Writing family history: Start small

bigamist in bunch coverEarlier this year, I read a blog post by the New York Public Library titled “20 Reasons Why You Should Write Your Family History.” Always on the lookout for new ideas to work into our seminars and webinars on writing and publishing, I read it eagerly. One particular thing caught my eye: a quote from John Bond’s Story of You, saying, “You are doing a service by leaving a legacy, no matter how small or large.” I’ve thought about that quote a great deal, with a specific focus on the word small.

Starting small is great advice for the family historian looking to write and publish. I’ve spoken with many people who struggle with just how to get started. They might have years’ worth of data, in paper files and electronic files. How should they organize it? What should be their focus? It seems such a daunting task that they simply can’t get going – or can’t complete what they’ve set out to do.

calendar pageTaking on a project of limited length and setting a reasonable time frame can keep your morale up. I know this first hand. Sitting one day staring at all my folders and all the holes still in my family tree, I decided instead to create a family history calendar. Through one of the many online vendors, I added names, birthdates, and photos and gave it to family members (and myself!) as a holiday present.

I’ve seen some other excellent examples of starting small. One is a nicely home-made publication focusing on the author’s grandparents and just a few other generations, all presented as narrative text. Another is a transcribed diary, annotated with genealogical information. And yet another is a short publication focused on one particular family story: a little 30-page paperback, titled A Bigamist in the Bunch. I have seen other examples of photo-based family histories, in which each author has organized photos to tell a part of the family history, added captions, and then published via one of the many online vendors, such as Photoshop and SmugMug. Some of these publications were done completely at home, using Microsoft Word or Publisher and printed on a home printer; some were done through a publishing service; and some via online vendors.

Whatever you decide to do, consider your audience, what materials/information you have on hand, and your time frame. Take a look at some sample publications for inspiration, and then establish your scope. What will be your title? Your outline?

Do remember that sharing your family history, especially in writing, is one of the most important legacies you can leave. The combination of easily usable software and affordable printing technologies make the process much easier than it was even 25 years ago. Even a very short publication is a valid family history and important for current generations – and for posterity.

For more on this topic, see “Writing Your Family History: Taking the First Step,” American Ancestors 15 (Spring 2014): 24–30, available to NEHGS members online. Also see the Writing and Publishing Subject Guide at the NEHGS Online Learning Center, as well as Guide to Genealogical Writing: How to Write and Publish Your Family History

About Penny Stratton

A veteran of the book publishing industry, Penny Stratton retired as NEHGS Publishing Director in June 2016; she continues to consult with the Society on publications projects. Among the more than 65 titles she managed at NEHGS are The Great Migration Directory, Elements of Genealogical Analysis, Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, and the award-winning Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts. She has written for American Ancestors magazine and is a regular poster on Vita Brevis. With Henry B. Hoff, Penny is coauthor of Guide to Genealogical Writing: How to Write and Publish Your Family History; she is also the author of several Portable Genealogists on writing and publishing topics.

21 thoughts on “Writing family history: Start small

  1. Hi Penny, I’m so pleased you enjoyed that article, and that it influenced you to write this blog post. I used some of your materials in my research to prepare it, which was extremely helpful!

  2. Thank you for this timeless wisdom for family historians! Research is such obsessive fun, but the piles of files quickly become intimidating. The bit-by-bit advice is the way to go for most of us. Future family members are far likelier to cherish one, well-told story, than a mountain of our research material.

  3. Small and Simple. I couldn’t agree more. First, you have to think of your audience. Although my family has been grateful I became the amateur family historian, their interests tend more toward the stories rather than the documentation. I was lucky to have a cousin who created a 10-page Word document that included photos, captions and very brief stories. That model has helped me realize doing this can be manageable and possible. Plus, it can be a work in progress and added and modified as I learn more that I would like to include. I have also started visiting some of the places where my ancestors lived. I am keeping a diary of these journeys and including photos. That’s pretty simple, too. Last, I do think of capturing the stories on video and once I have put them on paper think that will be another platform to present to my family, particularly the younger generation. Thank you for this post and for the other suggestions.

  4. For my family, it was a three person effort, even though the result was only 28 pages. I did the research and most of the writing, my daughter did the photos, and my sister got it all organized into a printable format. Oh, my nephew helped by doing the actual publishing. Our work was a limited edition of 22, and included information back to the oldest living generation’s second great grandparents. (I would have loved to write more, but my sister said “5 sentences per person.” I know I treasure my copy and I hope that the other 20 recipients treasure them, too. (One copy went to a local library.)

  5. Great timing for me. I’m working on a family history as a 50th anniversary present for my parents. Because I think their eyes would glaze over at footnote after footnote at the end of each sentence, I’ve simply created a bibliography at the end, listing not only publications but family-story-contributors. While this works for this purpose, am I creating a problem for anyone down the road if they need to verify a source?? Not sure if I should create two documents…(yikes).

    1. Hi, Julie–

      What a nice gift for your parents! I hate to say it, but you should probably record the specific sources somewhere. Perhaps a copy of the original document with handwritten note numbers, and then a separate list of notes? You needn’t footnote every sentence; you could put the note at the end of the paragraph, just being sure to specify what information comes from which source, e.g., name of source (birth and baptism); name of source (death); name of source (marriage).

  6. I started out small about 16 years ago and now I have 344 pages (12 chapters) of one line of my family (historical background and pedigree data for each chapter for 1537 – 1997)) which has turned into a daunting task to get published. I have excessive amounts of dates referenced with a multitude of footnotes and on and on….but now what?
    I have struggled to find someone to talk to….a real person who can tell me whether or not I have this “book” formatted properly (WORD doc MAC) for on-line publishing OR a real live person at a printing/book publishing company who will help me get it formatted properly if I DON’T have it formatted correctly…
    I am at the other end of the spectrum always looking for guidance…but having said that I have to go back to reiterating what Ms Stratton has said….”Start small…”
    Donna TILLINGHAST Casey

  7. I am just starting a similar family history project and struggled with a focus that was manageable enough to really (possibly) get it done. The group of ancestors that I have chosen is all who have served in every war or military campaign starting with King Phillips War through Vietnam. Even though I have several dozen direct line ancestors to be included this seems not too daunting. Hope this gives someone else an idea.

  8. I grew up on family stories, so story-making comes naturally to me. From the very beginning, I started putting what I’d learned about a family or generation in narrative form to include with the who, where, what, how, and whens. I am trying to get a sense of “why” as well. Most are a few paragraphs long. I use a genealogical program, and I put these short narratives on the notes page. To my surprise, when I did a print-out to see where the holes were (and there are plenty), the narratives created as sense of continuity and fleshed out the story in a way I hadn’t expected. I started sending these short narratives to some relatives, and though they aren’t interested in the nuts and bolts so much, they are fascinated by my stories. Now I want to write more of them. They not only make genealogy more interesting, they also help me see where I need to do more work.

  9. A few years ago, I wrote a piece of historical fiction about a great grandfather who had lived what I thought was a fascinating life. It took me two years in a creative writing class, 2-4 pages per week, getting feedback, revising it, then putting it in more logical chapters. I was still interested at the end, all 78 pages of it. I took it to a family reunion, and 3-4 people picked up copies. Not a single one ever responded, however. So I guess I wasn’t starting small enough . . . . It was very discouraging.

  10. When family is the audience, sketches focused on stories and photos bring our ancestors to life which helps readers connect to them and therefore they have the best chance of getting read. If you do not have any images of the person you are writing about, include historic and/or current photos of the area in which they lived. Such images are easy to find online even if your relative lived in a small town or rural area.

    It is my experience that genealogy academics and professionals are the only audience interested in ahnentafel, registers and footnotes. Lay audiences say footnotes are minutiae that distract from the stories and photos. And I frequently hear that charts are boring and impersonal which in translation means “I didn’t read what you sent me”. Since sources are important, endnotes do the job without distracting. And I do include dropline charts as they seem to be the most easily understood format for showing family structure. And since I organize my sketches in nuclear family groups, that is where I insert a one to two generation dropline chart.

  11. Years ago I used a current print calendar and added the names and dates for births, deaths, marriages and immigration dates for generations and centuries of ancestors. Some dates got to be quite crowded!

    I wanted to use a calendar template, but the only ones I could find couldn’t take the amount of info on some dates. It was quite frustrating.

    Any suggestions, anyone?

  12. I had to laugh when I read your article. Not because I thought it was funny, but because of my own experience. For years my Uncle had been searching for the names of his great great grandparents. He knew the name of his great grandparents, but there was very little information about their parents, until we ran into a death notice. It mentioned in his death notice that he had been accused of murder 10 years earlier. It was about this time I was considering starting to write something “small” about our family history and since this story was new to all of us, I thought it might be a good single event to tackle and share with people. But I needed to know just a little more…

    Well, years later and hundreds of newspaper articles into the research I continue to find new information about this one event. Little did I know when I started what a big deal it was at the time, being covered by news outlets all over the the U.S. and Canada. now my “short publication focused on one particular family story” has taken on a life of its own. I finally decided, just recently, that i need to pare it down to the bare essentials and give some basics about what happened, but leaving the door open to write a more comprehensive look at what I am now referring to as the the most famous forgotten story in our family’s history.

  13. I, too started with calendars….I did one each year for a few years, each one following one family line. I used photos and just birth, marriage and death dates. Each of my sons’ families got one. I have also begun a blog, again focusing on one family line with each post. Hopefully I can pull that together some day and publish it somehow. But what I like about the blog is that I can add/amend when I find new information.

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