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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

How I Set Up A File to Write About 120 Ancestors in a Year

Writing makes you a better researcher in genealogy, but how can you set yourself up for success?

If you set up your book files so you’re ready to write as you make discoveries, you will accomplish your goal of writing that genealogy book. This process was key to success when I wrote the rough drafts for 120 ancestors in a year.

Today, learn how to set up a digital file to receive the notes, thoughts, and details you will curate to accomplish the goal of writing a family history book.

Before You Begin

Before you can write, you need to have content. For many family historians, our content will reside in an online tree or genealogy program.

If you’re using paper forms and charts, that’s fine so long as you’re not using a disorganized pile of loose papers and sticky notes.

One advantage of using digital programs is they often have a report-writing feature that will quickly transform your details into sentences and a document.

In this video, I will demonstrate how to use RootsMagic’s report tools to lay the foundation of your non-boring family history book.

This next portion is best watched rather than explained in writing. Check out the video tutorial for the procedures.

Generate Narrative Report with RootsMagic

Open a RootsMagic database containing the persons you wish to write about.

You could focus on one individual or a family.

  • Navigate to and highlight the starting person for your project.

  • In the left menu bar, select the “Publish” option.

  • If the “Narrative Report” Option is in the quick menu, tap that option.

    • Otherwise, Click the "All reports and charts" link.

    • Use the scroll bar to the "Narrative Report" option. (Or type Narrative in the search box.)

  • Then select the Report type.

  • Then choose how many generations to include:

My only other caution is if you’re writing for the first time, do not bite off more than you can chew.

For ancestral or descendant books, limit yourself initially to 3-4 generations. You actually want to complete the project, right?

The other options to select at this time are:

  • Date format

  • Start each generation on a new page

  • Whether or not to include notes

  • Do not include photos at this stage

  • Whether or not to include private facts

  • And finally, turn off the preparer information.

Leave all the remaining default settings as is and click “Generate Report.”

The RootsMagic report generator will compile the facts, citations, and notes you entered into the program into a chosen report-type structure.

It’s fast. It’s quick. It’s NOT a page-turner.

Don’t Go to Press

While using this ‘easy button’ for report writing is tempting, don’t take this file to press just yet.

You likely will have a messy and dull report, even if you have the correct structure to your report.

Non-boring family histories:

  • Are easy to understand.

  • Have extras such as graphics, photos, and historical context.

  • Are arranged to tell a better story.

  • Have sections and subsections to divide up the text. .

But how do you take it from this report preview to a place to review your book?

Save Report for Editing

RootsMagic 8 gives you three options for saving your report. You can export a PDF, but that’s best for printing your report.

We want to edit what RootsMagic started, so instead, choose the options to either export to a TXT or DOCX file.

You can then open the TXT or DOCX file in your favorite text editing program.

You can also import the DOCX file into a desktop publishing program as well.

I prefer to save the file to the docs option.

Then, you can use this file in Google Docs, MS Word, Apple Pages, or LibreOffice.

So, save the file to the Microsoft Word option and close the RootsMagic program.

Make Two Copies of the File

You’re almost ready to start writing and revising this report, but heed this one piece of advice.

Save two copies of the initial file from RootsMagic.

  • Label one file with “ORIGINAL” at the end of the file name (i.e., GertrudeRangHistory_ORIGINAL).

  • Label the other file with “WORKING” at the end of the file name (i.e., GertrudeRangHistory_WORKING).

Make any revisions to the “WORKING” file.

Leave the original file untouched.

By so doing, if you make a change that you want to restore, you can go back to the original file, find the unchanged portion you want, and then copy and paste it into the working file. You can then continue with your revisions.

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What To Do Next ?

With the foundation of your ancestor’s story in your writing program, you enhance what RootsMagic has compiled for you. You can revise, reorder, and condense your commentary regarding the events in your ancestor’s life.

  • Add the new stories you have heard or discovered.

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

  • Insert photos, maps, and other graphics to enhance the story.

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

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

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

  • Add chapters and headings to break up the text.

  • Add tables to make some data more interesting and digestible.

With the familial structure in place, your file is ready to take you where the writing process goes. You will not have writer’s block because you’ve skipped the step of creating the first draft.

All of your research and notes are in one place.

Now, it’s time to make it more readable.

However, as you work with this file, you may discover a few obstacles that I wish to prepare you for.

Cumbersome File Sizes

While you can have multiple generations in one report, you will soon learn that large file sizes and your computer are often incompatible.

Lengthy text and source citations, graphics, and images use many computer resources.

Therefore, you struggle to work efficiently because your computer does not keep up with your writing and editing.

Consider breaking up your file into one person or generation per file. You could also break up the story of a person into chapters of their life.

After you finish revising the content of each file, you can combine all the files into one. Or you can export each file as a PDF and then merge the PDF files together using a program like PDFill.

Linking Citations

As you edit your report, be aware that citation marks (superscripts within the text) are not linked to endnotes or footnotes. This means that when you start moving text around and revising sentences, the citation references will become out of sync.

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

Therefore you will want to find tutorials on creating endnotes or footnotes in your text editor, such as this one on creating endnotes at the end of each chapter in Word.

When should you update the citation links or index?

While you could fix the links before you start revising your story, I recommend adding the links as you revise your text.

For instance, start improving the birth story for person one, generation one.

After you complete the text, you can revise the citations referencing the story and insert new citations.

As you work through the file, the new linked citations and index entry will update automatically as you continue to revise, rearrange, and add to your file.

Pro Tip: Inserting citations as you go forces you to reprocess your work and ensure you have quality sources for the facts you have in your narrative.

Do You Have to Set Up this File?

You never HAVE to do anything when writing a family history book except for citing your sources. (Please cite your sources.)

You can start with a blank file and write as you process each document and resource that you have.

You can later format the book in the various genealogy styles or create chapters that fit your book's story arc.

The advantage of preparing a file in this fashion is that your family members and your research is in one organized place. Plus, again, you’ve finished a first draft, which, let’s face it, writing the first draft is the hardest step of all.

So, if you’re genealogy program has numerous notes, sources, and so forth, consider giving this process a try and let me know if it helps.

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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