10 Steps to Writing an Engaging Family History

10 step family history

Penny Stratton, publishing director for the New England Historic Genealogical Society, believes we "pass the torch" to succeeding generations through recording our stories. By following these steps, you can create a family history story to delight and inspire family members present and future.

  1. Plan your project. Decide on what you want to accomplish, a time frame, and your audience. Start small if this is your first project, perhaps just a single family's story or a couple of generations. Are you writing a book, an informal publication, or an article? Write a rough outline and perhaps a table of contents.
  2. Fine a format and style you like. Look at other published memoirs and family histories and see what appeals to you and holds your interest. Some examples: Angela's Ashes (McCourt); Red House (Messer); The Big House (Colt). Your format could be register or descendancy style (the most common), which usually starts in the past with one couple immigrating to America and moves forward through the years to include their children and families. You may choose ahnentafel style, which typically follows direct line of couples from present to past-- like a pedigree chart turned into text.
  3. Gather your materials. Find physical and electronic records (census, deeds, military, immigration, wills, etc.), pictures, family papers, diaries, letters, treasured possessions, genealogy charts, transcribed interviews or questionnaires of living relatives, etc.
  4. Look for themes. Create an ancestor’s timeline against a backdrop of local and world events to highlight themes (war, politics, immigration, the Depression, etc.). Find themes of home and family, patriotism, faith, work, adversity, as well as cautionary tales.
  5. Write! "Just put fingers on the keys and get going. It's that easy and that hard!” assures Penny.  Usually write in 3rd person (he, she) if not a memoir. Include full names and what you know about your ancestors, using data from your sources (dates, places, facts) to undergird your story. Document your sources.
  6. Review and supplement. Details and context add greatly to understanding and bring your story to life. Check regional and town histories, genealogical websites, newspapers, diaries, etc. Find images: residences, old postcards (VintagePostcards.org), maps (David Rumsey Map Collection); image portals (Library of Congress, National Archives, Smithsonian, National Library of Ireland , Flickr Commons photo streams (copyright free); New York Public Library, Find A Grave, etc. Do not download or use images without appropriate permission.
  7. Edit your text. Be clear, focused, and concise. Have another person read your story, and read it out loud.
  8. Put it all together. Decide to put your visuals together or interspersed in the story.
  9. Publish your story. You can produce an entire book using Word. Some publishing services include: Otter-Bay Books.com; Genealogy House.net; Stories to Tell Books.com; Legacy Books.
  10. Share and enjoy your creation. No matter what you write, it will be a compelling read for your family. Because you have recorded it, your family story will live on.

Don't forget to add your findings to the FamilySearch Memories Gallery online or using the app. It as a great resource for preserving stories and photos.

Take time now to think about what stories you would like to begin writing and be the one who passes the torch of a family legacy to future generations. If you don't do it, who will?