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How to write a family history – what to start with?

Usually, family gatherings are full of stories: stories that are laughable, or sometimes stories that bring bittersweet tears. When the family parts to their individual homes and lives, do these stories live on? A few members of the family, perhaps will remember, but most of them will eventually forget. Writing your family story helps to prevent that. So, you are interested in writing a family story, but never considered starting this sort of project? Your interest should make you collect this kind of stories and give them the shape of a book. The following steps outline the process for you to make answering the question “how to write a family history” much easier.

A project of this type needs some kind of introduction, and your memoirs perfectly fit this role. If your intention is to produce a record of your family’s stories, what you choose to write there can be a lot more personal. Start with your earliest childhood memories, pay special attention to the stories your kids like you to retell. If you are a couple, write down the story of your romance and wedding: how you first met, what attracted you to your spouse and so on. Write about the events connected to the birth of your children, and the special moments of their childhood. Include instances of family vacations and other memorable things. If your chosen style of writing is like the memoirs, you can stop here. But full family history requires information from other family members, like, for example, your grandparents. You should spend the time asking questions about their youth and special memories, and carefully write it all down. It is an important step in the process of learning how to write a family history.

Your own memoirs can be sorted in a full family history later, but by recording your own memories you will have a much better view of what questions to ask, and learn a better approach of how to write a family history. This can easily be the toughest part of the task – deciding how far back to dig, and how many branches of the family to include in your work. There are plenty ways to approach the scope of your book, but the very first thing you need to decide is the choosing of a central character. Here are examples of the main characters:

  • A grandparent
  • An earlier ancestor
  • Yourself and/or your partner

The moment you chose the central character(s), write an outline of how deep you want to go into your family history with the book. For example, if you chose a grandmother as a central character, give the reader details about her nearest relatives, her birth, marriage, and the geographical information about her life. With further ancestors you should work from that person and trace the lineage to your recent family. Getting out to distant relatives is completely up to you and the destination of your work. A family history that focuses on your partner should contain introductions for you both, both sets of parents and grandparents, and any other relatives you want to include.

How to write a family history – materials that could help with your efforts

You can buy all sorts of blank forms to help you in organizing your data: family trees, generation charts, interview blanks, plans for a personal history, time line forms, relationship forms, and more. All of these are available on the Internet, through genealogical libraries for example. Some charts are not only useful for your material research, but will also visually enhance the book. You could ask relatives to write their own records, but that might not be the best choice to make. People are likely to procrastinate. Writing is easy and appealing for some, and really painful for others. One way to get around those circumstances, especially for those who are not fond of writing or whose age prevents them from doing so appropriately, is to gather audio materials from various family members. Make sure to include different family members, as each will remember completely different stories, and different sides of each story. You can find a lot of evidences for that in guides on how to write a family history.

Arm yourself with a recording device, for instance a mini tape recorder, and schedule an interview in a quiet area free of background noise. Make sure to test your recording device before you start. It is also a great idea to take a second recorder for backup. Alternatives for this are filming or taking notes. Though, these methods have major flaws. Some people feel shy in front of a camera which results in the story being suppressed, and if you just take notes, you will miss some things and forget others. As you record each interview, be sure to write down the dates and ask more questions to clarify all the small details. After finishing the interview, transfer between taping to text and make notes for future questions. You can buy digital transcription tools for this step, which would make the process less complicated.

A truly deep approach to how to write a family history requires research. If you are new to this topic, the best tactic is to read genealogy guides for research strategy hints. This is an important skill if you wish to learn how to write a family history. There are a lot of not obvious details a beginner would miss and lead to writing down the wrong conclusions. The easiest way to get started in this field is to subscribe to an online service. One of the most popular and renowned sites is This kind of resource will allow you to make research efforts from your home, and connect with other genealogy specialists and experts, who will be willing to share their knowledge to help you. It would also be a good idea to find a genealogical society in your particular geographical area of interest.

Try to begin a research from your chosen central character and work back in history as far as you want. Upon finding the information, record its source carefully. When you refer to it in your work, make sure to cite the source in some way, for example a footnote on the page, or references at the end of the book. That does not mean you cannot include unconfirmed facts in your family history, but try to divide speculations and documented truth. After finishing all these steps, you will get a rough idea of how to write a family history.


How to write a family history – publishing your work

The visual appearance and quality of materials of the finished work will depend on your budget, and your plans for the book. A publishing company will produce an appealing hardback with lots of beautiful elements, if that's what you wish. Or you can take your text to the nearby printer or office supply store and have it be simply copied. If you're lucky, some of your family members will wish to help you with the money cost of the work.

By now you realize that the learning curve of how to write a family history could take some serious time and, most importantly, effort. But if you have clear ideas in mind of what you want from this work, the time will be well spent. You will most likely get a new hobby, develop family relationships, and spend many joyful hours along the way. And by the time you finish it, you will have what could become a real treasure for your family.

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