Ideas for Writing Your Family History

Each Thanksgiving holiday, and at other family gatherings, stories are shared around the dinner table. Someone always says, “You know, we really should write a book about all these family stories.” Everyone agrees and the merriment continues. In a few days, the memories fade, even the ones about writing a book, until the next time.

Finding the right motivation can make all the difference in helping you to decide to act or to continue postponing the writing of your family history. Sometimes that motivation comes from one or two individuals in the family who have unique and fascinating stories of wild adventurous lives. A rags-to-riches story, a triumph over extreme circumstances or humorous anecdotes of embarrassing moments can be equally captivating.

How much do you really know about your family members and the interesting lives they have led? Think about the next generation of children in your family, and the generation after that. Imagine how little they will know about their family history. Perhaps one very good motivation for writing your family history is the knowledge that you will leave for the children. An account of the lives of a few generations of people will give the children and grandchildren a clue to their heritage and ancestry, and a great sense of belonging to something significant.

As you begin the planning for your family history book, consider the breadth of the family you will include. Is this the story of a narrow nuclear family with one or two generations, or is it much broader in scope to include an entire extended family? The focus of the book may help to determine this. Detailed stories of the adventures of one or two individuals will limit the space to include much about anyone else. Some families are quite small with very little known about anyone outside the nuclear family. Others have hundreds of relatives scattered across the globe, all with interesting elements to add into the family puzzle.

Whichever approach you choose, take your time, and don’t try to rush to get the story written. Dedicate time and energy to conducting research inside the family, following all the trails that each person opens up in interviews. There are gems out there and they only emerge when you dig a little deeper and allow people to share stories they thought they had forgotten. They will remind each other of events and people who will help to fill in important gaps. Also, search the internet and other historical archives including immigration and military records to validate the context and places mentioned in your interviews.

Gather as much visual evidence as possible as you conduct your research. This includes photographs, letters and items collected in faraway places. They will be valuable resources for the book and sometimes provide additional clues as other individuals, places and events are depicted or discussed. Try to record conversations with relatives so you can capture elements of the story in their own words. This brings the story to life and helps the reader to relate to the specific individuals rather than only feeling connected to the narrator.

This is a labor of love, so make sure you have the time and ability to complete it. The annoying conversation that motivated you to begin the project will come back to haunt you in the future if you abandon the project before completing it. The most interested parties in this book are you and your family, those alive today and those yet to come. If you are writing a genealogy including many generations and a broad group of members, the book may also have historical value outside the family.

Once you have decided on the focus, breadth and depth, and the style of the book, your research work will be more focused and productive. Establish milestones to achieve by specific dates to help keep you on track. These milestones are your own creation, of course, but they will help to focus and orient your efforts on the work. Make sure you include time to write in your milestones. After all, gathering the research is interesting and fun but the writing is what will convert all of the material into a family heirloom to be enjoyed and cherished for a long time.

Don’t be afraid to make it interesting. People love stories, and your family has a rich supply of fun and embarrassing moments that have become family lore. Reading a long historical account of dates and births and deaths helps to identify the ancestors. Telling their stories helps the reader to identify with them feel more strongly connected with the family and its history. Write on.