Nearly every genealogist talks about collecting her research and writing a family history book – someday. Make this October the month that you actually do it.
I know a lot of you are saying, “I’d like to do that, but I’m not finished with my research.” I understand. But you never will be finished. Research is a lifetime pursuit. Family historians should all pin a comment by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman to their wall or better yet use it as a screen saver. Tuchman said, “The most important thing about research is to know when to stop. How does one recognize the moment? …One must stop before one is finished; otherwise, one will never stop and never finish.”
So get started with your book!
Let’s look at a simple process to plan and organize your family history. You can begin it no matter where you are in the research process. It will not only give you a framework for your book, it will make the research you need to do to complete it more directed and efficient.
List the Big Ideas – Family history is made up of three things: people, events and topics. Make a list of each. Who are the people you absolutely must include? What events are essential to telling your family’s story? Think about themes that cross generations such as service to the community, religious faith, military service, or entrepreneurship. This is a brainstorming process List everything that comes to mind without worrying about order. You can think about that later.
Think About the Scope of Your Book – Research seems infinite, but a book is finite. How will you limit what you know to make the story manageable? Would it be best to choose one line of the family? Should you set a chronological limit going back a specific number of generations? Do you want to include photos and documents? Begin to envision what your book will look like.
Take Inventory of What You Have – Review your lists and your research. Do you have the information you need to write about the people, events and topics you’ve listed? You can begin to assemble the information you have and target additional research to those topics you don’t feel you know enough about. You’ll find that focused research of this sort goes much faster than a more scattershot approach and can be pursued as you are putting together your book.
Consider Your Book’s Style – Traditional genealogy based books have been focused on documenting the facts of the family. That’s a legitimate goal. Is that what you want to do? Or would you make your book more interesting by exploring the family stories. This will mean borrowing some techniques from creative nonfiction to develop a narrative thread which dramatizes your family’s history. You can use what you know through research to speculate on what motivated ancestors, what they might have felt as certain events were occurring, and even create dialogue (maybe based on letters, diaries or journals) that might have been heard at particular moments. Is such speculation legitimate? Sure! As long as you base it on what you know to be factually true and indicate what you are doing. For example you might begin a passage by saying something like, “We can’t know for sure what Great Grandmother was thinking, but here are some things that might have been running through her mind.” Professional historians do this all the time.
Create an Outline – No. Not the outline you learned in junior high school. (Although, if you liked that one it works fine.) This doesn’t need to be formal. Just create a plan for the major topics you want to include and the subtopics you will explore with each of them. Part of this plan is making a decision about your organizational plan. Do you want to adopt a strictly chronological plan as traditional family histories have? Or do you want to create biographical sketches of ancestors? Would a topical approach work better? Your outline will ultimately turn into your book’s table of contents. To get an idea of some of the different possible approaches, go to the library and look at the tables of contents in family history books. Which one will best fit your book? A hybrid approach combining more than one organizational plan is fine. Maybe you want a chronological book with biographical sketches of only some of the ancestors.
Once you have an outline, you have a blueprint for your book. It’s time to start writing.
Make this October the Family History Month you create the plan for your book. If you have questions on getting started, we at Stories To Tell are happy to help. Leave questions in the comment box or shoot us an email.