Tips for Writing Family History Books (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Simple Ways to Organize Your Book[edit | edit source]

There are many good methods of organizing a family history book. Your choice depends partly upon whom you have chosen to research and partly upon the way you want to present the material to your chosen audience. The most common alternative is a narrative account and this can take one of many forms.

Narrative Accounts[edit | edit source]

In addition to the information about your ancestors this can include accounts of how you did your research and discovered each one. The process of research can be just as fascinating as the actual discoveries. A classic tale is Donald Steel's delightful and masterful presentation on the English Honeycombe family. Discovering Your Family History, which was enthusiastically received on television and helped fuel the family history boom in the 1970s-1980s.

Two more classics of reconstructing ancestral events are J. Richard Houston’s Numbering the Survivors: A History of the Standish Family of Ireland, Ontario and Alberta, and John Phillip Coletta’s Only A Few Bones: A True account of the Rolling Fork Tragedy and its Aftermath, a history of the German-speaking merchants of the Mississippi Delta. Alex Haley deserves credit for his tale of black ancestry, Roots, which was phenomenally successful in promoting family history in North America, but it has since been shown to be partly fiction.

An equally fascinating account (The Ensign. Oct 1998 page 69. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and episode 3 of PBS Ancestors series 2000) is that of Sheila Hsia’s discovery of 172 generations of her ancestors! I was fortunate to play a small role in this process in the following way. One evening whilst on duty at the Burnaby, Vancouver FamilySearch Center two Chinese women approached the counter. The younger one asked for about 100 blank pedigree charts. Now it isn’t unusual for someone to need 100 family group sheets, but 100 pedigree charts? My curiosity was piqued and upon enquiring I was told that her mother had recently been instrumental in getting family records going back to 2079 B.C. out of China. She was planning on putting them all on computer but needed to translate them from Chinese to English on paper first.

Records of the first 12 generations had survived two revolutions in China by being buried in clay pots by an illiterate man who didn’t know what they were, but knew they were valuable. This story and that of how they were found, copied and spirited out of China this century is an incredible one. Sheila continues to transcribe the records of over 15,000 kin.

The stories of how you discovered your ancestors may not be quite as dramatic as Sheila Hsia’s but they will be fascinating to your descendants so by all means include them. With a narrative account you may choose to tell the story:

  • as a Descendancy
  • along Ancestral Lines
  • as a combination of these two by picking a pivotal couple and doing their descendants and then their ancestors.

Telling the Story as a Descendancy
Although you do your research going backwards in time, the most satisfactory way of telling the history of a family is often the other way around. You will thus have to reverse gears, so to speak, and work forwards starting with the earliest ancestral couple. This allows you to see their life in the order that they lived it. So often we don’t do that when researching, as we find their marriage first then their birth and parents!

You may choose to do only one surname, or selected lines coming down in time, or all descendants of this couple. You will want to include the living members of the family and this will involve collecting their information as well. Be prepared to wait, and wait, and wait….. for them to reply! It’s odd how not everyone in the family thinks genealogy is important!

Our Descendants Book is part of a series and a copy of the letter requesting relatives’ assistance is included in the chart below.

It is helpful to the reader to create a numbering system for your book so that each person's ancestry can be readily visualized. I use a European system with an example from my own family in the charts below. North Americans may prefer the Register System or the NGSQ System (Hatcher; Curran, Crane and Wray).

STRØM/CHRISTENSEN Millenium Project!!

Gus and Penny Christensen are writing three books for publication in the year 2000.
Book 1. Descendants of Hans Theodor Christensen and Elna Martine Strøm
Book 2. Ancestors of Hans Theodor Christensen
Book 3. Ancestors of Elna Martine Strøm
Gus’s Siblings
How You Can Help
Book 1.
We have sent these questionnaires to each of your children asking them to gather information from their own families and descendants.
We are sending you master copies of two questionnaires: please photocopy as many as you need for yourself and any living spouse/partner.

Living People One for you and one for your spouse/partner.

Deceased People Theodor, Elna. A copy for you and one for your spouse/partner. All those who wish should fill in one each for [their deceased siblings listed here]. We need to collect as many memories of these people as possible to pass on to our grandchildren and their descendants.

Please enclose at least one photo of yourself and spouse/partner.

Memories and Photos for Books 2 and 3.
Most of you will have memories of Theodor’s and Elna’s parents and siblings. We encourage all who wish to do so to send us these stories for books 2 and 3.
If you have any old photos of people, farms etc. that you feel we should include, please send a copy as well. If you think we may have the photo already, please send a photocopy first and we will check our collection.

Photocopies of any interesting documents such as apprenticeship indentures, army papers, driver’s licence, confirmation or funeral card etc. etc. would also be very welcome. Use your imagination so that YOUR section of the book is an interesting one!
(Note: Keep the originals, do not send them in the mail).
We will produce the books in English during the year 2000.
The cost will depend upon the size of each book and the number of copies printed.
To help us plan, please let us know if you will purchase a copy.
You may wish to keep photocopies of your completed questionnaires for your own records!
Deadline Kindly send back to us by 31 July 1999.

Numbering System for a Descendant Book

I, II, III, IV etc children
A, B, C, etc grandchildren
1, 2, 3, etc. great grandchildren
a, b, c, etc. 2nd great grandchildren
i, ii, iii, etc. 3rd great grandchildren

Descentants of William and Mary Ann GARDNER

1Descendants of William and Mary Ann GARDNER.jpg

Once you have organized the framework you can then proceed to write a paragraph about each person. The format in the chart below has proved successful:

Paragraphs for Entries in a Family History

The term Person refers to the lineal descendant

Para # Subject Description
1 Person’s Number 1.A., II.B.1. and so on
2 Genealogy of person and spouse Brief description of date and place of birth, christening, marriage(s), death and burial of person and then the spouse
3 Address If living
4 Person Schooling and training Make this as short or long as you please
5 Person Career
Make this as short or long as you please
6 Person Interests
Make this as short or long as you please
7 Spouse Schooling and training
Make this as short or long as you please
8 Spouse
Make this as short or long as you please
9 Spouse  Interests
Make this as short or long as you please
10 Spouse Previous marriage(s) and children
Make this as short or long as you please
11 Couple List of children in birth order
Note whether male or female
12 Person
Any children by previous marriage(s)
Note whether male or female

Then add a page of photos, and any maps and other illustrations that would enliven the family history.

Telling the Story Along Ancestral Lines
Here you move backwards in time, telling the story of each family one generation at a time.

One Surname
Here you are dealing with only one line, which may be your agnatic line (father, his father, etc.) or any other surname line. ‘Diversions’ through a female having an illegitimate offspring occur in any family as well. You simply describe each couple and their life in as much detail as you wish, perhaps following the paragraph formula above or in more creative ways.

Matrilineal Descent
This deals with your mother, her mother, and so on and is a growing trend, appealing to those interested in the descent of culture and heritage through females. It’s also a more certain biological line!

Several (or all) Ancestors
Start with yourself and work backwards, either one surname line at a time, or generation by generation.

If you deal with each surname line separately it is probably easiest to follow if you place them alphabetically in your book. You will need pedigree charts, starting with each female (who introduced this new surname) in the #1 position, to assist the reader.

If you choose the generational method then it is simplest to use the Sosa-Stradonitz numbers in ascending order. When you start a new generation, at numbers 2, 4, 8, 16, etc. then announce this in your text as Generation Number 2, 3, 4, 5, etc. With any of these ‘Ancestor’ methods or organization, if you are going to discuss the wider family grouping, and not just ancestors, then you should decide on and stick to a pattern of dealing with them as ‘children and their families’ or ‘siblings and their families’ of your main ancestors. This can get rather complex and you might be better off using a Descendants style arrangement instead.

Telling the Story as Descendants and Ancestors of a Pivotal Couple
A combination of the above techniques also works well. Choose a Pivotal Couple whose complete descendants are reasonably well known, and divide your writing into three sections:

  • Descendants of Pivotal Couple
  • Ancestors of Husband
  • Ancestors of Wife

If your generation already has grandchildren you could use your parents as the pivotal couple and work both ways. First do a history of the descendants of your parents, and then sections for each of their ancestors. Charts 78 and 81 concern this type of project. This is a combination of the above approaches so their numbering systems apply here also.

Family Reference Book[edit | edit source]

You may prefer to compile a simple fact book full of Family Group Records and short biographies, a kind of reference book rather than a narrative account.

Theme Approach[edit | edit source]

Another approach is to use themes which may be geographical, such as The family in England, The family in Canada, or by occupation for example, The lawyers, The carpenters, or any other themes relevant to your particular family.

It would be helpful to have a general section on the theme first to set the stage. They may not all fit into chosen themes, so you may choose to only do some families, or include an Other section. Your public library will have several references on how to do this kind of writing.

Sources-based Approach[edit | edit source]

The focus here is on the sources and repositories from which the information was gleaned. This tends to be a rather unappetizing variety for family consumption.

‘How I Did It’ Account[edit | edit source]

Alternatively one can choose to write a ‘How I did it’ book devoted to the methodology of your searches. This is unlikely to appeal to your family, but may merit publication to the wider genealogical public, particularly as an article for a family history magazine. Readers of good genealogical journals are avid to see how someone else solved a problem, either by locating little-known sources or by careful analysis and synthesis of information.

Combinations[edit | edit source]

Sometimes combining themes and How I Did It into a narrative account works very well, the example to follow being Steel’s work on the Honeycombe family. Or you can combine the narrative with the Reference ideas, perhaps by including substantial appendices of Family Group Records.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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