Nancy and I often present a class titled How to Plan and Organize Your Family History Book at genealogy events around the country. (Well be presenting a new version of the class this Saturday at The Genealogy Event in New York City.) I usually begin by asking the audience, “How many of you have started writing your book?” The majority of the group raises their hands. Then I ask, “How many of you have a plan for your book?” That provokes nervous laughter and far fewer raised hands. That’s a problem!
Let’s take a look at some of the decisions that will help you create a family history book you’ll be proud of. First, think about the scope of your book. Most genealogists have been researching their ancestors for years. They have accumulated more material than will fit comfortably in a single volume. So ask yourself how to limit what will be included. Should your book deal with a single line of the family? Might you place a chronological limit on the book? Four generations. Begin with a single pivotal event like the decision to come to America or to go into a business that has remained in the family for generations. The key is recognizing that you need a plan that will allow you to control what gets into the book rather than finding yourself driven by the belief that everything must be crammed into the book. If you’ve got more material than you can manage in one book, do a second one.
How should the book be internally organized? Most family histories are chronological. But that’s more because it’s a default choice rather than a considered one. Are there other options? Absolutely! We have worked with a number of clients who have organized their books topically focusing themes which were important through generations of ancestors. One client traced the pioneering spirit in her family right up to the present generation. Another did a wonderful job of telling the stories of My Military Ancestors. Topics like religious faith, community service and voluntarism, or entrepreneurship have all produced good themes around which to organize a book. I have even worked with an author who organized the family history around family recipes. Are their recurrent themes in your family’s history.
Some authors find themselves with lots of information on some ancestors and relatively little about others. They have handled the disparity by creating an ongoing chronology tracing the vital history through time, but making the highlights of the book extended biographical sketches of those member they know more about. The more complete accounts of ancestors are more interesting to readers than simply a summary of data from the vital records. There is no rule that every ancestor must get the same amount of space in your book.
The fact is that many of the best interesting family histories are hybrids combining chronological, topical and biographical elements.
The key in deciding how to organize your book is to think about your intended audience. If you are interested in producing a book for other genealogists, you will produce one kind of book. If you want to engaged the next generation in your family’s story, you write a quite different one. And if you think your family history is interesting enough to become a commercial success you’ll have a whole different calculus to consider in planning your book. Whatever your situation, the key is to decide what will interest your audience and organize your family’s story to keep them engaged.