Tips for Writing a Compelling Family History

Search with a web browser or Pinterest and you will discover numerous articles about writing a compelling family history. Unfortunately, many of those posts use principles from grammar school that complicates the process.


Ignore Grammar School Writing Aides


In elementary school writing classes, students are taught to fill in three boxes to write a good story. The boxes are labeled, beginning, middle, and end. Older students might have more boxes with the headings ‘setting,’ ‘conflict,’ and ‘resolution.’


Each story must have a problem to be solved. The problem should be solved. And there must be a little background to prepare you for the overall story.


Yet, family history doesn’t always work that way. Do you know what problems your every great-grandparent had to solve? Sometimes their stories seem so boring because the lived, married, and died in one place. Yet, their stories can be extremely compelling if you ignore the box charts and follow a recipe.


Writing a Compelling Family History is Like Baking


In baking, many beginning cooks do well when they follow a recipe. Writing a family history is no different.


Before I became a scrapbooker, I didn’t think I was creative enough to make a memory album. Then I learned the power of following a template, or recipe, and soon I enjoyed making scrapbooks. So much so that I have created over 60 albums!


When I turned my attention to writing the story of my Papa Lewis Brown, I knew I could write a great story if I followed a recipe.


Begin Writing Using Ingredients


Without ingredients, you can not bake anything. The ingredients you do have will dictate the cookies you make.


The ingredients for your family history are found in your memories and in the photos, documents, and possessions you have collected about a relative.


So gather all the pertinent information you have available about an ancestor before you begin writing.


Add the Ingredients


The next step for writing compelling family histories is to transform your ingredients into something cohesive. You will examine each photo, document, keepsake, and memory and extract all the clues and details about your ancestor. Put them in your digital mixing bowl (a text editing program) as you go.

Don’t worry about the order in which you write each item. Write as you touch a document.


However, if you have examined a marriage certificate and then have details from a newspaper clipping about the wedding and the attendees, keep those details together in your digital file.


Begin Mixing the Ingredients


After processing all of the resources you have about an ancestor, critically re-read what you wrote. What further questions should you answer so that a reader understands how all the details fit together?


Read this blog post about critically reading family history for research clues with an eye towards what questions you should answer while writing your family history.


Begin the Baking Process


To make an edible baked good, you have to eventually put it in the oven.

The oven for writing a compelling family history is adding dialogue, it’s adding context and picking a storytelling approach.


Your story becomes fascinating when you add historical context and the extended family in connection with the person. You can access county histories, newspapers, military unit histories, journals, diaries, and more. These resources may not directly name your ancestor, but the information explores the world around them.


You may find the hidden story of your ancestor once you place them in the context of the world around them and their greater family dynamics. Therein lies your compelling lesson to emphasize in your writing.


With the context added, you then need to explore a method of telling a story. Some of these include:

  1. Begin with the end and work to the past

  2. Begin in the middle and flashback before continuing

  3. Write a family history chronologically following the history of a significant event (parallel storyline)

  4. Write in newspaper featurette style

  5. Follow a journey and flashback and forward as necessary

There is NOTHING wrong with a straight chronological story about an ancestor when you add context to the genealogical ingredients you have available. However, if you have a creative streak, then you can explore storytelling methods with the content you have.



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You Can Write a Compelling Family History


If you’re struggling to write a compelling family history, then change your perspective. Gather your ingredients until you have enough to know what story naturally comes to light.


Then combine these elements, eliminating some and adding others until you have the right mix.


Ultimately, your compelling family history will have a beginning, middle, and end but you will have arrived at completion using a more organic approach.


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