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Writing Your Family History: Choose a Style

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The idea of writing your family history might seem a little overwhelming, but if you’ve done a lot of research on your family’s genealogy, it makes sense to put it together in some sort of format you can share. Keep in mind that you don’t have to compile the type of dusty volumes pictured above if you don’t want to. There are many different approaches you can take to writing your family history.

If you’d like to get started, the first thing you need to do is pick a style. I’ve outlined 10 different styles of family history writing below, so browse through and see if one particular style speaks to you:

1 /// Reference Genealogy

This type of family history is basically a list of facts providing things like names, dates, and family connections without descriptive language. You might also include things like photographs or maps to get all of the information in one place. Although this differs from the form of commercial books that we’ve gotten used to on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, compiling and publishing a book like this is useful to anyone in that family who may be interested in their genealogy down the road. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to see if someone else before you has published a similar book as you do your own research.

Example: “Mary Simons, b. 1854 (London, England), d. 1916 (Charleston, South Carolina). Married Jacob Parlor in 1879. Children: Anabella (b. 1882), Simon (b. 1884), and Margaret Ann (b. 1889). Pictured below with children in Charleston approx 1894.”

2 /// Genealogical Narrative

This title is a little misleading because it sounds like you’re telling a story (which you are) that will be entertaining to everyone (which it will not). The difference between a genealogical narrative and a family history narrative, discussed below, is that genealogical narratives are truly the story of how a family existed, using genealogical information to frame aspects of life or society. It’s a more academic work designed for other researchers who want information on a particular topic, not readers who want to learn more about a particular person.

Example: “Mary Simons was born in 1854, married in 1879, and had three children over the course of the next ten years. She was living in South Carolina at the time and the children appear to be born at home. Mary survived each birth and all children lived at least until middle childhood, indicating that there were no major challenges in childbirth.”

3 /// Family History Narrative

This is possibly what came to mind when I mentioned writing a family history. Family history narratives are creatively written stories framed around the known facts of a particular family. They aren’t fictionalized, but they read like a linear story.

Example: “Mary Simons was born in London, England, in 1854. By 1879, she is living in America and a marriage license from that year shows that she wed Jacob Parlor in Charleston, South Carolina, who was also a native of London. They spent the rest of their lives in South Carolina and raised three children Annabella, Simon, and Margaret Ann. Annabella was named after Mary’s mother, left behind in London when her only daughter crossed the Atlantic on her immigration adventure.”

4 /// Edited Ephemera

If you’d like to create a record that entertains the reader, but you’re intimidated by writing creatively, consider editing a book of ephemera. Gather photographs, scans of historical documents, and pictures of family artifacts and arrange them in a chronological timeline to give the reader a first-hand look at your family’s history.

Since this type of book doesn’t feature creative writing, I won’t put together an example. However, imagine a museum exhibit (or, better yet, a souvenir program from a museum exhibit you’ve visited) and that’s a pretty close style.

5 /// Edited letters, diaries, or memoirs

If you have correspondence or other writings from your family, compile them into a volume to tell a story. It is helpful if you have letters that go back and forth, but even if you only have pieces of correspondence you may be able to fill in the blanks for the reader to construct an image of what must have been happening.

Example: “…all that has been going on here. Please write soon. We hope to visit in the winter. Love, Mother” Sadly, she was never able to make the journey to see her daughter’s new home. Mary’s mother, Arabella, passed away that fall as indicated by a letter Mary received from her Aunt Helen. “Dear Mary, This is a sad letter to write…”

6 /// Life Story

You may have enough information on one of your ancestors to consider writing a biography focusing just on that person. Other family members will come to life naturally as you move through the events that took place, but there’s less pressure to turn each ancestor into a fully formed character. Although a certain amount of creative license is taken, biographies do not veer from known facts.

Example: “Mary kept a clean house and was strict with her children. Although she participated in social events in the community, she was reluctant to host events in her own home and preferred to donate her time to planning events at the church in town. One of the highlights of summer was the peach crumble Mary baked for each church picnic.”

7 /// Fictional Family Stories

Although based on truth, this type of family writing is actually just a particular way of writing fiction. If you’re hoping to reach beyond members of your own family/community and jump up on to the bestseller lists, you might want to consider using your family history as the setting for a novel in the traditional sense. Beware: fictionalizing someone’s story is pretty personal so be cautious about doing for the life of any living relatives…particularly without their knowledge! Not everyone wants to be a topic for Oprah’s Book Club.

Example: “The air in the kitchen was thick with the smell of peaches and sugar. On most days, the children would have been delighted at the sweet scent, but with the hottest day of summer upon them, the smell stuck in their throats and forced them outside of the house to play. Mary sat on the porch, fanning herself with her mother’s recipe book, and watched them roll around on the cool grass beneath the peach trees. She longed to join them, but she had never been one to be wild with her children and couldn’t imagine what any neighbors might think of her if she was seen. Besides, she couldn’t move too far from the open window in case the cobbler began to burn.”

8 /// Collecting/editing a book of oral histories

If you’ve been doing interviews with family members, you might consider transcribing those interviews and turning them into a collective family memoir. A story from ten different members of a family could be a cherished thing to pass on and a good way to share what you’ve found out.

Example: “My mother used to say that she loved her Grandma Mary’s peach cobbler, but she could never recreate it at home. It was the first thing she ever tried to make after she married my father but she said it just wasn’t the same. Her grandma told her the secret was the cobbler dish she had brought with her from England, but the dish was cracked after Grandma Mary passed away and my mother was never able to use it to bake with.”

9 /// Family History Memoir

Another way to write your family history is to actually do an autobiographical account of your genealogical search. Writing the story of your discoveries can be an interesting for readers as they watch you chase one mystery after another in the search for your ancestors.

Example: “After hearing my father’s story about my great-great-grandma Mary’s cobbler dish, I decided to see if I could find it out in their garage. I finally located a small square dish with a prominent crack in it hidden under a stack of cooking magazines that must have belonged to my grandmother. My father wasn’t able to confirm that it was Mary’s dish, but a stamp on the bottom indicated that it was made in London and I wondered if I could get some help in dating the dish if I took it down to the antique store on Main Street.”

10 /// Your Autobiography

This one is last for a reason…it’s kind of cheating. Writing your autobiography isn’t exactly family history writing and it’s something you could do without doing any genealogical research at all. That being said, if you’re considering writing down some family history but you don’t know where to start, putting some of your own life stories on paper can be a wonderful introduction AND you’ll be leaving more information for the generations that follow.

It’s important to note that compiling an autobiography or any type of family history writing doesn’t mean you have to sit down and churn out chapter after chapter. You can write any of these in small batches, telling one or two stories at a time, and eventually stringing those stories together. For example, I have a book that I use to write stories from my own life with the idea that my children will read it some day. The format of the book is letters to Eva (my daughter) but there’s no sense of constructing a timeline or overall story. One day I might write a recollection about an elementary school party and the next day I might talk about how overwhelming it was to move away from home for the first time. Eventually I might edit it, but if I don’t get around to it at least I’m leaving a paper trail for future generations to follow.

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