Six Questions to Help You Start Writing Your Family History

Six Questions to Help You Start Writing Your Family History

Brush up your family history writing and paint your ancestors with words. These six questions will get you going. This article contains a Genealogy How-To Video demonstrating how to get started outlining your family history writing project. 

Have you daydreamed of writing up your family history but never actually started (or finished) a project? Maybe you’ve thought about penning a biography of a grandparent. Perhaps you hope to create a book of family photos or a volume showcasing your connection to the House of Tudor.

These unwritten—or half-written—projects are like unfinished portraits of your ancestors: sketched out, but never fully executed. If you leave your research this way, others may never fully appreciate your family history or “see” your forebears as you do in your mind’s eye: as real people worthy of a memorial portrait. 

So how do you get your masterpiece out of your head and into fully realized form? Take a lesson from portrait painters. They make several upfront decisions about their overall goals for the portrait. Then they experiment with different media, brush strokes and designs. As they paint, they keep making decisions: where to put a line, deepen a shadow or emphasize a shape.

You can take the same approach to creating an ancestral portrait in words. For a well-executed likeness of your relatives, you’ll want to plan exactly what to write, how to write it and where to share your finished work. You may experiment with different approaches along the way, but eventually you settle on one and see it through.

The following six questions will help you sketch in the contours of your next family history writing project—that is, your next genealogical portrait. Do this mental sketch in pencil, though: You may find yourself erasing or refining your answers as you go.
 
How to Outline Your Family History Writing Project 

Who’s your subject?

A portrait painting has a subject. Who will be the subject—or subjects—of your genealogical portrait? Which of their stories will you tell?

Let’s say you’ve considered writing everything we’ve already mentioned: your mother’s biography, a photo book and a narrative lineage back to the Tudors. Are all these fodder for the same project? Not unless it’s a photo narrative of your mother’s descent from a secret love child of Elizabeth I. Otherwise, the subjects don’t make sense as a single project—not to mention how overwhelming this task would be.

So narrow your subject to a reasonable scope. A small, finished project is better than a three-volume tome that exists only in your dreams. Choose the subject that’s most interesting to you right now, or to your intended audience (see question No. 2). If you’re not sure, look at your research: What’s the most compelling subject? Alternately, you may choose a topic that’s timely for an upcoming family event or gift. Or you may simply start with the one that sounds easiest and least expensive to complete.

Let’s say you choose a biography of your mother. Will you portray her entire life, like a head-to-toe portrait, or just a part of it? Many biographies just cover one time period (such as a childhood), one relationship (a marriage) or one aspect of life (career, motherhood). Partial biographies are great projects, especially for living individuals or those for whom you have a lot of material. If you eventually hope to write a full biography but want to tackle a smaller project now, write a standalone piece on one aspect of the person’s life that could become part of a larger book later.

Who’s your audience?

Most every artist hopes for an audience. It may be other artists, critics, museum patrons, magazine readers or even those who see the artwork hanging in a doctor’s office.

Your writing project also should have a specific audience in mind: your immediate family, members of a genealogy society, distant cousins who may find your work online or in a library, or a niche audience such as an ethnic or religious community. It may be naïve to shoot for a one-piece-fits-all work. Different audiences can require different content, writing style and format.

Let’s take the example of your mother’s biography. The most interested audience will likely be her relatives. Relatives enjoy stories and photographs (preferably with flattering portrayals of themselves). Their attention may wander when reading your careful analysis and source citations. Other audiences may take interest in your mother’s stories if she was a pioneering chemist or Methodist deaconess, but these audiences won’t care as much about her relatives. Genealogical and historical journals usually take most interest in long-dead subjects; they also will care deeply about your research analysis and sources. See how each audience requires different content?

You’ll want to keep your audience in mind for another reason, too. You wouldn’t give someone an unflattering commemorative painting of their parent. Similarly, it’s important to consider the ethics and appropriateness of what you write. Who might be hurt by using a particular story or quote—not just the subject, but also his or her loved ones and descendants? Whose privacy might be violated? Of course, you don’t want to paint an unrealistically perfect portrait, either. Be balanced and fair. When difficult truths must be told, do it as sensitively and responsibly as possible.

Where will your canvas hang?

Artists design their works differently for different places: private homes, textbook illustrations, theatrical sets and so on. Similarly, where your finished book or article ends up may influence how you create it. You would hate to have to rewrite your piece because you didn’t know that the genealogical newsletter accepts only fully cited articles fewer than 5,000 words.

So where do you see your piece ending up? Often, just in the hands of your own family. This means you have control over whether you create a bound book, stapled booklet, CD with documents and images, website, etc. You choose the length of the project, layout, font, citation styles and appendices (more on these last two in a minute). You’re limited only by your resources and abilities.

Do you have a short piece you wish you could publish? Consider penning an article for a local or regional genealogical or historical society magazine or newsletter. These publications may be easier to write for than you think. They may accept pieces as short as 500 words (about one page single-spaced in a 12-point font) or as long as 10,000 words (about 20 pages). This may be the perfect venue for a short ancestral biography or a personal genealogical journey, like a recounting of your discovery of a family murder.

Check recent issues of newsletters or journals published by any repository or organization that might take an interest. Do you see articles like what you want to write? Look for submission requirements on the society’s website or contact the editor. (Don’t be intimidated by editors. They’re usually happy to work with anyone who has good material that fits the publication’s needs.)

If you can write like a college professor, consider contributing to professional journals such as American Ancestor, The New England Historical Genealogical Register and The National Genealogical Society Quarterly, or state-level journals such as The Ohio Genealogical Society Quarterly or The Magazine of Virginia Genealogy (look for journals under Publications). Make sure you submit only to journals with a stated interest in the type of content you have. History journals also may be interested in your topic: Browse collegiate library stacks for these or search online.
What if you have a book project you hope to see on library shelves? Look back to the December 2012 issue of Family Tree Magazine, which offers detailed information on submitting your family history book to major genealogical libraries, digital collections, regional historical and genealogical society libraries, and ethnic and religious collections.

What style will you use?

Painters express themselves with distinct styles. Think of Van Gogh’s thick, swirling brush strokes or Leonardo da Vinci’s near-scientific attention to detail. When you write, you’re going to use a particular style, or voice.

A lot of genealogy writing uses an objective tone, like what you’d find in a reference book. You present and interpret your findings matter-of-factly. You don’t use the personal pronoun I or share your feelings or opinions. Use this objective writing style in compiled genealogies or articles that will serve as reference works for others. Use it when writing about long-dead kin with whom you’ve had no personal relationship. See the box above for suggested voices to use in different types of writing.

Sometimes it’s appropriate to use a personal voice—to refer to yourself as I in the narrative. You might do this when writing about those you know well, because your relationship, memories, opinions and feelings are relevant to the story. You might also use a personal voice to narrate a genealogical discovery story in a local society newsletter. The personal voice works best when your own experience is as much a part of the story as the unfolding tales of your ancestors.

What will your masterpiece look like?

Once a painter has made the aforementioned important decisions, she can focus on structural details within the portrait. What part of the canvas will call the most attention? What color palette will look best? What about the lighting? The artist may look to other portraits for inspiration; use grids, color wheels, and light meters; or just take her best guess and move forward.

Family history writers have to deal with structural details, too. You can take inspiration from other books and articles. You can also use genealogy and word-processing software to help solve issues regarding:

Organization: Look to the way others have done similar work. Biographies are usually organized chronologically; longer books are divided into chapters. Compiled genealogies are usually divided into sections by generation with genealogical data and short biographies. For help using standard genealogical numbering systems such as the Register system or the NGSQ system, see Step 17 in Sharon DeBartolo Carmack’s You Can Write Your Family History (Genealogical Publishing Co.) or create reports with your genealogy software. In a longer work, use a table of contents to show at-a-glance how your work is organized. In a shorter piece, use subheadings to divide each section.

 
• Source citations: Best practice is always to cite your sources with enough information that someone else could find them. This intimidates a lot of family history writers. Most genealogy software will create source citations for you if you enter the information. Word-processing programs usually allow you to insert references and will generate a bibliography for you, too (in Word 2007, find these commands in the References menu). If you publish in a journal or newsletter, you’ll need to format sources according to that publication’s guidelines. Your software can help with that, too. So can the October/November 2012 Family Tree Magazine and Family Tree University’s Source Documentation course. If you really don’t want to use notes, mention your sources within the text. Use phrases like “According to mom’s diary” and “In the 1940 census for Fell Township … .” You won’t get away with this in genealogical journals, but if you’re printing your own work, you’re the boss.

Illustrations and documents: What story isn’t better with pictures and supporting documentation? Plan as you go which pictures, documents, maps, charts and genealogical reports will best illustrate your narrative. Before using images you didn’t create or that aren’t in your personal collection, get permission from the copyright holder or owner. Then think about whether the material belongs alongside the text or in an appendix. A long letter that may distract the reader from the main story, or a family group sheet a viewer will reference several times, probably belong in an appendix. Keep track of items you’re putting in appendices so you don’t forget or misnumber anything. Of course, you won’t use appendices for short articles.

Index: An index can be the most important part of a book-length project because it helps readers determine whether your book is relevant to their families. Again, technology exists to help with this tedious process. Most genealogy programs at least index names; some will also index locations or other terms. For a comprehensive or custom index, use your word processor to specify all the terms you want to appear in the index and how they will be categorized.

 

When is it done?

An artist could fuss with final touches on a masterpiece for years without actually improving or finishing it. At some point, he needs to declare the portrait complete and move on to another project. This is also a family history writer’s concern. It’s tempting to keep adding to a family history narrative as you find more material. But then you’ll never finish or share it. How do you decide your story, article or book is done?

 
This is really a two-part question: When is the research done, and when is the writing done? When you start writing, you may realize several questions remain unanswered. You suddenly wonder why Louis de Valle came to New Orleans, and what his life was like as a riverboat captain. You remember that you don’t know his wife’s maiden name or what became of one daughter. Which questions are most important to your story? To your audience? Which ones can stay unanswered for now, for the sake of being able to share your research? (Perhaps these questions would make a great follow-up project.)
 
Second, when is the writing part done? You may need to write, rewrite and then edit a couple of times to produce a well-written project. That’s normal. But when you find yourself rearranging sentences and putting them back almost the same way, you know it’s time to call it quits. Ask yourself: Did you accomplish your original goal? Is it good enough to show the editor of the society newsletter? Has your family stopped believing you when you say it’s almost done? Would you like to move on to something else?
 
If you have a hard time knowing whether your project is done, try one of these tricks:
• Give yourself a deadline. Complete your project as a holiday or birthday gift, enter a genealogy writing contest or promise your piece to an editor for a certain newsletter issue.
• Work with a friend. Set dates to exchange drafts and then to celebrate the finished product together. Stick to your commitment.
• Put away your draft for three weeks. Move on to another project. Then come back and evaluate it with fresh eyes. You’ll be more likely to see how complete it is, and more ready to move on.
 
How does your sketch look so far? By now, you should have a pretty good vision of what your next genealogical masterpiece could look like. You might know who you’ll feature; who you’re writing for; even what style and format might work best. Let this mental sketch be your guide and inspiration. Don’t lose momentum: Just start writing. You’ll have an ancestral portrait worth framing—or at least worth sharing with your relatives.
 

Speak Up

You’ll use different “voices” in your genealogy writing for different audiences. These examples will help you decide when to insert your own thoughts and actions by using the personal voice, and when to focus on your subject by using an objective voice. 

 Type of Work  Personal Voice   Objective Voice   Use the…
 Compiled genealogy  My third-great-grandfather arrived in New Orleans in 1828  Louis de Valle arrived in New Orleans in 1828.

objective voice. There’s no reason to use the personal voice here:
This is the subject’s story.
 Biography of a loved one  My mother was born on my grandmother’s birthday.  Cynthia Jordan was born on her mother’s birthday. personal voice. It shows a more intimate relationship between
the writer (you) and subject
(your mom).
 Genealogical journey  I couldn’t believe it. After years of searching, I had finally found my great-grandfather. Jonah Lindon’s identity remained unknown for years. either voice, depending on the audience. The personal voice is more gripping here.

 

Tip: If you hope to write for a particular publication, read past issues to become familiar with the type of content it uses and its voice.
 

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From the May/June 2013 issue of Family Tree Magazine 

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