So, you’ve done so much family history research that you’re drowning in facts and you’ve decided – that’s it – I’ve got to start writing some of this up!
Only now you are stuck. Don’t worry, you are not alone.
Unless you’re a bit of a Marvin (from Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy) you are probably perfectly fine at telling stories. I mean, we tell snippets of stories all the time, whether it’s moaning to 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 only 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. We forget about our core story. The thing that made us want to tell it in the first place. We either stare at a blank white page, unable to even start writing OR we write tons of words – read them back and decide we’d like to delete the lot.
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 can be sure she’ll read it, enjoy it and therefore remember it.
Table of Contents
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 will help inform your writing.
Decide On The Message For Each Piece of Family History Writing
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 possible consequence of Victorian rigidity.
Regardless of whether your message is divisive, exploratory or informative, decide it before you start. Don’t let it get lost or diluted. Keep checking on your message. Are you getting to the point? Is it clear?
Set A Plan & 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.
Next, take that speech-to-text and edit it. Use it as a starting point and build upon it.
Pay special attention to the words you use or turns of phase. This is your real voice. Use those phases in your family history writing to make it feel more authentic.
Use Endnotes or Footnotes to separate your family history writing from sources
You don’t have to put all your details 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.”
For an instant win, try putting some of those details in footnotes or endnotes, alongside any source information. Doing so transforms our sentence, to something like this:
“John and his older brother Thomas were both christened in the summer of 1857 at St Michael’s Church, Basingstoke.”
Bring Your Family History Writing To Life
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 looked the same way 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 cool of the church’s thick stone walls. On 10th June the Brown family filled the congregation. A generation of bottoms squashed into the tiny pews. I imagine the new Brown babies (Thomas and John) cried as the icy holy water splashed onto their foreheads. Three years before them, a daughter had been baptised using that same deep stone font. Her little bottom was missing from the row of Browns that watched the ceremony. Perhaps her mother, Elizabeth was thinking of her as she hushed her son’s bawl…”
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.
Use Tech To Help With Grammar
Even the very best of writers make mistakes. That’s why they have proof readers and editors. Now, whilst using a real-life person is always best, that’s not always possible. So, use apps to try to fill the gap. Hemingway is a free editor. Type in your text and using various colours, it’ll highlight sections that use a passive voice or are hard to read. It’ll point out your use of adverbs too. Fixing these errors will lead to better writing.
Other apps that can help include, Grammarly (a free app or chrome extension). It will point out all your spelling and grammatical errors. Underlined. In red. I hate it. I love it. It’s one of those kinds of relationships.
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 finally 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
An Image Is Worth 1000 Words
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!
Add Charts To Your Family History Writing
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 Up Your Family History Writing
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.
Give It A Title
Do You Enjoy Writing Your Family History Stories?
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. You could simply do some oral recordings. You could try making a presentation.
Or you could join my Curious Descendants Club! With regular workshops and challenges, this Club is designed to help you write your family history. You can find all the details here, including testimonials from existing members.
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