Things I’ve Learned While Writing a Family History

Typewriter with title 5 Things I've Learned while Writing Their stories

Since January, I have been writing the stories of my father’s ancestors. It is now May, and I have learned a few things while turning their names, dates, and places into a genealogical narrative at the barest minimum.

1. Make the project smaller

Family History Book Table of Contents

Internally, I used RootsMagic to produce a Narrative Report. It is an excellent start for the narrative project but is only a tool to get the narrative going. I have to use the program to make the story have more details. Another way to put it is that the generated report gave me the frame upon which to build the house.

When asked how many generations I wanted back from my father, I selected 10. Why not? Right? Um… no. The difficulty comes in the 7th generation. The record details get sketchy. I also have not done much to verify the research that keeps ‘making the rounds.’ And I don’t want to at this time.

The other challenge is that I also have my mother’s line to do. There is no way I can get through all of the ancestors if I work back to the 10th generation. I believe that family history should be a collaborative effort. And this project needs to record what I have research and the stories I have learned. So, I scaled back the generations to 7 generations. Something tells me that I could probably cut that generation from the project as well. We’ll see.

In short, keep the project manageable by reducing the scope.

2. Focus on the parents

I started working on the parents and the children in the generations closest to me. My father had no siblings. The children were his aunts and uncles and his great aunts and uncles. I did have a lot of stories that I learned on my research trip in 2012. However, as I started moving back to the 3rd and 4th generation back, I felt overwhelmed. Again, I’m working on my father’s work, but I would NEVER get to my mother’s at this rate.

So, the children of the parents will have to wait. This initial effort is to capture the stories of each family. I can best accomplish that by working with the parents. Someday, well into the future, either I will have more helpers, or I will have more time.

In short, I’m going to focus on the parents’ stories.

3. No further research

Gasp! I know. How can anyone say not to do more research?

If you are building a new home, you have to construct the house's exterior before you can work on the tile floor. (Can you tell I’ve lived through a remodeling project?)

The RootsMagic report gave me the frame for my project. It organized my family members and provided sample sentences based on the events each individual has accumulated. With timelines and additional charts, I can see patterns and relationships that allow me to turn the sample sentence into something with more depth. I can put the exterior walls up.

As I have spent more time with each parent, I have found gaps in information. Taking the time to research every gap will prevent me from getting this initial effort finished. Instead, I need to leave notes in my manuscript or in RootsMagic to remind me of future research needs.

The purpose is to write what can be determined now based on already completed research. Sure, if something seems wrong, I might do a little to sort it out. But I have to tell myself it’s better to create a future research list and finish this project rather than what the opposite approach will produce.

In short, create a To-Do List rather than spend time doing additional research.

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4. Historical icing comes later

I have read numerous articles about the need to add historical context to the family stories we present. That’s all well and good, but it’s not at this stage.

Now, I have had to add a bit of context in the case of Ontario, Canada. From 1830 to 1880, British North America, specifically the Canadian area, underwent a few political changes. At first, Ontario was Upper Canada. Then this became Canada West. Eventually, it became a united Canada, and the province of Ontario was formed.

To remember and present the location of family members who lived in Canada at this time, I want to be as accurate as possible in the area. When I present a birth location contrary to most ‘accepted’ family research, I do it with historical information. If I say the birthplace in 1832 was in Upper Canada rather than in Lincoln, Ontario, Canada, I mention that the three last locations had not been established yet.

Outside of this situation, I have to restrain myself from looking up historically significant events such as rulers in Bavaria, Germany.

In short, the historical context comes later as well. The decorative furniture is put in the house after the inspector says a home is approved for habitation.

5. Sort the citations later

RootsMagic did a great job of providing the source citations in the Narrative Report. For some reason, I could not create a document that was editable and still linked the citations. I soon realized that the citations were getting scrambled.

Additionally, when you’re writing something, the first draft needs to come out of your head and get into the computer. That’s what I’m doing. Taking the thoughts and stories out of my head and into a more usable form. I restrain myself from including unsourced information as much as possible. If I add an unsourced piece of information, I mention that in the narrative.

In short, there will be time to manage and format the source information. Focus on getting the stories written.

There you have it. I am now 62% done with the ancestors on my father’s side, and it’s the fifth month of the year. I hope to pick up the pace a little over the summer. I hope to get to my mother’s project by July. I might have to take August off from blogging to focus heavily on her line. I’ll keep you posted.

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