Most family historians agree research is the fun part. For some, just entering data into a computer program is a sufficient and effective way to leave their genealogy for their descendants. But to sit down and actually write a family history is — OK, I admit it — scary. Besides, you’re sure all those names, dates and places alone will enthrall your family, right?
Sorry, I doubt it. If you don’t believe me, show your charts to a non-genealogist. Then time how long it takes before she smiles politely and hands them back to you. Now put a narrative account of a family history in her hands, and I’m certain you’ll get a different reaction.
Maybe you think you haven’t done enough research to write about your family. In My Wild Irish Rose, a family history I published in 2001, I wrote that my great-grandmother Delia (Gordon) Norris’ Irish origins were unknown. The book had been out about six months when, with help from friends, I finally broke through the brick wall and identified her place of origin. Did I publish that book too soon? Shouldn’t I have done more research and found where Delia came from? No. I’d been searching for years to find Delia’s Irish origins, with no indication I’d get an answer anytime soon. Sure, I could’ve waited to publish, hoping for another lead — but I might’ve been waiting forever.
Writing and publishing your family history could even guarantee you’ll break through your brick walls: It’s an ironic Murphy’s Law of genealogy that as soon as you publish, new information will reveal itself to you. So set aside your trepidation, read our getting-started advice and take the first step toward putting your family’s tale on paper
STEP 1: Be ready to write.
For many genealogists, putting the brakes on their research is the hardest part of writing a family history. How do you know when you’re ready to stop researching and begin writing? Frankly, there’s always going to be another record to check, and writing about your family will really show you the holes in your research. In fact, you could think of your first draft as a way to find out if you’re ready to publish. Use these two gauges to determine if it’s time to turn off the microfilm reader and begin writing:
1. Have you searched every possible record for the family, including records that individual family members may have generated? Here’s a list of the typical, obvious sources:
?birth, marriage and death records
?cemetery and funeral-home records church records
?family histories and genealogies (what other researchers have already written about your family)
?family sources (such as Bibles, letters and diaries) and oral histories
?immigration records (naturalizations and passenger lists)
?land and tax records
?military service records, pensions and bounty-land warrants
?newspaper articles and obituaries
?population censuses (federal, state, slave and Indian — for every census year your family may have been recorded)
?probate and court records (wills, administrations and inventories)
?supplemental censuses (agricultural, manufacturing and mortality)
If you haven’t searched for all of these records for each family or family member you want to write about, you’re not ready to write. That’s not to say you must find all of these records for each family member: A family that’s been in America for generations might not have immigration records. If the family lived in a rural community, they won’t be listed in a city directory. But certainly, you need to have checked for every possible record your family of interest might’ve generated.
2. Have you turned your family group charts into “family summaries” to get the full picture? This is a crucial step toward pulling your data together into a family history narrative. So when you’re thinking about getting started, don’t bypass this step. A family summary should include:
?genealogical facts you’ve gathered through your research (births, marriages and deaths, for example)
?your analysis of records and research, plus biographical data
?speculations (clearly identified as guesses) about why something happened, who someone’s parents were and so forth
As you compose your family summary, go back through all the files and records you’ve gathered for the families you plan to write about and make sure you’ve included everything. It’s amazing how you’ll discover new things during this fresh look. Once you’ve reviewed your files and compiled your research, analysis and speculations for one family group into a summary, decide what additional research you need to do.
Besides seeing holes in your research, you may find topics you want to explore in more detail as you transform sterile facts into narrative. Mark sections of the text for further study. For example, if you discover one of your ancestors suffered from tuberculosis and you’d like to include information about the disease, highlight tuberculosis as a reminder you want to research that topic.
STEP 2: Stir the plot.
Before beginning your family history narrative, you need some direction. Where do you want the story to go, and what do you want to say? If you read a lot of fiction or watch a lot of movies, you’ve probably realized there are only so many basic story plots. Ronald B. Tobias identifies 20 of them in his writing guidebook, 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them (Writer’s Digest Books). Plot involves the reader in the game of “Why?” The plot reveals conflicts and resolutions for the characters. We keep reading because it’s clear a conflict exists, and we want to see how the plot unfolds and how the characters will resolve their problems.
Creating a plot for your family history isn’t as complicated as it sounds, and it doesn’t mean you have to invent soap opera twists and turns. Your ancestors are the characters — what problems did they have to resolve? Who or what stood in the way of an ancestor’s success? Think about the four basic conflicts: man against man, man against nature, man against society and man against himself. Which of those four conflicts underlies the plot in your family history? And how will you reveal the plot to your reader? Consider these six common family history plots:
?Immigration: Most of us have immigration plots in our family histories. Indeed, many published genealogies begin with the immigrant ancestor. Instead of just recording the facts about an ancestor’s immigration to America, think about the obstacles or problems your ancestor had to resolve. I can guarantee your fourth-great-grandfather from Ireland didn’t wake up one morning and say to his wife, “Bridget, pack your bags. We’re going to America this afternoon.” Deciding to leave their homeland and relatives may have been agonizing If your own family lore doesn’t reveal the problems encountered or the solutions devised by your immigrant ancestors, consider the experiences of other immigrants who came from the same country or area around the same time period. Remember, you’re not going to fictionalize; you’re going to research what might have happened and speculate on the possibilities.
?Pioneer saga: Many of us have family stories about migration, too. Rare are the families who came to America and settled in one spot for generations. Migrating westward and moving to the wilderness are common plots in family histories. What did the move entail? What was life like along the trail? How did the family build a house? How did they clear the land? As in many immigration stories, women may not have been keen on the idea of leaving their families behind. Many didn’t want to go. How did they cope? What was it like to raise a family on the frontier? There’s a lot to explore in this plot.
?Rags to riches: Or in my family’s case, riches to rags. Your ancestors may have been dirt poor, but with each new generation, the family prospered. Or maybe your ancestors were like my Colonial Virginia people, who had acres upon acres of land, then lost it in the Civil War and by dividing it among generations of heirs. Again, people don’t wake up one morning and decide to be rich (or poor). Circumstances, events and people helped them make their decisions or got in their way. What happened in your family history?
?Rising out of slavery: This, of course, is a common plot for African-American writers, and it’s been so widely researched and written about that you already should have ideas about the obstacles your ancestors faced. How did they persevere? Do the records you’ve uncovered reveal any specific or out-of-the-ordinary experiences for your family? Will you have to deal with issues of miscegenation (mixed-race marriages or relationships)?
?War and military service: Family historians seem comfortable writing about their male ancestors’ military experiences. But what problems did the soldier’s wife and family face while he served his country? Be sure to look at the whole picture, not just half of the story. Remember that during a war, men spent plenty of time in camp or recovering from illness; you can describe those experiences in addition to battles. If your ancestor was a prisoner of war, you’ll have even more challenges to write about.
? City slicker to country dweller: Or vice versa. If you have ancestors who left a city in the East or South to settle on the Western frontier, they had to make quite a few adjustments. Think about what it must have been like to leave the neighborhood dry-goods store far behind, and have to live off the land. We know from letters and diaries that most women had no choice in moving to remote areas where their husbands wanted to settle. How did they cope with their new environment? What challenges did they face in the course of everyday survival?
Don’t worry about whether your plot is original; the important thing is to make sure you have one. What makes your family history different from another one with the same plot is the characters, events and the way you develop themes.
STEP 3: Revisit the records.
Now that you know what type of family history you want to write, can you weave a compelling story from the facts you’ve gathered? At the beginning of this article, I listed genealogical sources you should have checked before writing your family history.
Now let’s revisit those sources for broader information that could provide additional details for your story.
You’re no longer looking for the who, when and where — for the names, dates and places specific to your ancestors. Now you’re looking for the why, how and what: broader information that explains why things were the way they were, how something happened and what life was like. This will put flesh on the bones of your narrative.
Take a second look at vital records, for instance. Traditionally, genealogists record the facts from births, marriages and deaths, but family history writers need to look at them in a broader light. Find out who the marriage witnesses were. What relation, if any, were they to the couple? If the couple was married in a church, give us some details about that church or religion.
Find out what your ancestor died of. Was it a lingering disease such as tuberculosis (also called consumption)? What would it have been like for your ancestor to die of that disease and for his family to provide care in its final stages?
In the cemetery, you’ll want to take a broad look at your ancestors’ final resting places. Besides noting who was buried in nearby graves (in case further research reveals a relationship), look for artwork and symbols on your ancestors’ headstones. Do these reveal memberships in organizations popular in your ancestors’ community? By the type of headstones, you also can tell if the community was wealthy or struggling.
You can ask loads of other questions about your ancestors and their old stomping grounds: What was the terrain like? What events shaped the area while your ancestors lived there? What folk celebrations, such as county fairs or barn raisings, did people attend? What local organizations did your ancestors belong to? What impact did various wars have on your ancestors’ community?
You can find answers to these questions in local and county histories. Rather than looking for your ancestors’ names, your goal this time is to gather information on the places your ancestors lived. For general statistical information about your ancestral country, visit the CIA’s World Factbook Web site <www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook>. It provides a map and general data about geography, government, economy, communication, transportation, and military and transnational issues.
STEP 4: Become a social bookworm.
Like genealogical records, social histories also can directly or indirectly answer questions about an ancestor’s daily life, motivation and behavior. Maybe your relative didn’t leave an account of his or her daily life, but someone who lived during the same time period, in the same place, probably did. Social historians draw on these accounts (letters, diaries, family papers) and genealogical sources (probates, censuses, land records and so on) to learn about the experiences of people in a given time and place. They look at a community or society as a whole, whereas we genealogists usually focus on individuals and specific families. From social histories, we can learn about the typical experiences of people like our ancestors.
You can find social histories covering just about every topic you need to research and write about in your narrative (see the box above for some examples). Start by surfing online bookstores (try Amazon.com <www.amazon.com>) and library catalogs, such as the Library of Congress’ <catalog.loc.gov>). Before searching, categorize your ancestors by ethnic group or occupation. Then type a category and social life and customs into the search field. For example, if you want to know what your Boston Irish ancestors’ life was like, search on boston irisb social life and customs.
Type the same keywords into a search engine such as Google <www.google.com> to find online social history articles. Be creative, typing in different words for the topics you’re researching. Book and article bibliographies will lead you to still more sources.
Social histories will be the mainstay of your background research, but you may want to explore other resources. Perhaps nothing will give you better insight into how your ancestors lived than books, magazines and newspapers from their day. If you’re researching an ethnic group, cookbooks and food histories can provide you with cultural background about both the old country and ethnic communities in America. If you love to read novels, historical fiction can give you insight not only into a time and place, but also ideas on how to craft your family history narrative.
Remember, your focus now is to broaden your research beyond your own ancestors and to look for people like them who left accounts of what their lives were like. You might find what you’re looking for in library manuscript collections. The most helpful source for family and business papers, memoirs, letters and diaries is the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). Since 1959, the Library of Congress has compiled NUCMC each year from reports of manuscript holdings in repositories all over the country. You can find printed volumes for 1959 through 1993 in the reference section of university and metropolitan libraries. Volumes from 1986 to 1993 are also searchable for free online at <locgov/coll/nucmc>.
How much background research is enough? Some topics may have hundreds of sources — do you need to check them all? When do you halt this phase of your project? As you begin writing, more questions inevitably pop up, which means you’ll need to do a bit more background research. But once you’ve satisfied your curiosity, you’ve done enough investigating.
You want to get some family history information down on paper, but you can’t embark on a big project just now. Or maybe you want to ease into the process. Use one of these quick-and-easy ideas for writing about your ancestors:
?Record family stories individually as you uncover them in your research. File them in a binder and add other relatives’ reminiscences. When you’re ready to compile a family history on a grand scale, you’ll have a head start.
?Purchase a legacy book such as To Our Children’s Children: Journal of Family Memories by Bob Greene and D.G. Fulford (Doubleday). Such books have writing prompts and family history questions you can answer at your own pace.
?Create a picture-based narrative by choosing a photo and writing everything you know about it: who’s pictured, where they lived, what you remember about them. When you’re finished, pick another photo. And so on.
?If you’re a technology junkie, start a family history Web site using a free service such as Tripod <www.tripod.lycos.com> or GeoCities <geocities.yahoo.com>. You can post old photos and information in small bites, rather than large chunks.
?Use software such as Personal Historian <www.personalhistorian.com>, which imports events from several genealogy programs and turns each one into a topic you write about. You also can add “LifeCapsules” of events from your ancestors’ time. See our review in the December 2005 Family Tree Magazine.
Fill in the details of your ancestors’ daily lives using books such as these:
?Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life by Steven Mintzand Susan Kellogg (The Free Press)
?Everyday Life Among the American Indians by Candy Moulton (Writer’s Digest Books)
?Everyday Life During the Civil War by Michael J. Varhola (Writer’s Digest Books)
?Everyday Life in the 1800s by Marc McCutcheon (Writer’s Digest Books)
?Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (Vintage Books)
?Home Life in Colonial Days by Alice Morse Earle (Berkshire House Publishers)
?The Uncertainty of Everyday Life, 1915-1945 by Harvey Green (University of Arkansas Press)
?Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915 by Thomas Schlereth (HarperCollins)