Helpful Hints For Writing Exciting Family Histories

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By Amanda Forson, FamilyLink.com, Inc.

Although the reasons for collecting family history information may differ, over time there is usually interest in publishing results in book form. Whether the publication is uploaded to the Internet, privately printed, or published through a company such as Genealogical Publishing Company, getting some aspects of the writing and research process right make for a better book.

Day One: Gather what you have found about the family lines that you want in the book. This step may be obvious, but without it, little can be accomplished.

Day Two: Consult with other living relatives to see who or what they would like to see in the book. If they do not know enough about the families being researched to give an opinion, then proceed with what you planned to publish. If they have definite opinions, listen to them and include what you can. When publishing a book it helps to produce something that others want to read, buy, and/or finance.

Day Three: While researching, and before writing, gather more information from historical sources than you think you will need. Often, genealogists are less-likely to allow their ancestor to “live” within his or her environment, stripping away the historical nature of documents in favor of simply proving a date or a place that it gives. Documents are bed-rock to prove ancestor’s lives, yes, but keeping the ancestor within the context of their time and space leads to faster results and happier researching. It is surprising how often histories of places are overlooked. Not simply town or county histories should be consulted, as those should be a natural part of researching for the particular ancestors, but also checking over books dealing with the social history and general events of the era help. Although not a primary source, per se, looking through secondary sources for a feel of the color and flavor of a period is a crucial step in preparation for writing a good, thorough history of any ancestor.

Recently-discovered town history information for an ancestor of mine has given credence to family stories that I otherwise did not necessarily doubt, but considered with hints of skepticism. The ancestor in particular supposedly ran off and joined the circus. Until I found out that a town nearby where he grew up was famous for circus-style acts, performers, etc., I listened patiently yet skeptically to the tales. Finding the town history that heavily mentioned circus acts and performers at the same time that my ancestor supposedly ran off to join and traveled with circus members gave a much more-anchored look into his life events than I was otherwise willing to believe. Consider the historical events and works aspects of a “second witness” in our trial of proof over error.

Day Four: Create an outline. When outlining, use day three’s research, and make sure to include how your ancestor was part of history. If there are any parts of the life history that are uncertain, do not make them up. Read more, and then write. Here is where the outlining and/or writing gets double-checked. Try creating a time-line for the ancestor in question, or use computer-generated models to see what is known.

There are certain aspects of the daily lives of my ancestors about which I may have little to no knowledge, such as what life was like when they were children. “Normal” research (i.e. censuses) may provide small clues, such as perhaps going to school (child’s “occupation”, etc.), but unless I try to find out what school was like in the 1840s, how far my ancestor went with school, what training the teachers had, and what they were teaching, I am uncertain about what to include for that portion of the ancestor’s life. In this particular example, going to school in 1840 vs. 1880 vs. 1920 vs. 1980 are very different things. I may have a bachelor’s degree, and this may be acceptable as an “ending point” in education for one time period, but my ancestor may have gone to a “normal school” for two years (equivalent to post-secondary, junior college) and considered this the highest education possible. In another case, eighth grade may have been the highest level of schooling for another ancestor.

This could easily be the case in any aspect of an ancestor’s life depending upon the research done up to the time of writing. This step is to help the writer take a step away and evaluate what they know about the ancestor, and what is documented knowledge of not just the ancestor’s life, but of the time in which the ancestor lived. Good questions to ask for the writer would be whether their ancestor was typical for time? By typical, did he or she work before the age of twelve? What kind of education did he or she have? Were there unusual family circumstances or family tragedies? Was there an epidemic in the area? Was his or her religion the dominant one of the area? Were any close friends killed by accident, as in farming, factory, or other work? Did he or she marry young or later? Were there first or second marriages? Were there divorces?

Consider these questions and write what is known for every case. As you are going through these questions, it is likely that others will come up. Write down the question first, and then the answer. As you are writing for more ancestors, having written down the questions that came to mind will greatly benefit future efforts to document life histories.

Day Five: Write with flair. This means finding interesting ways to tell the story, using descriptive words and active verbs. The better the writing, the more likely the audience will want to read beyond page one. If dealing with more than one ancestor, start each ancestor’s account as if it is page one, and use words and phrases that grab attention.

Day Six: Revise, revise, revise. As I write, I tend to edit at the same time. After writing, I send my copy to editors. Sometimes material gets changed; sometimes it stays as it is. When writing a book, or even a smaller pamphlet to pass among relatives, have both a trusted family member and a person who is not part of the family read over the material. One will (most likely) check for readability, while the other will check for detail. Have as many people as you want look over it, giving suggestions and feedback, but not so many that the work gets bogged down in waiting on readers.

Day Seven: As was mentioned in the introduction to the article, you can publish your “book” online, at a copy shop, or through a genealogical book publisher. When the manuscript is ready, look to relatives for help, and watch for future articles in this newsletter on getting research published!

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