Family history books are complicated. They often contain not only text, but endnotes, appendices, a bibliography of sources, charts, and images. Family historians who want to self-publish often find this complexity overwhelming. We get it.
The problem is that many people try to do too many things at once. Let's look at how to do it one step at a time.
When you set out to self-publish a family history book you need a variety of skill sets. These skills include research and writing, but there is another there is another type of expertise that many family historians overlook – technological skill.
Let's take a look at what it takes to create a beautiful heirloom quality book.
Nonfiction, whatever form it may take, is built on a foundation of facts. Whether they present an account of actual events, as in family history or biography, seek to prove the validity of an argument, or demonstrate the correctness of a method of doing something, as in a how-to book, an author’s words are judged by the quality of the facts on which they are based. A nonfiction reader is likely to ask, “What’s the evidence for this?” Generally that evidence is based on documents, research, or accounts written by others and used by the author. So it behooves the nonfiction author to include references to allow the reader to know and evaluate the quality of the sources from which that evidence is drawn.
Let's look at how to do it.
If you’re like most of us you have had children come to you and say, “Tell me a story.” That’s a lot like the position you’re in when you set out to write a family history. You need to tell your family’s story.
That’s much different than simply recounting the information you’ve gathered about ancestors during years of careful research. You are the lens through which your reader will view your family. You need to reflect, evaluate, and make judgments about what you have discovered. What is important? What is not so important? What lessons are to be learned from the experiences of your ancestors? What might those experiences tell family members who are currently alive or in future generations about their own identities? Yours is the voice of the storyteller which draws meaning out of the experiences of those who have gone before.
We’re at RootsTech, the annual Salt Lake City extravaganza which melds the latest technological bells and whistles with genealogy and family history. It’s a wonderful event. Stories To Tell founder Nancy Barnes will be presenting two computer lab sessions on restoring historical photographs with Adobe PhotoShop. We picked up some good ideas for better ways to help authors from the Innovators’ Summit today. But, at the moment, I’m thinking about what technology can’t do for the family historian.
Have you thought about keeping a genealogy blog as you discover and research your family history? Are you working on compiling a family history book but are not sure where to start?
Let's look at some of the benefits both provide.
Have you ever watched the way a child explores a new book? She might pick it up an examine the cover image, then flip through the pages, stopping occasionally, usually on a picture or photograph. She often has a fully formed opinion of the book before she begins to read it.
I have watched adults examine books and seen the same thing. They peruse the books images before going back to examine the text.
As you create a family history book, consider making yours an illustrated book.
For many genealogists it’s all about the tree. Creating a factual record of generations of ancestors is the focus of years of research. Filling in lines on your tree and adding names to your pedigree chart is a worthy goal, but it’s only a part of creating a family history. There is a story behind those entries on the tree. Capturing that narrative is what will interest readers.
Begin with an old idea which appeared first in Greek concepts of drama: unity of time, place, and action. Each of your ancestors was born, lived and died in a specific place at a specific time. Part of their story is entwined with the historical context of their time and place. Here are some questions that will help you discover the relationship between your ancestors and their time and place.
Veterans Day is the day Americans officially honor the service of our military veterans. What better way is there to honor them than to preserve the stories of their service?
That preservation can take a variety of forms. The Library of Congress Veterans History Project at the American Folklife Center is preserving oral history interviews with veterans. The project website provides specifics on how you can participate and offers guides to the interview process. A quick web search of veterans history” will provide listings for many state and local veterans history projects which support the work being done at the Library of Congress.
Books make a great preservation tool.
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.”
We’re in Salt Lake City for day two of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) annual conference. The attendees are a wonderfully serious and enthusiastic group who have asked us some great questions. One of my favorites was, “Do you have the app to make days 48 hours long so I have time to get my family history written?” I had to admit that our crack R & D department is still working on that one. By far the most frequently asked question was, “What’s the best way to organize my family history?” There is no single best way, but here are five questions to think about when you are organizing you own book.
When I’m enthralled by a good speaker or a great book, it’s usually because I’m being told an intriguing story. I love a good story. As humans, story is one of our most powerful tools of communication. A good story gives us new perspective, helps us gain understanding, lets us know we’re not alone, and passes along tradition and familial heritage.
One of the powers inherent in writing is being able to voice what can be difficult for other people to share. It takes courage to be that voice—an opening of vulnerability.
Thinking about writing a family history book someday? Most genealogists and family historians do.
Over the years, we have offered lots of advice on how to research your ancestors in ways that will help you write an interesting family narrative that will engage your readers. Today we will focus on a much more nuts and bolts topic: documentation.
Must your family history have a bibliography and source notes? No. There are no rules about what your book will or won’t contain. You are the author. You get to decide. However, if you want to create a record of your ancestors that other genealogists (maybe the next generation in your own family) can build on, you’ll need to document your sources.
As Family Search advises, “The best way to judge the quality of a family group record is by its source footnotes.”
So, if you do want document the story your book tells, here are two pieces advice that will save you time and frustration as you do.
What’s the key to writing an engaging life story?
It’s a challenge faced by memoirists, biographers, and family historians. How do you get at the essence of the person you’re writing about?
A recent New York Times Book Review piece by Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, author of My Name Is Red, Snow and Museum of Innocence, posed a question by which all life writers might be guided. In a review of Adam Begley’s biography Updike, a life story of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist John Updike, Pamuk asked, “How was Updike possible? Every literary biography should ask and attempt to answer the same question for its own subject.”
Telling a good story often depends on asking the right questions while you discover the facts of the tale you want to tell. Keeping three questions in mind as you research your genealogy will help you to create an interesting family history which will engage your readers.
What are you doing for Preservation Week? It’s an important question for genealogists and family historians, whose mission is to preserve their family’s heritage. Here’s a chance to take action!
The American Library Association launched Preservation Week in 2010 out of a concern that “our cultural and information heritage…continues to be at risk.” The goal of this week, April 27-May 3, is “preserving and collecting personal, family, or community heritage.” You can see it on the ALA website Preservation Week: Pass It On!
The ALA’s efforts focus on our tangible heritage – documents, photos, artifacts, and digital collections of records. That’s good! But what about your family’s intangibles, the family stories and lore? Here are some things you should be doing right now.
Your family has lived through a variety of historical turning points. But if you’re like many genealogists who want to turn their research into a family history, you don’t think about your ancestors in relation to those pivotal moments in history.
Here's why you might want to.
Novelist Suzanne Berne’s book Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew chronicles her search for meaning in her family’s history.
The experience is one that is familiar genealogists and family historians. It might also be a cautionary tale they would be well to examine.
At the heart is her grandmother, Lucile, who died of cancer in her early forties. However, her father, a very young boy at the time, always believed that his mother had abandoned him. He said, “We were told she was gone. No one ever said where.”
Berne decided that her missing grandmother was "the Rosetta stone by which all subsequent family guilt and unhappiness could be decoded.” She set out to unlock the family secrets by discovering what she could about Lucile’s story.
Point of view is not something family historians are likely think about. After all, you seek to collect “true” stories. Then, when you’re ready to write, you review what you have gathered, and you tell the story - from your own point of view. What’s the downside? The result can be more like a report than a story.
Instead, consider switching your point of view around. Look at events from the point of view of the people you are writing about. How did they feel about what was going on in their lives? What were they thinking about as the events you describe unfolded? We know that much of the drama of history comes from decisions they made. So, what would they have considered before deciding to take the action they did?
Writing a memoir or family history can be tricky, because you know a lot – even too much – about your subject. Some of the story you know as fact, some you can only speculate about, and then there are your personal feelings. What’s the best way to tell the story?
Researchers and authors sometimes see themselves as reporters, telling about events as they actually happened. But if you are mostly concerned with exploring the emotional and psychological experience, these aspects of life are harder to report, much less to document. Should you write a factual memoir or family history, or would a fictionalized account be better?