You plan to write a family history book. You have been diligently researching for some time and amassed a good deal of knowledge about your ancestors, but there’s a lot more you would like to find out.
You are not alone. We spoke at the Genealogy Event in New York City last weekend where a number of our conversations with family historians included the words, “I just need to research a few more things, then I’ll begin writing my book.”
Before you follow the inclination to put off starting to write while you try to gather a bit more research, you might want to consider an observation by two time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough. In a 2003 Interview with National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Bruce Cole, McCullough said, “There’s an awful temptation to just keep on researching. There comes a point where you just have to stop, and start writing. When I began, I thought that the way one should work was to do all the research and then write the book. In time I began to understand that it’s when you start writing that you really find out what you don’t know and need to know.”
When you begin to develop an outline for your book, or better yet launch the initial draft of your manuscript you have to decide what story you want to tell about your ancestors. What theme runs through the generations you want to write about? Have generations of your ancestors been associated with a particular place – a family farm, a town, or city? Is yours an immigrant story? Have certain careers like business, education, medicine or law become family traditions? Are particular values like patriotism, community service or religious faith important parts of your family’s story?
Once you have decided on the story you want to tell and begun putting words on paper (or at least your computer screen) you’ll find out where there are gaps in your research. As McCullough advised, “You can target your efforts much more clearly.” Research is much easier, and quicker, when you are looking for specific things rather than trying to simply expand your knowledge.
So the next time you ask yourself when you should start writing your family history book, realize that the answer is, “Sooner than you think.”