It Works! Writing a Family History Narrative

It Works! Writing a Family History Narrative

I’ve heard the tip that writing your genealogy research into a narrative forces you to organize your information and for theories about what your ancestors did. I’ve even suggested this tip to people—but I never took my own advice.Until recently, that is, when relatives started asking for copies of...

I’ve heard the tip that writing your genealogy research into a narrative forces you to organize your information and for theories about what your ancestors did. I’ve even suggested this tip to people—but I never took my own advice.

Until recently, that is, when relatives started asking for copies of records, and I started feeling guilty that I haven’t already shared them.

But I don’t want to just hand over a stack of papers (or more likely, a CD with a bunch of PDFs) and leave people to interpret them on their own. I wanted to tell the family’s story and provide a framework for the records I’ve found.

And even though I’ve looked at these records a million times, in creating my narrative I’ve spotted some holes and tweaked my timeline. A few examples:

  • I realized (duh!) that I had the 1930 census schedule for my great-grandfather and three of his children, but one wasn’t listed with the family. I found him lodging in a nearby town.
  • I realized my great-grandfather didn’t check in at the state prison until after his sons were placed in an orphanage. That’s the reverse of what was on my mental timeline.
  • It occurred to me that I should see if the Lions Club that sponsored part of my grandfather’s college education has minutes from the meeting he attended to thank the group.

I didn’t think I’d accomplished much in my research. But now that I’ve laid it all out, I realize how far I’ve come—and I’m inspired to rev up my efforts.

My narrative isn’t anything fancy. I just reviewed my records and notes chronologically, and explained what each document is, what it says about our relatives, and any theories and questions it inspires. I’ll update it as I learn more.

A timeline or a research journal also can help you analyze your work. Try these resources:

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  1. I’ve been working on a family history narrative for several years now, and like you, keep filing in holes and correcting preconceptions. I’m continually amazed at how small the ancestoral worlds were and how often my ancestors either DID or MIGHT HAVE crossed paths with historic events and personalities. (Makes it really hard to dray the line and say &quot;I’m finished.&quot;) 😉

  2. I’ve been making digital family books for several years. Each one is totally different from the others. I use digital format because I have five siblings and many cousins who want copies. I choose to spend the extra money at a local professional printshop that has a quality black &amp; white laser printer and a good selection of papers.

    It’s hard to hand out each book knowing that there is much missing and that there are spelling and other errors in spite of my hard work. However, the thanks from the family makes it worthwhile.

    One type of book not usually mentioned is using newspaper articles about the family. I was able to do this with my mother &amp; her brother, because the family was social and kept the newspaper informed. It gave all of their kids a tool to discover lots of new stories about the folks.

    Haven’t been able to find that ammount of information on any other family group, partially because I haven’t ordered the microfilmed newspapers thru interlibrary loan yet. The stories are out there.

    Another resource is to find an online newspaper of your timeframe and copy the advertisements to add to your book.

    One of the nicest results has been family realizing that I actually share what I learn. I’ve had a couple of aunts and cousins offer to let me copy their photos who never would have before.

    Still another resource is to search google images to find photos or images to add interest. It’s amazing how a small town with a dirt road and several horse &amp; wagons makes us stop and think.

    Best of luck on all of your projects.


  3. This is SO true. Once I started blogging and putting up information for others to see (including the general public) it became even more important to get the facts right. And to be sure facts were well documented. I sure found out how careless I’d been at times… (red face).
    Sue Edminster

  4. I just did this two days ago and your information is SOOO true. When I started typing out the story of my husband’s ancestors for a grandniece who is doing a college genealogy project, I saw my notes through &quot;new eyes&quot; and it really alerted me to areas where I need to do more research. I have long had a brick wall on this family, so this newfound realization will put me on a new track for exploration.

    Also, I put my own family data into a timeline for my dad’s Hatfield ancestors and it REALLY helped me to sort out the family and realize where I had missed certain key clues to put me on the right track for finding that particular family. The timeline made me realize that the family I had been searching for had gone from Virginia directly to Indiana and not to West Virginia as his father and brothers had. This info will hopefully finally help me to break down THAT brick wall.