Should I Include That? – Family History Writing Tips
After creating numerous heritage scrapbooks, writing the first draft of 120+ ancestor’s lives, and turning two into published books, I’ve learned a few things about storytelling.
First, scrapbooks have condensed stories from an ancestor’s life. Narratives written in a novella format can have more depth. Register style family histories lack the depth of a narrative and the graphic appeal of scrapbooks.
That discovery aside, sometimes we have an ancestor for which we have mountains of content that could be compiled into a 7-volume biography. But should we write that much about one individual? In short, should I include every detail in family history stories?
What is the Goal of Writing a Family History
When writing a narrative history about an ancestor, the goal is to introduce your reader to the individual’s life, including the familial, community, and world events of the time and place they lived. And, surprisingly, having too much information to draw from is often more challenging than too little.
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You might face situations like these:
When writing about an individual’s early years, do you include when the babe first sat up, first rolled over, and first walked?
During the person’s youth, they have playmates. Do you include every friend they ever played with? Do you just list them briefly and summarize what games they played? Do you include a few brief examples of the ancestor in question playing a specific game with a specific friend?
Humans go through a natural changing process during the teenage years. Should you include when the person experienced those changes and their reactions to them?
What if you have an ancestor that dated extensively? Should you include every relationship or crush? Or can you highlight one or two and sum up that the person “had many crushes and partners”?
What if your ancestor was involved in sports? Do you write about every training and competitive event they participated in?
The short answer to “Should I Include That?” is really, It Depends!
What are kind of family history you trying to write?
Before you write a family history, you need to review your goals. Let’s examine the baby milestones.
If you’re writing about an ancestor who overcomes delayed physical and mental development or an early achiever in life, then the baby details would be interesting.
If you have a family anecdote, then the milestones could be useful.
For instance, my grandmother said my mother was born talking, even though mom didn’t ‘officially’ start talking until she was 2.
I could use this fact and link it to further stories of my mother getting into trouble at school, work, church, etc., for talking too much.
If you’re attempting to write a 60-year biography, perhaps such early stats are best suited for a photo reference to the person who kept a log of such milestones (if you include the details at all).
You can repeat the evaluation process for the other situations I listed and the ones you encounter.
Why are you writing about an ancestor, and what are you hoping to accomplish?
Every human goes through puberty, so mentioning that might not help your ancestor’s overall story.
If you’re transcribing their diary, then leave their feelings and impressions in.
However, if trials in puberty have effects on future life choices, then it’s worth mentioning.
Some ancestors had many love interests, and others have less.
If the numerous relationships are a part of an ongoing social group, then perhaps they can be mentioned.
However, most family members want the cliff notes versions until the ‘how I met your mother’ story.
Learning about my ancestors has been truly a great experience. Time and space don’t allow for the inclusion of everything that has been documented about some of our ancestors. The stories would be too long if you can believe it.
Decide What Details Tell a Great Story About Your Ancestor
Decisions have to be made by you as the family historian. In making these decisions, don’t alter an individual's history but keep your stories compelling and interesting for your readers.