How To Write A Captivating Family History Using Newspapers

Many of us have the desire to write our family history, preferably into something our relatives will want to read. In this article I will share with you how newspapers are like a secret weapon! One that will transform your genealogy facts into amazing family history stories.

I’ll show you how to use newspapers and my FIG technique to write a captivating family history you’ll be proud to share. 

Write Your Family History Using Newspapers and FIGs.

Obviously newspapers will put your ancestors into the context of the time and place within which they lived. Less obviously, they’ll help you to write a family history that’ll develop an emotional connection between your readers and your subject matter (your ancestors).

Humans connect with stories – with emotions, thoughts and feelings. Not with lists of data. That’s why when you write a family history you have to tap into that emotional response.

Weaving newspapers into your family history will start to give you this emotional connection and it works even if you never find a mention of your actual ancestor within the paper’s pages.

The problem is that looking for the ‘right’ article can be very overwhelming. You need to use my FIG test to narrow down the mass of articles into those that are best suited for writing a family history.

Stack of newspapers

The FIG Test: Finding The Right Articles To Write Your Family History

FIG stands for Feeling, Impact and Gossip. Here’s a summary of the questions you need to ask yourself to identify FIG rich articles.

F is for Feeling...

Feeling. Do I think my ancestors would have had some sort of emotional response to the events within this article?

Examples of articles that induce Feeling: Tragedies, murders, injustices, deaths, celebrations, triumphs over adversity, exciting new technologies, shows or other entertainment related events.

Feelings aren’t limited to ‘happy’ or ‘sad’. Look for articles that might have invoked fear, excitement, despair, disgust, disappointment, anger, frustration, jubilation, surprise, shock, pride, jealousy, sentimentality.

I is for Impact...

Impact. Would this have impacted upon my ancestor’s life?

Examples: A change in financial circumstances, an improvement in their lives, anything that made life harder, a big change in the way something was done, an event that caused global anxieties (realised or not), events that caused despair or hope, events that changed rights and future abilities.

You can look beyond events that had obvious impact (such as war). For example, the arrival of street lighting in your ancestors area. The closure of the local pub. The right to vote. Heck, a road closure could have a big impact upon your ancestors life – if they were a carman!

G is for Gossip...

Gossip. Might my ancestor have enjoyed talking about down this down the pub?

Examples: Anything salacious, mysterious, exciting or sad that was interesting enough to be mentioned to a friend BUT was not directly related to your ancestors life.

You’d be more likely to gossip about your neighbour committing bigamy than your own husband’s affair!

You can get whole FIGs...


You may find articles that hit all 3 of the FIG elements. That’s great. These are the best types of articles to weave into your narrative.

Using FIG Newspaper Articles In Practice

I’m a big believer in show not tell, so below I use my own ancestor to illustrate how to use the FIG approach.

I’ve chosen one of my Great-Great Grandmothers to show you:

Maria Penfold (formally Lewington). Born 15 August 1867 and died 16 March 1943.

I have traced Maria across the census’, so I could write a generic paragraph about her family. Something like this:

“In 1881 Maria was living with her mother at Bell Road, East Molesey. Maria was 13 years old, and one of 15 children born to her parents, Eliza Street and William Lewington. 10 of these 15 offspring were born before 1881, with one dying before the time of the census. Maria’s home would have been crowded and money tight. Her father, William was a labourer and Eliza sometimes worked as a charwoman.”

It’s OK but it’s not exactly riveting…

Writing using typewriter

First, I searched the newspaper archive at Find My Past narrowing down to Maria’s community and the year 1881. I was looking for something that hit one of my “FIG” criteria.


First I find an Impact article:

January 1881, East Molesey was hit with heavy snow. Local businesses were forced to close leaving many residents without work or pay. There were grave concerns about the effect of the snow upon the poor. Local philanthropists offered food and coal to those in need.

Storm East Molesey in 1881
Surrey Comet 22 Jan 1881, column 6, page 5. Retrieved from Find My Past on 22 March 2018.

Followed nicely by a Feeling article. One that surely caused a flurry of excitement – and possibly a touch of Gossip. The Rag Fair had come to town.

Newspaper Article detailing a complaint about noise from the Rag Fair
Rag Fair in East Molesey Park, Surrey Comet 1 October 1881, column 4, page 5. Retrieved from Find My Past on 22 March 2018.

A Real Example Of How To Write A Family History:

I can start to add the details from these FIG newspaper finds to Maria’s narrative. Here’s a cut down example of a 1st draft:

“In 1881, 13 year old Maria was living with her parents at Bell Road, East Molesey. That January snow engulfed the Lewington home. Huddled in their small cottage, Maria and her 9 siblings must have fought to keep warm. Perhaps her father grew quiet as his labouring work diminished and his anxieties grew. His humble wages wouldn’t have provided much of an ’emergency fund’. The snow fell and the coal pile would have began to dwindle. 

I can forgive Maria’s mother, Eliza if she grew snappy and bad tempered as she scolded her children for squabbling. The whole household had to endure being cooped up indoors with nothing to entertain them but their own conversation. Surely, Eliza’s work as a charwoman would have been impossible as the storm raged around the village?

Luckily, the neighbourhood was not without its philanthropists. Mr Summer donated jugs of hot soup that must have been a welcome respite from the bitter coldness. I imagine 13 year old Maria watching her breath form clouds in the cold air, as she smiled with the pleasure of wrapping her chilled fingers around the warm ceramic jug. Beside her, her father William, lets out a sigh, half with exertion and half with relief, as he hefts the weight of a donated sack of coal onto his back.

The Lewington’s survived the winter. The seasons rolled around, and that summer Maria witnessed the arrival of the Rag Fair. It’s caravans and rides rolling in with a cacophony of noise….”

Next Steps To Write A Family History

Of course there’s much that could be improved within the paragraphs above. It’s a 1st draft. For more improvements, I could use some of the techniques I shared in: How To Go From Boring To Brilliant Family History. There’s also lots of other resources for adding historical context. But still, the FIG technique has transformed my writing. Already I can say far more than I could before – despite not actually finding my ancestors in the newspaper articles used.

Blank photos

My narrative is beginning to become relatable. Who hasn’t felt cold? Who hasn’t felt the relief of a warm mug of something hot? Who doesn’t remember their first trip to the fair? It’s beginning to form a story.

I don’t have a single photo of Maria but I’m able to start to write a family history and get to know her.

How will you use FIG to help you? Please drop me a line and let me know. The easiest way to start a conversation is to join The Curious Descendants.

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