8. You’ve done some research. You can start writing a story at any point—no need to wait until your family tree is yay big. If you’ve only gotten to your grandparents, write about them. Or go closer to home and write how your parents met, or how you met your spouse.
In fact, this may be the best way to do it. As you continue researching, connect these smaller stories together and you’ll have an ongoing narrative of your family history.
Our Write Your Family History Value Pack has books and lessons to help you plan out and work on your family history book writing project.
And if you need guidance on managing source information and citations in your research and writing project, look into our Family Tree University Source Analysis one-week online genealogy workshop, April 18-25, with professional genealogist Michael Hait.