• Devon Noel Lee

What should be included in a family history story?



When you embark on the journey of creating a family history book, there are a few specific must-have items that you should put in a book. And then there are some general principles that you probably weren't considering. So today, take time to consider both lists so you can publish an enjoyable finished genealogy book.


3 Things That All Family Histories Should Have

  1. Who is your ancestor?- the best family histories write about a person in a family unit. Thus, parents, children, siblings, spouses of siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles can all go into the family story, depending on the scope of your project.

  2. What do you know about them? - A person needs facts to know who they are to keep them separate from someone else with the same name. Include birth, marriage, and death facts, occupation, religion, military service, land ownership, taxes paid, migration, and so much more.

  3. Where did they live? - Family histories take place in a specific place. Be sure to identify the place your ancestors lived. However, call the place according to what it was known at the time your ancestors lived there. For instance, Ontario, Canada, was known as Upper Canada in 1841. A year later, it became known as Canada West. Use the correct name for the place.


If you only add these three things to your family story, your book will be extremely dull. So, what things should you include to tell a story your relatives will want to read?


4 Must-Include Things for an Interesting Family History Book


1. Add Details That Inform, Engage, or Entertain


It's not enough to add the dry facts about who your ancestors are, what you know about them, and when they lived. Go beyond, "Robert Victor Zumstein was born on 26 December 1896, in Gainsborough, Lincoln, Ontario, Canada, when his father, Robert Walter Zumstein, was 28..."


Instead, include facts that inform, engage, or entertain your readers.


For example, describe your ancestors' appearance. This might be something simple like the smallpox scar on grandpa's forehead. Or you might use the suggestions from the blog post, How To Describe Your Ancestor's Physical Appearance, to write a longer description.


You might look at a map and discover that Victor and Clementine attended the same one-room schoolhouse located on the same road in rural Ontario, Canada, as both of their houses. In fact, despite being a rural farming community, Victor and Clemmie's homes faced each other across that dirt road.


You will likely find the above facts on the records your ancestors left behind.


Watch this video.


2. Describe the World Around Your Ancestor


You will identify where your ancestor lived, according to the name it was known as when your ancestors lived there. Then, however, take things a step further.


Describe what the time was like where your ancestor lived. Incorporate the sights, sounds, and practices of the world.


Just south of downtown Columbus, Ohio, English speakers entered a foreign environment. Redbrick homes, some two-story, others one, line both sides of the brick road. You are greeted with Guten Tag from Herr Schreck or Frau Grieshaber. The community amenities featured the red brick, gothic style St. Mary Catholic Church with Rev. Francis Specht as pastor. Residents read the Der Westbot newspaper for stories about their neighbors and their Palatinate and Baden homelands.


This snippet lacks sounds and cultural norms, but it's a great start. You can do this in your own family history stories.


You can find these details for your ancestor's world by searching out social history and historical context. For more tips on adding these details to your stories, read the following:



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3. Tell the Truth


One thing that separates family history stories from legends and fiction is the heavy reliance on truth. Unfortunately, while many genealogists suggest that you'll cover the subject of truth by incorporating source citations, they aren't telling the complete picture.


Many stories suggest that the customs and beliefs of the past were wrong because they don't adhere to modern beliefs. However, we can not project our view of the world on those of our ancestors.


Perhaps the women on our family tree didn't mind not being able to vote because they were exempt from other political duties they strongly opposed.


Perhaps a mixed-race couple actually did love each other and build a happy life despite the persecution they faced in the past and the stigma they would receive from their privilege-minded descendants.


Additionally, our ancestors were complete saints or complete sinners. They were humans who did the best with their circumstances according to the options available at the time.


Some ancestors became criminals for pleasure or necessity. Some ancestors were abusers, negligent, or overly indulgent in their vices.


Stop hiding their stories in the closet. Instead, be considerate but as objective and non-judgemental as possible. To learn more about how to do that, watch this webinar.



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4. Show Don't Tell


When we lack words, images can serve as a substitute. Additionally, many pictures can explain things we can not capture in 1,000 words or more. Include imagery whenever possible:

  • Photos of people

  • Photos of places

  • Photos of things

  • Genealogical documents

  • Newspaper clippings

  • Newspaper headlines

  • Newspaper editorials

  • Digitized copies of signatures

  • Digitized letters

  • Drawings

  • Maps

  • Visual timelines

  • Family trees and pedigrees


There are so many places to find images for your stories. Utilize them to help enhance the written word of your accounts. For more visual ideas to incorporate into your books, read this blog post.



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