1. FIRST, CHOOSE A FORMAT FOR YOUR FAMILY HISTORY – What do you envision for your family history project? Do you want your completed project to be a simple photocopied booklet shared with just your family members or do you desire a full-scale, hardbound book to serve as a reference for future generations? Maybe you are more interested in a family newsletter, an heirloom cookbook, or a Web site is something more realistic for you. Now is the time to decide which format you will select or you will end up with a half-finished product nagging you for many years to come.

  • Memoir/Narrative: This can be a combination of a story and personal experiences.
  • Cookbook: Share your family’s favorite recipes while you write about the people who created the recipes or ate them. You may wish to include photos or original handwriting.
  • Scrapbook/Heirloom Album: If you have a large collection of family photos and memorabilia, this may be a fun way of telling your family story.

2. DEFINE THE TIMELINES OF YOUR FAMILY HISTORY – Do you intend to write mostly about one relative or everyone hanging in your family tree?

  • Single Lines – Begin with the earliest known ancestor or couple and work from them to their descendants.
  • All descendants of – Begins with a particular person or couple for example an immigrant ancestor.
  • The Grandparents – You can list information on each of your four grandparents, sixteen, if you are very ambitious!

3. SET DEADLINES YOU CAN LIVE WITH – Deadlines will force you to complete each stage of your project. Put a time frame on portions of your project and try staying focused on your deadlines. The best way to meet these deadlines is to schedule writing time, just as you would a visit to the doctor or hairdresser.

4. CHOOSE PLOTS AND THEMES – Think of your ancestors as characters in a play in your family history story, what problems did they have and what obstacles did they have to overcome? A plot gives your family history interest and readability. Popular family history plots might include one of the following:

  • Immigration/Migration - Rags to Riches; Pioneer and/or Farm Life - Rising Out of Slavery; War History and Survival; Overcoming or Surviving Poverty.

5. DO YOUR BACKGROUND RESEARCH – If you want your family history to read more like a suspense novel than a dull book of facts, or a dry textbook, then it is important to make the reader feel like an eyewitness to your family’s life. Even when your ancestor didn’t leave an account of his or her daily life, social histories can help you learn about the experiences of people in a given time and place. For example:

  • Check to see if there are newspapers for the time period for your ancestor. Read and review what was going on in the community in which they lived. If you are writing about a war time period, you will note special newspaper articles listing updates on the war, events on the area in which your ancestor was living.
  • Check the local public library from which your ancestors lived for other family histories that may link into yours. Many libraries contain township histories, county histories, etc. from which you can draw upon to put the pieces together.

Editors note – I interviewed my 90 yr. old father and during that time I learned many things about him that I would have never discovered once he passed away and those stories would have been gone forever. My father knew the name of his first grade teacher, all of his pets, his childhood illness at age six when his mother never left his side, where he heard her endless prayers of pleading on his behalf. I learned about his favorite childhood toy, his tricycle. I know the first sandwich he ever tasted and how he loved working outside construction and hated working in the local steel mill. These memories are mine to share because I took the time to show my father an old photo album that enabled his mind to flood with childhood memories. (Written by Flora VerStraten)

What are you waiting for? It is not possible to find everything and nor is it possible to know everything about the past. History writing is not everything that happened in the past but the part of it that you decide is significant for your own family stories.

Are you a family historian? Are you a parent? Are you a grandparent? Are you a worker? Are you a family historian? Are you a researcher? Why is it that we put up a barrier to thinking of ourselves as writers of family history despite spending months and years completing the research and writing task? Why is it that you do not see you as a writer but view yourself as a competent and confident researcher?

Filling all the gaps – later! The first rule to writing a family history is to forget about doing it all. As you research and write, you become more knowledgeable and more familiar with your sources, and can more easily see where the gaps are.

“Get to know your characters”

15 Reasons to Write Your Family History:

  1. To honor your ancestors
  2. To preserve cherished family traditions
  3. To heal old wounds
  4. To introduce future generations to the people you love
  5. To remember the happy times of your life and maybe some hardships as well
  6. To share your values and beliefs
  7. To develop closer relationships with other family members
  8. To appreciate the challenges in your life
  9. To help your family members avoid the mistakes you made
  10. To demonstrate the results of your good choices
  11. To hear family stories you’ve never known
  12. To recall people who are no longer in your life
  13. To give purpose and meaning to your life or the life of an elderly relative
  14. To develop new skills and enhance skills you already have
  15. To enrich the lives of your family and your descendants

     Families often lose their histories through the generations, which may explain why genealogy – the process of trying to trace and recapture that history – is hugely popular. Preserve your precious family memories for future generations, whether you simply want to print a few copies on your computer or publish a hardcover book to sell to the general public.