Plan to Write Your Family History

Plan to Write Your Family History

Looking to make your family history last? Whether you want to write your own Roots or Angela's Ashes or just hope to record your research in a form your relatives might actually read, here's how to plan, write and publish your own family history book.

Start by deciding on the scope of your book. What will you include and what will you leave for another book? Will you cover one branch of your family or will it be an “all my ancestors” book?

Your book doesn’t have to be a tome. The first family history I wrote, The Ebetino and Vallarelli Family History, contained only 112 pages (8½x11 format), including the index. The one I’m working on now probably won’t be longer than 75 pages in a 6×9 format. It can be far better and more efficient to write a smaller family history; the project won’t be nearly as overwhelming and your goal is more attainable.

You should also decide on the audience for your family history: Who are you writing for? Most genealogists immediately think that their relatives will be their only audience, so they write their book with just family in mind. Think again. After all, in the course of your own research you’ve no doubt used others’ published family histories. So, besides your family, other genealogists will be part of your audience, especially if you donate a copy of your family history to a library. Social historians may also use your book as a springboard for their own research; many social histories cite published family histories among their sources.

Knowing that other researchers—genealogists and historians—might read and use your family history might change the way you write your family history. If you’re writing solely for family members, your inclination might be to skip footnotes, endnotes or other documentation, thinking that your family won’t care where you got your information. But even family members may want to pick up where you left off or take one of the branches further, which means they’d want you to include your sources.

I could go on and on about the reasons for citing your sources, but suffice it to say it’s like brushing your teeth: Make it a habit, and just do it. Citing sources is not an option when writing a nonfiction family history. After all, you’ve put a lot of work and effort into researching and writing your family history. Think of citing your sources as a way to show off your research and impress your family and fellow researchers! Without source citations, other researchers will use your efforts as clues only.

To make source citations less intrusive for the reader, use endnotes instead of footnotes. For more on this topic, see Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian (Genealogical Publishing Co.).

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