Researching and writing your genealogy or family history is a strange bug. It bites some people, but leaves other members of their families untouched. I feel a bit sad when I talk with a person who says, “I’ve been researching my ancestors for years, and I would like to preserve my family’s history in a book, but none of my relatives care about it.” The truth is it doesn’t have to be that way.
First, it’s important for a genealogist to realize that people are not equally receptive at all ages to learning about their family history. Younger people may be less interested in discovering their place in the ancestral procession. As they age their openness can change. People who have children or grandchildren seem to grow more interested in examining who they are and where they came from. I often say to people who lament that their relatives don’t care about what they have learned, “They don’t care yet. You may be surprised by how interested they become later.”
If you would like to help create interest among relatives right now, begin by thinking about what is most likely to engage the members of your intended audience.
Many genealogists who decide to write a family history book lock into what they believe the structure of a family history should be without much consideration of their reader’s experience. They settle upon a straight chronological plan of organization. Each generation or family line gets the same number of pages, with a pedigree chart accompanied by source documentation at the end of the chapter. That sort of organization can work for a book, but is not necessarily the way to produce a book that everyone will want to read.
All parts of your family history are not equal. For one thing, you may know a good deal more about some of your ancestors than you do about others. As a rule, the more distant in the past an ancestor lived the more sparse the information available about him or her. It may make more sense to summarize several generations in a single chapter when your information is limited, while slowing your narrative down as you get nearer to the present where you have more detailed knowledge and more interesting stories about your ancestors. You are not obligated to document every generation of your family. Trying to do so may create a very broad, but shallow book. Deciding to focus on a limited number of generations or specific lines of the family may allow you to take a more narrow focus, but approach it with greater depth.
Some ancestors are more interesting or important than others. My great-great-grandfather who was a Revolutionary War general, gets more space than the one who was a private in the local militia. Don’t let yourself get locked in to a template. Let the stories you have to tell guide the way you structure your book.
Don’t be afraid to break away from straight chronology. You can organize and write an excellent family history using a topical structure. Tracing the development of particular family values or examining turning points in the family’s history both work very well.
Borrowing from the techniques of fiction, historians like David McCullouch or Doris Kearns Goodwin have created compelling narrative histories. You can do the same thing with your family history. Capturing a sense of the time and place in which ancestors gives rich context to people’s lives. You can even create imagined dialogue by using diaries or letters which show your ancestor’s thoughts or feelings.
When you understand that every family is unique, you can understand that the way you tell your ancestors’ stories should also be unique. That uniqueness can help you create a family history that people will care about.