Book Elements: Too Much, Too Little
Is there a “correct” formula or template for a family history book? Everyone’s family history is unique. Your research and experience have produced a unique body of knowledge, and so the resulting family history book must be … unique. There’s no right way, but fortunately there’s no wrong way, either. In this article, I will discuss how to weigh and consider the materials that you might include, or exclude. Then you can choose for your family what is most important to preserve and to share.
Because I love to cook, here is an easy analogy: using a recipe to prepare a meal is similar to planning and organizing to create a book. First, look at the possible “ingredients” you have already gathered, and take an inventory. Do you have:
WHAT Facts about people, places and events
WHO Biographical profiles: facts about birth, death, marriage, etc.
WHEN Both text and graphics such as timelines
HOW & WHY Stories, themes, your author commentary and reflections
VISUAL AIDS Charts, documents, photos
DOCUMENTATION & SOURCE NOTES – Footnotes/ endnotes, appendix(es), index, bibliography
Which of these ingredients do you have plenty of? Which do you still need to acquire before you can “cook”? Some avid researchers will answer, “More! I need a lot more information!” That’s not necessarily true. Unlike the endless process of research, a book is finite – you can fit only so many ingredients into the pot. And while you delay, shopping for more ingredients, your family goes hungry. Instead, use what you already have, and figure out how to make the best dish possible.
You don’t have to throw in the whole kitchen sink. If you have a great deal of research, far too much to put into one book, there are ways to offer “side dishes” with the main meal. You can take those thousands of charts and put them on a companion CD. The casual reader won’t be interested in them anyway, yet some future historian will appreciate it. Or you can plan a multiple-volume set. Break your research into manageable chunks, perhaps by period, generations, or by branches of the family tree. Do the first book about whatever is most important to preserve, and the others will follow easily. However, often the answer to excess is obvious – trim the fat! If you keep your audience in mind, and consider what they would enjoy, some book elements can be scaled down, reorganized, shortened, or even eliminated.
What if you don’t have enough? Perhaps there are gaping holes in your research, things you would love to know before writing a book. Consider whether this information can be discovered with some targeted research, in a limited time. This would be akin to running to the market because you’re out of milk: it’s a reasonable delay, for an essential ingredient. On the other hand, could you do without it, or substitute an ingredient you have on hand? Your readers will not miss what they (and you) don’t know.
There is one powerful, vital ingredient that can enrich even the skimpiest family history –you, the author. Your “voice” is the one your readers want to hear, so develop an active narration, add your speculation about causes and characters, or consider including your personal tale of discovery. You can compensate for missing ingredients by adding what you think, feel and believe, and it is guaranteed to improve the mix.
Ultimately, the recipe you devise is for your family’s enjoyment. Think of your book’s ingredients in terms of ratio – too much of one, too little of another affects the “flavor” of the reader’s experience. If the bulk of the book is documentation and genealogical charts, readers may find it bland. What if your book is primarily spicy stories about family scandals? Flavorful, certainly an entertaining read, but perhaps not nutritious enough – so add more facts. By readjusting your outline and adjusting the blend of fact and myth, document and photo, and stories, stories, stories… you will arrive at the recipe that has not too much, not too little, but is just right.