What will you leave behind after a lifetime of genealogical research?
It’s a question that a lot of people ask themselves as they accumulate more and more information about their ancestors. It often leads people to think about ways to pass on their growing knowledge of the family history. There are many methods including creating a databases, creating a family archive, maintaining a family history blog, or a Facebook page. But creating a family history book remains the option of choice for a large number of people.
If you are a genealogist who decides to write a book, you should understand that you’ll be wearing a completely different hat than you did as a researcher. As you poured over the various sources which are part of your family’s genealogical footprint your focus was on creating a complete factual record which is accurately sourced and fully documented. That will be useful in creating a book, but there a number of things you’ll need to consider that go beyond that factual foundation.
Begin by thinking about your goals for the book, particularly in terms of the audience you’ll be writing for. If your goal is to create a document that will be a source for other hardcore genealogists focusing on the factual record, including pedigree charts and family group sheets along with complete sourcing and documentation sticking to the your research data will be fine. Most people’s families don’t have too many of them though. If, like many people, you’ll be writing for the grandkids and future generations, that approach may not interest them. Think about kids. What interests them? How many times do they come to you with the plea, “Tell me a story.”
That’s a much different challenge. Telling a story means bringing the facts you have gathered in your genealogical research to life. It means letting your readers know who their ancestors were. Your book will be a narrative not only of the lives of your ancestors, but of the historical context of the times in which they lived colored by the specific settings in which the events of their lives unfolded. It was fashionable years ago to title biographies The Life and Times of …That’s a good way of looking at the family history you’ll create. Think of it as The Life and Times of My Family.
A good story is more than just a series of incidents or anecdotes. It seeks meaning in the events it narrates. At its simplest you can see this at work in stories like Aesop’s fables. The tortoise bests the hare because slow and steady wins the race. So as you craft your family’s story ask yourself what theme lies at the core of your ancestors' experiences. Can you trace the search for opportunity or adventure through the generations? Or maybe putting family first? The importance of religious faith? Resilience in overcoming obstacles? Patriotism? The value of education? Service to the community? It’s worth giving some serious thought to the themes in your family’s experience because that's the thing your young audience will be looking for. Kids often ask, “Why should I care?” Your family history will connect better with them if you have an answer ready.
Don’t forget the characters in your families. Not every ancestor was likely to have been a fine upstanding citizen who was a pillar of the community. My friend Ron Arons of Criminal Research Press helps people find the black sheep in their family’s flock. Look for the colorful or off-beat folks. Everybody has them. For every generation with a bunch of people who keep their nose to the grindstone there’s a good-time Charlie or Aunt Ceil who had five husbands. They are part of your family’s story. Making sure they’re part of your book will make it much more entertaining.
We all know how to tell stories. We do it all the time. Researchers are finding that it’s hardwired into our brains. The thing to make sure is that as you set out to write your family history you don’t get so caught up in telling the story right that you forget to tell it well.