If you have been researching your family history for some time, you have probably accumulated a lot of information, too much to fit into one book. That’s OK. Much of that information may not be suitable for a book anyway, if you want your book to be a pleasurable reading experience. This is the first criteria to help you sort through the abundant possibilities of what to include in your book: what will your readers find interesting and valuable? (The drier, less engaging information can be shared on a companion CD, so you needn’t worry about depriving the reader of some critical facts.)
Organizing a family history book can be imagined as two broad categories: a chronological approach, and a topical approach. Within these categories, there are many possibilities for crafting your family history into a compelling narrative. As long as the premise of the book is cohesive, such as focusing on one branch of the family, or a given period of time, both chronological and topical orgnizations can work well.
Most people begin planning with a chronological approach. This seems the most logical, because that is the way history actually occurs, and your research is organized in this way. It seems logical to transfer the research to a book, in order. This has inherent problems, though. Usually the earlier periods lack specifics, and you’re less likely to have interesting stories about those earlier ancestors. The danger is an unbalanced book, one that is short and boring in the first chapters, and that only becomes interesting as you move toward the present.
There are ways to compensate. The incomplete stories can be supplemented with some research and speculation, a reconstruction of the world that surrounded your ancestors. Another technique we often recommend is to use one section at the opening of the book for your most distant and incomplete research, which may only be a summary. Then launch the interesting stories in section two.
How do you decide whether to use a chronological or a topical approach? As always, when planning a book, think of your reader first. If your readers are also historians, they will appreciate a chronological approach. It allows them to easily add your information to their existing knowledge. For more casual readers that you hope to “hook” on family history, a topical order emphasizes what is important.
Our upcoming blog, to be posted on 10/14, will explore topical organization and give you some examples of how to re-think your family history.