How to Set Up A File to Write About Your Ancestors

Writing makes you a better researcher in genealogy, but how can you set yourself up for success? If you set up your files in such a way you’re ready to write as you make new discoveries about your ancestor, you will be better prepared to not only write but also have your content nearly formatted for publishing.


In 2012, I traveled to Columbus, Ohio for a week-long genealogy research trip. I returned with so many great stories, documents, and photos. I needed to find a way to process all of this information without going crazy.


Additionally, I felt compelled to record them as soon as possible. That year my Grannie and Mom passed away and if anything happened to me, all of the research I discovered would die with me. I didn’t have time to waste. Additionally, I wanted to share my discoveries with my extended family in an organized way.


To speed up my writing process, I set up a digital writing file that would help me write mini-biographies about each ancestor. My approach was methodical while allowing for the flexibility to handle the unexpected.


In the end, I would have a place to put the discoveries and process the new information. When I finished, I revised each person’s story into a family history project.


Setting Up to Write A Family History Book


Before you can write, you need to have content and for many of us, our content should be in an online tree or genealogy program.


I use RootsMagic as a central portal to organize my research, analyzing my tree, and writing family histories. I can sync with my Ancestry tree and share information with RootsMagic or export a GEDCOM file to share on MyHeritage.


RootsMagic comes with a handy feature that helps organize my genealogical data into a biography for printing.

I opened a digital writing program and started typing. The ‘bones’ of the organization was provided by RootsMagic’s Narrative Report feature.

Generate Narrative Report From Previous Research


Open up RootsMagic and use their Narrative Report wizard on a file of your choice.

Select Narrative Report in RootsMagic

Limit yourself to 6 generations or less (this is 120 ancestors).

Limit yourself to 6 generations and focus on Ancestors only.

Automagic Narrative Report from RootsMagic


The RootsMagic report generator will compile all of the facts, citations, and notes you entered into the program into a generational structure.

The Narrative Report feature from RootsMagic

It’s fast. It’s quick.


The reason is RootsMagic will take events (birth for instance) and turn the date and place into a sentence. In other words, RootsMagic will auto-magically generate the sentence:


Geraldine Gertrude Rang was born on 27 May 1895 in New Haven, Huron, Ohio.


Roots Magic inserts citation marks referencing my sources for Geraldine’s name and his birth date and place into the sentence after I press “Generate Report!”


(It’s possible that other genealogy software programs do this same feature. If your application does, take full advantage of the report generator to get you started.)


Don’t Stop With the Boring Genealogy Research Report


This narrative report is a great starting point, but if you print it now, the project will still rank high on the boring scale. Not as boring as printing a book of pedigree charts and group sheets.


You’ll want to add family legends, more photos, more family context, and more historical context. To do that, you need to edit the file.

Export to PDF


RootsMagic gives you the option to export your report into an RTF file. Text editors enable you to edit an RTF file, but that’s not always the case.

However, when you open the RTF file in Google Docs it looks like this.

When you open the RTF in OpenOffice Writer, it’s blank, like this.

How are you going to work around this mess?


Export your file to a PDF. Then copy and paste the information into an editing program. Here’s what the report looks like in OpenOffice Writer.

Select all and copy from your PDF file

Take note, your footnote marks are not linked to your source citations. You will also need to adjust the formatting of the file to improve readability.

Content from the PDF pasted into Text Editor (Open Office)

However, you have the bones of your project ready to go!!!


Make Two Copies of the File


You’ll want to save two copies of the content that is in your text editing program.


The first you’ll label with “WORKING” at the end of the file name you create (i.e. GertrudeRangHistory_WORKING). The second you’ll label as “ORIGINAL” at the end of the file name (i.e. GertrudeRangHistory_ORIGINAL).


Leave the original file untouched. Write and revise in the Working file.


Your File is Setup to Write Ancestor’s Story


With the ‘bones’ of your ancestor’s story in your writing program, you can begin the process of enhancing what RootsMagic has compiled for you.

  1. Add the new stories you have heard or discovered.

  2. Include the family legend and discuss how true (or false) it is

  3. Insert photos that enhance the story

  4. Add digitized documents that support the facts of your ancestor’s life

  5. Incorporate family context so the focus isn’t just on one individual but on them as part of a larger group.

  6. Utilize historical context to help your reader visualize and understand the world in which this ancestor lived.

Enjoy the process. As you make new discoveries, your file can expand to accommodate what you discovered.


Considering Breaking Up The Genealogy Report File


Although RootsMagic organizations six generations rapidly, you may discover that your file size slows down your computer while you write and edit.


For a six-generation family history, there are 120 individuals to write about. If you know the birth, marriage, and deaths of these 120 individuals and any of their children (which could exponentially increase the size of your book), your file could be hundreds to thousands of pages long.


Consider breaking up your file into one file per person or one file per generation.


WARNING: Citations Links Do Not Transfer From RootsMagic to Report


When you copy and paste your Narrative Report from a PDF file to a text editing program, your citation links do not remain. You will have to reestablish your links by inserting footnotes or endnotes manually.


Meaning, if you move a sentence that has the footnote or endnote as “3” (from the RootsMagic generated report) to the position where it should be “25”, your text editing program will not automatically renumber your citations. You have to insert a new citation via a footnote or endnote.


To fix the problem, you can do one of two things.


The first is to spend the tedious hours it will take to copy and insert your citations as they stand now so that when you write, edit, and rearrange your ancestor’s story, the citations will automatically update.


OR… you can revise and insert the citations as you write or rewrite.


In other words, as you write a birth story, you can insert a citation as you use it. When you finish writing, you can insert a footnote in your text editor for the birth certificate you used. Copy the birth certificate citation from your ORIGINAL file and paste it in the appropriate location in your WORKING file.


Repeat the process for each citation you use in your ancestor’s story.


Tip: If you the same source more than once, you’ll want to insert a cross-reference to the first instance you added the source to your file. In so doing, should you move your paragraphs around, the cross-reference, and the original citation, will automatically update.


I highly recommend the insert citations as you go because it will force you to reprocess your work. (This is where the “becoming a better researcher” takes place).


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5 Steps to Quickly Write About Your Ancestors



Which ancestor will you write about first?


The beauty of preparing your file or files before you write is that you can then add to the story of your ancestor in a haphazardly organized fashion.


Today you could write about a female ancestor in the 4th generation. Tomorrow you could write about a male ancestor in the 2nd. You can jump around as the discoveries inspire you.


I was able to process the photos, stories, and documents that I received in 2012 in less than 365 days into first drafts. I’ll spend the rest of my life editing these stories until they’re ready for publication. I have one book completed, one in the final revision phase, and 118 more to go. I could die now and rest easy knowing that I didn’t let those stories go to the grave. How about you?


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