Devon Noel Lee
The Easiest Way to Write Family Histories
Storyboarding and writing prompts are tools that supposedly help you write a family history your relatives want to read. But do they?
When detailing the lives of an ancestor you did not know, except by the records they left, these tips can be more frustrating that promised.
Instead, why not leverage the records your ancestors left behind to write about their lives? It's a much easier starting place than "describe the sounds and smells of the town where your ancestor lived."
Start With the Genealogy Documents You Have Gathered
As genealogists, we gather every document that tells us when and where our ancestors lived. Additionally, we learn enough biographical information to separate our kin from a lineup of same-named individuals.
These records may include birth, marriage, and death records, gravestone images, census records, newspaper articles, journals, land records, and more.
That said, some records provide scanty data and seem to serve no purpose other than to certify that an event or transaction occurred. Other records overflow with details that make writing a family history surprisingly easy.
My great-grandma Maggie had a lovely photo collection that featured her siblings, including this handsome gentleman, Christopher Hoppe.
I found several records documenting uncle Christopher including one in the “Ohio, County Death Record” collection on FamilySearch.
“Ohio, County Death Records, 1840-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 30 March 2016), Christopher Hoppe, 11 Jan 1900; citing Death, Columbus, Franklin, Ohio, United States, source ID v 3 p 50, County courthouses, Ohio; FHL microfilm 2,026,910.
Turn Documents into Stories
Once you find a record about your ancestor, turn the facts from the document into sentences and paragraphs. Extract every detail available, no matter how small. For Christopher, my death story reads like this:
Christopher died on Jan 11, 1900. The cause of death was listed as an injury that resulted in him vomiting blood. Christopher was treated by Orin H Stutson. He was a painter and aged 40 years old at the time of his death. He resided at 567 E Mound in Columbus, Ohio. His parents were listed as Christopher and Margerta. He was buried on 14 January in Green Lawn Cemetery using the Schoedinger Funeral Service.
Once you have extracted all the factual details in the document, you can make this story more interesting.
Do you want to write a family history book?
Grab your copy of this FREE Writing Guide:
First, rearrange the facts, so the paragraph flows more smoothly.
Then, add extra details about your ancestor using additional sources when applicable.
Look at these paragraphs and notice how I did just that.
An unreported injury resulting in vomiting blood caused the death of Christopher Hoppe on 11 January 1900 in Columbus, Ohio. Medical professional Orin H Stutson treated the patient, who suffered for a day before succumbing to his illness. We can only imagine what his wife of 2 years, Margaret Schmidt, felt watching him in this condition. At age 24, Margaret was 17 years younger than her husband, and the couple had no children. What would she do when she returned to her rented home at 567 E Mound in the 4th Ward of Columbus? 40-year-old Christopher had paid for it through his income as a painter. How would she pay for this home?
Three days later, the Schoedinger Funeral Service interred Christopher in Green Lawn Cemetery beside his German immigrant father, Christian. Christian died in 1881 when Christoph was 22. In the same cemetery, but not the same plot, Christopher's youngest sister Anna, had died four years earlier when she was 27.
Without children, the remaining kin to mourn Christopher's loss included his German immigrant mother, Anna Margaretha, aged 71, and his younger sister Maggie Geiszler, aged 39. Maggie gave Christopher his only nephews to live past infancy to call him uncle - William, aged 17, and George, aged 15.
How to wrap up this story is the subject of another article. But you can see the power of using records to write family stories.
You can use any record, plus some family context, to write a family story. Give it a try and let me know how you did.
Record By Record, Write a Family History Story
Sentence by sentence, you can write your family histories.
The second set of paragraphs started from one record that became an initial paragraph. By adding family, residential, and biographical context, that first record became several paragraphs, and you know about the family at the time of Christopher's death. These details came from records that helped build uncle Christopher's family tree.
It's difficult to write a family history when you have never met an ancestor. However, with an initial record, you can start your story.
You can write quickly and effortlessly when you begin with one record.
To learn more about quickly and easily writing a family history, check out my book, A Recipe for Writing Family History, available on Amazon through the link in our book store.