Genealogy Adventures

Writing and Publishing Your Family History – Part 1 of 4: Understand Your Story

Writing your family’s story might seem like a daunting task. However, just like genealogical research and creating a genealogy research strategy – writing success comes down to planning, strategy, research, understanding the process, and perseverance.

This series of articles will explore how to write a compelling narrative non-fiction family history book – as opposed to a lineage or pedigree style family history book.

So let’s begin at the beginning and contemplate some fundamental aspects of writing a family history book.

1. Know your purpose

A. What do you want to accomplish?

Before you begin your writing project, it is important to know what you hope to accomplish. Is your goal to summarize your research? Do you want to pass down tales your older family members have shared over the years? Tell the story of an ancestor or a family line that inspires you? Celebrate your ethnic heritage? Educate? Share the history of a marginalized people?

Sources of writing inspiration can come from anywhere when it comes to writing about our families! You just need to be very clear in your own mind what it is you wish to achieve and accomplish through your writing. This understanding will be your guiding light..and will keep your writing focused and on-track!

B. Keep Your Writing Project Focussed

A strong and well-developed writing focus also makes the writing process far more manageable. It will enable you to tackle your project in bite-sized chunks. Trying to tackle writing a book without breaking the process into stages will soon present a seemingly insurmountable task.

C. Narrow Your Writing Scope

Good stories are engaging and compelling stories. Reviewing your research will help you identify the most compelling life experience, story or interesting ancestor(s) to write about. You could choose to commemorate an important or historical milestone in your family’s history – like the 250th anniversary of a patriot ancestor’s participation in an American revolutionary battle.

D. Audience, Audience, Audience!

Any writing project involves identifying and knowing the audience you think will be interested in your writing project. An audience is an important aspect of any writing goal. A writing project aimed at your family will have a different look and field than a writing project aimed at the general public.

A book or website written for your family will, perhaps, have a more casual tone of voice and style. A project aimed at the general public would need to have a more authoritative style to instill trust and credibility in a reader. In this second instance, your writing will need to reflect and evidence your research process – and will include items like formal source citations, footnotes, as well as lists of sources and resources used during the course of researching information for your project.

2. Understand Your Story

Storytelling is part and parcel of genealogy. However, telling a great story takes some work. It is worth the effort. A well-crafted story conveys excitement, challenges to overcome, and can achieve delight, surprise, admiration, and knowledge about the family or person you decide to write about.

A great story also has some fundamental elements:

A. Immersion

The more readers can put themselves into the heart of your story, the more likely they are to place themselves in your story’s arc; its peaks, troughs, and culmination.

B. Simplicity

Tell a simple story for people to understand the different stages of the story’s journey.

C. Audience Understanding

Stories are more compelling and persuasive when readers can understand the meaning(s) embedded in, and behind, the story.

D. Familiarity

Powerful stories have themes people feel a familiarity with.

E. Trust

A reader’s feelings about the story they’re reading influences their reaction to the story – and the author. Familiar stories, or familiar aspects within a story, help to establish that trust by making a story seem believable and authentic.

F. Drama

Bring it!! Great stories have drama. Don’t censor drama or unpleasantness from a story. Keeping the unpleasantness in helps to establish trust with the reader, which enhances the believability factor. This impacts trust, as covered above.
Relatability: You will persuade people more successfully the more the events in your story can persuade them. People are drawn to stories that are relatable to them.

Next Stage

In the next article (Part 2), we will explore choosing a plot.

4 thoughts on “Writing and Publishing Your Family History – Part 1 of 4: Understand Your Story

  1. This article turned up just at the right time for me! Working on Book One of Eight right now on each of my first 8 Grandparents. Strictly for family use no publishing!

    Thank You Sir

  2. Hi Brian, you have given me a lot to think about. I am planning to do a documentary of sorts, on my grandfather (John Henry Dean) for our family Gathering in August of this year. It will be a chronical of his life on video, as a child thru adulthood and all the places he had lived and with whom, according to census and other documentation. I’m hoping I will be able to get and keep interest of my family audience. Thanks to you for your insightful information.

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