If you’re reading this then chances are your interested in writing up your family history.
Before you start typing though, ask yourself, how often do you read other people’s family histories? I’m not talking skim reading here. I mean actually taking in the information and reacting to it, on either an emotional or intellectual level.
How often do you remember something about it after reading – be it the tone of voice, a character or setting? I’d put money on the fact that the number of these stories is pretty small.
Now imagine you are not a genealogy addict. I know, that’s hard. But try. Imagine history isn’t fascinating to you. Now imagine being that person trying to read a family history story. How amazing must that piece of writing be to keep its reader engaged?
Yet, we all have the ability to tell a good story. We tell snippets of stories all the time, whether it’s telling the postman about our encounter with a grumpy lady in Tesco’s. Or explaining our Great-Grandfather to our 3rd cousin twice removed. We tell stories daily.
It’s often when we come to write these stories down that we struggle. We can’t find the “right” words. We lose our voice. We get bogged down in details. And forget about our core story. The thing that made us want to tell it in the first place.
In this article, I’ll share some tips that’ll transform your family history writing. I’m not saying you are going to become a world-renowned author. We’re not all JK Rowling. But, when you give your cousin Sue the story about your great-gran, you know she’ll read it and remember it.
Before You Start Writing Your Family History
Decide Your Audience
Sometimes our audience is clear, such as I’m writing this for my children. But, we don’t always have a particular person in mind. You may be writing up your family history for fun, to check for gaps in your research, as ‘cousin bait’, as a blog for fellow genealogists or professional reasons.
That’s fine, but you need to try to imagine who might be reading. Let’s use my blog post on my Woodrow witch ancestor as an example. It could attract unknown cousins, fellow genealogists or person’s interested in family history. It might attract those that like reading true stories.
These readers all have some things in common. They are unlikely to be children. They are likely to enjoy history. Yet, some readers may have lots of family history knowledge, others none at all. I need to ensure I don’t alienate anyone. For example, I use language appropriate to their reading age, but without jargon.
Envisioning your audience, their likes and dislikes can help inform your writing.
Decide Your Message
Your writing doesn’t have to have a deep and meaningful message. But, it does have to have some sort of point. For example, my blog post ‘Blue Blood‘ explores my illegitimate ancestor. I wanted to make my research journey clear and to inform readers of the parentage of my ancestor. That was my message. Whereas, my blog post ‘A Hidden Victim of Ripper Mania‘ had a statement at its heart. I wanted to use my ancestor’s story to explore the effect of constricted gender roles. I wanted to show her story, of suicide, as a consequence of Victorian rigidity.
Regardless of whether your message is divisive, exploratory or informative, decide it before you start. Otherwise, it’s likely to get lost or diluted. Keep checking on your message. Are you getting to the point? Is it clear? Is it stated? If your going for subtle, is it implied?
Set a Plan and Avoid Tangents
Before writing your family history make a plan. Exactly which ancestors are you going to cover? Over what time? Who will you start with? How will you break up their story? How does this plan work, with your decided audience? Where will you show your message?
Setting a plan will give your writing structure. It’ll ensure you cover all the points you want to explore. It’ll ensure your message comes through. It’ll help you weed out or avoid random tangents.
Odd pieces of off-topic text can be very distracting. It’s easy to fall into a trap of including things because they are ‘interesting’. This is an error. Adding random pieces of content dilutes your story. It starts to feel rambling and the message becomes lost.
Writing Your Family History
If You Can’t Write It, Say It
One of my favourite writing styles, especially for short stories, is ‘conversational’. I like to feel like the writer is sat next to me, sharing their tale over a cuppa. That’s not always easy to emulate. So cheat! Record yourself whilst you explain the story.
You don’t need anything fancy to do this. Download the free app Otter (Google Play Link or Apple Store) onto your phone. This nifty programme will listen to you talk and convert your words into text. It’s not perfect but its accuracy is impressive.
Next, take that speech-to-text and edit it. Use it as a starting point and build upon it.
You don’t have to put all your detail within the body of the text. I have read a lot of family histories that start like this:
“My ancestor, John Brown was born on 5th June 1857. He was christened on 10 June 1857 in St Michael’s Church, Basingstoke. His older brother, Thomas was christened on the same day. Thomas was born on 20th March 1855.”
I’ve written sentences like this too. We don’t have to do this! We could put some of those details in footnotes, alongside any source information. Doing so could transform our sentences, to something like this:
“John and his older brother Thomas were both christened in the summer of 1857 at St Michael’s Church, Basingstoke.”
Now we’ve removed some of the drier details, we could improve the sentence further. See the points below!
Bring it to life with detail
Reading a list of facts is boring. We need details to help spark our imagination. Writing family history is challenging because we need both accuracy and imagination.
Let’s look at our 1857 christening example. It took place in the summer and it’d be easy to presume that the weather was hot. We need to check though! That June may have been infamous for its terrible weather.
Our example took place in a church. We may look at a photo of that stone building and presume it was the same in 1857. Again we need to check. What if the church flooded that year? What if the building we see today is a replica?
Once we’ve got our confirmed details though, we can use them to create texts rich in detail:
“Summer 1857 was hot and the parishioners of St Michael’s Church must have felt relieved to sit within the church’s stone walls. On 10th June the Brown family filled the congregation. A generation of bottoms squashed into the tiny pews. In the cool church, the Brown’s watched as their sons, Thomas and John, entered the Christian faith. I imagine the babies cried as the icy holy water from the stone font splashed onto their foreheads.”
Find the Right Words
Successful authors tend to have a fantastic vocabulary. Reading widely can help you to expand your own. But, you can also use a thesaurus to aid you – especially if you find you are using the same words repetitively. There are loads of free thesaurus’ online.
It is also worth bearing in mind that old adage, “show not tell”. If you find your text is full of adjectives (describing words) then start pruning them! Replacing those adjectives with strong nouns can actually enhance your writing.
I recommend reading “Kill Your Adjectives“. It really explains this concept in much more detail and gives some great examples.
I am not a natural writer. I struggle to ‘show’ not ‘tell’. I use a passive voice. I over-do it on the adverbs.
I didn’t even know what a passive voice was when I first started writing. I googled it and still didn’t understand! Don’t worry if you are in the same boat. This tip will help.
I use apps to try to improve my writing. Hemingway is a free editor. Type in your text and it’ll point out the failings. Using various colours, it’ll highlight sections that use a passive voice. It’ll show you sentences that are hard to read. It’ll point out your use of adverbs. Fixing these errors will lead to better writing. Not sure you understand the errors? Trust me, it’s easier to begin to understand these terms when you are using them in earnest. I now ‘get’ passive voice because I’ve had to correct my writing so many times. I played around until I stopped getting that sentence highlighted within Hemingway. It helped solidify the definition of ‘passive voice’ that I’d read and failed to comprehend.
I have also started to use the tool Grammarly. I can’t afford a proofreader but my grammar isn’t perfect. After X amount of re-reads, I stop seeing the mistakes. Grammarly is a free app or chrome extension. It will point out all my spelling and grammatical errors. Underlined. In red. I hate it. I love it. It’s one of those kinds of relationships.
Grammarly uses American English spelling, which I find irritating. But it’s worth persevering with. Someone recently pointed out that I’d peppered an article with unnecessary apostrophes. I felt embarrassed. Grammarly could have helped with that. Like I say, it’s a love to hate it tool.
Editing and Proof-reading
Apps aside, nothing beats a human eye on your work. In an ideal world, once completed, put your writing away. Leave it for at least a couple of weeks before you pick it up and start editing. Then hand it to someone else to read. Proof-reading is a talent. It’s why people get paid to do it! So, do what you can. Pass it to who you can. Don’t beat yourself up if 3 months later you look at it again and there’s an apostrophe in the wrong place.
Enhance Your Family History Writing
Those of us writing up our family history today have a huge advantage over our ancestors. We have the mighty power of the internet. Within seconds we can have access to quality photographs to add to our work.
Use images to “back up” the detail you’ve written or to separate large pieces of writing. These don’t have to be images of your ancestors. Use photos of buildings, maps, artwork, newspapers. Mix it up!
On a practical note, ensure you are not breaking any copyright laws. On Google Images select Settings-Advanced Search and filter by ‘Usage Rights’ to find images marked as shareable. Read the different levels of copyright and attribute your images as appropriate. If in doubt, check with whoever owns the image before you use it. If you can’t find someone to ask and are still unsure, then don’t use it. And yes, I know exactly how frustrating that can be!
Geograph is great for free images of places and buildings within the UK. You can also utilise sites like Unsplash, Pixabay and Pexels to find free pictures. Use Canva to curate your own images and text graphics.
Add Family Tree Charts
Make use of another advantage available to modern genealogists. Create and add family tree diagrams to your text. These not only break up long passages but make the text itself easier to follow. Use charts to explain genetic relationships. Create these either within your family tree package or using Microsoft PowerPoint or Excel, or your Mac or Google equivalent.
Break It Up
Depending on the length of your family history writing, consider using tools to make it easier to navigate. Very long works benefit from contents pages and indexes. All easily created in Word.
Shorter pieces may benefit from section breaks and sub-headings – just like this article.
Give It A Title
People make snap decisions about what to read. Give your text the very best chance by giving it a great title. Use the Headline Analyser to see which of your ideas is worth pursuing. Or browse these 100+ blog title ideas to get your creative juices flowing.
Do You Enjoy It?
Writing up your family history should be enjoyable. Be honest with yourself. If writing your family history feels like a form of torture then don’t do it! It’ll come through in your writing anyway. Writing up your ancestors’ lives is not the only method of recording their histories. Watch this space for an article on alternatives!
Writing your family history is a big achievement. Whether you’ve written about one ancestor or an entire tree, be proud! Share your work. Tweet me at @geneastories and share your stories with the Twitter Genealogy community.