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Published April 29, 1999

Writing Your Family History
By Sandra Devlin

I delivered a lecture entitled Writing Your Family History to the spring workshop of New Brunswick Genealogical Society, Southeastern Branch in Moncton.

Following are some excerpts of that lecture:

When first asked to develop and deliver this lecture, I was both flattered and terrified. Even though there are many good resources from which to glean information about this topic; there are also as many ways to approach this topic “as Carter has little liver pills” to quote an old cliche.

Part of the problem is that what I call a family history and what you think is a family history -- could be and probably are very different from one another. Now multiply that by everyone in this room; then multiply it again by the thousands, if not millions, of folks who are into this obsessive hobby and you will begin to see what I was faced with when approaching this topic.

So for the sake of this lecture let us assume that Family Histories take one of six basic forms:
    1. A straight genealogy. An ordered list of the folks in your tree with references to sources, annotated bibliographies and hopefully an index. These can be presented in many formats including:
      - Direct Line reports beginning with a source person and using numbering systems such as the well-known Ahnentafel system or the legal outline format ;
      - Direct Line Descendant Charts beginning from a specific ancestor and working toward present-day;
      - Family Group Sheets or
      - the many dozens of other options.

    Thankfully, genealogy software programs for home computers have eliminated the guesswork and trauma of creating these reports and you are left with only the decision of which of the many to choose. Whatever form your family history takes, it is apt to include some straight genealogy.

    2. Memoirs. A family history in the form of memoirs is one of my favourites. Memoirs are so full of individuality and anecdotal treasures that I find myself absorbed in them even if the people and lives have no connection to my tree. The common misconception is that only famous people have a story to tell. That could not be farther from the truth. Just imagine how rich your genealogy would be if all your ancestors had written their memoirs.

    3. Photos. A family history can be a family photo album which someone has carefully organized and taken the time to painstakingly date and identify the people in a consistent pattern --- ( from left, front row -- from left, middle row, etc.) How many of you have boxes full of undated, unidentified photographs that only you can make sense of? I recently came across a photo of my brother at less than one year of age pasted in someone else’s family album and identified as someone else not even distantly related to us. This is what can happen if you leave the job of sorting through your photographs for someone else to do.

    4. Some combination of the above. This is the category into which most family histories fall.

    5. All of the above, plus copies of documents such as wills, land grants, military records or other defining paper work like court records or educational transcripts; and copies or extracts from letters or journals. One effective way to advance 4 to 5 is by using numbered or lettered appendices.

    6. All of the above, plus historical context.

    7 . Historical fiction. I add this here, but do not intend to elaborate on this form of family history, except to say that if this is the route you are considering than you need a whole other lecture, especially when it comes to seeking out a publisher. Historical fiction is a valid form of family history writing. Remember Alex Haley and Roots?
So then, your first job as family historian is to decide just how far you want to go with your writing project.

Full-blown family history

Following are some examples of things to add and places to look when when you chose to write full-blown family histories, i.e 5 or 6:

History is a lot more than names and dates and most of it has to do with individuals and their habits and choices. What you had for breakfast this morning is history. What did your ancestors eat for breakfast? My grandfather started every day with a slab of fresh bread slathered with home-made butter and dripping with molasses kept in a barrel in the summer kitchen. He lived to nearly 90, so much for the cholesterol theories.

In between your breakfast and the breakfast of your most distant ancestor are thousands of fascinating stories, facts and tidbits. History is a celebration of passing time. When writing your family history, imagine that your great-grandchild will pick it up 100 years from now when all or most evidence of today, yesterday and the generations before that you remember or have access to learning about are a blurry memory.

What do you want them to know about you? What do you want them to know about your parents? Grand-parents? Great-grandparents? --- and so on and so on and so on.

Don’t neglect what you know best -- your own life and times. Conduct family interviews with elders, of course, but also with your siblings, aunts/uncles and cousins. And, don’t forget your children. Get them to talk about themselves by stimulating memories. Nothing beats the smell of freshly baked bread or molasses cookies to get someone talking.

Following are some chapters you might want to consider:

Chapter on Housing/Workplaces: Describe as fully as your research allows the buildings and neighbourhoods in which your ancestors lived and worked. Collect, beg or borrow old photos of the houses in which they lived; go out of your way to take a recent photo of buildings which still exist and bring the building’s history up to date. Inquire if the companies for which your ancestors work have had histories written about them.

Chapter of Transportation: Also with photos/ horse and buggy; oxen teams, sleighs, streetcars, old cars.

Chapter on Working Tools: Sewing machines, milk separators, old typewriters, hand sickles, pitch forks, scrub boards, telegraph keys, telephone switchboards, lanterns, wooden buckets, player pianos, stereoscopes. (I have found that when I visit antique stores and museums, I come home with a thousand stories to tell to my grandchildren. That’s really what a family history is, anyway, isn’t it. A record for your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, so they will understand what life was like in days gone by and how their ancestors fit in the picture.) Don’t forget the Cookbooks and favourite, family-traditional recipes for pickles.

Chapter on Religion - Revivals, outdoor mass, eating meat on Friday, prayer meetings, Sunday school picnics. Did your family’s church frown on dancing? Did they get a reprimand from the elders for absenteeism? Don’t forget the music. Find an old hymn book or prayer book and make note of something interesting which affected your family. Holiday -- more traditions -- old Christmas cards. Dramas. Guest lecturers.

Chapter on Cost of Living - Newspaper ads, deeds & wills, court cases. Even if you do not have a record of exactly what your ancestor paid for a firkin of butter, there are records of what others of the day were paying. Imperial measure; currency changes.

Chapter on Possession: Heirlooms, family china, quilts; lamps, rocking chairs or grandfather clocks brought from the Old Country. Jewellery -- pocket watches, old wedding rings; stamp collections, family businesses, war medals, toys -- tea sets; school books, wedding dresses, bronzed baby shoes.

These are just some ideas to start your creative engines. My biggest problem is deciding where to stop. But stop you must, if you want to write. At some point you must decide to change the focus from research to writing. In the midst of writing, you will need to pick up a stray fact here and there or flesh out some detail a little more. But, the main focus must remain on the writing. Set deadlines for each stage and try to live up to it. Set a deadline for completion, too. Otherwise, you will be forever “in the process” of writing your family history, but never get it finished.


Once that (the shape of your family history) is decided and your research is complete, the next step is planning. But long before you put ink to paper or finger to keyboard, there is much to plan. There is absolutely no substitute for planning ahead.

In order to make your work readable, you must decide on a format.

For #4 and beyond you will need to organize your material into logical groups which will become the chapters of your book. I have brought along with me today some examples of family histories which I think are well done.

The first two are basically straight genealogy with a few extra surprizes tossed in for good measure. The strengths of these examples which you may want to consider for your family history are contextual introductions to geography and history; the list of abbreviations; the clearly indicated references and their indexes. Some family historians chose only to index surnames; others choose to index surnames and given names; still others provide a full index of people, places and other Proper names used in the book such as companies, churches etc. The some blessed writers, God bless them, even index women by both their maiden and married names. It is my personal opinion that anyone who writes a book and doesn’t include an index should be shot (figuratively, of course). The minimum I advise is a surname index.

One feature I particularly like in family histories is a time line. Personal profiles are nice, they give an added sense of the people beyond their sterile dates of birth, marriage and death.

In the third example, the exact and detailed references are fabulous as are the glossary of medical terms, place names and a list of sources besides the references.

My favourite family history is A Dutch-English Odyssey by Floyd Brewer in New York. To begin with it is technically lovely in layout which makes it a pleasure to read. It has folio overlines on every numbered page, for example, a feature rarely seen in family histories or non-fiction, in general. The choice of the Times font (the same as in your newspaper) , only a little larger, is ideal. It is no accident that newspapers use this font. It has been proven over and over again to be the easiest on the eye of the reader. The easier on the eye, the more likely the book will be read from cover to cover.

Mr. Brewer’s book is masterfully set in context. He weaves events of the community, country and the world into his very readable text. And, perhaps bravest of all, he is unstintingly honest. If one of his relatives had a drinking problem or an unsavoury reputation, it’s there in black and white. No whitewash whatsoever!

In the final chapter of his introduction, Brewer writes: “Future writers interested in documenting similar extended family stories necessarily need the requisite skills of good scholarship, a high level of hubris in family lore, a strong psyche to withstand feelings of rejection, some knowledge of basic counselling skills, and an abundance of persistence, so important to seeing a major project through from beginning to end.”

My best advice ... Study other family histories from the point of view of writer and publisher. Use the ideas of others and the well-established formats of the past to create your individual publication. If you like the glossary or the time line, create them for your history. If you are ready to be completely honest and objective about the foibles and follies as well as the outstanding achievements of your family -- go for it!

Besides the all-important index, I think everyone should also include detailed reference to support their data .

Writing skills, spelling checks and proof reading

When you are writing, do not try to emulate Shakespeare. Use plain language and simple sentence structures. Avoid “and” and “that” and “of” as if they were the plague. They are!

Descriptive language should be used only when it adds to the story. Most people use too many and useless adjectives. NEVER, rely solely on your word processing spell checker. Another hint: Write your introduction last. After you have the full and intimate knowledge of the completed project you are better equipped to introduce it to your readers.

Now you have written you family history and you think you are ready for the publishing stage.

Whoa! Hold up for a moment. Use this vital last-minute checklist:

1. Double check every date, every name, every fact - in search of typographical errors and consistent presentation, especially for dates. If you are, for example, writing dates in numbers and using month, day, year; be extra careful when checking that the day and month are not transposed.

2. Edit for grammar, spelling and word choice.

3. Edit to reduce words.

4. Have a least one other objective person thoroughly edit and proof read, two or three are even better.

Following are some exercises to help.

Make every word count.

For instance, many people will begin a conversation with a phrase like “I would like to thank” so and so. There are four unnecessary words in this phrase I would like to. I had a writing coach who once said, if you would like to than just do it. So begin the sentence with “Thank you for inviting me to lecture etc.” instead of “I would like to thank -- etc. etc.”

Another word to watch out for is “That” -- almost always the word that can be eliminated from a sentence and it still makes sense. Try it. Another common mistake is repeating words unnecessarily. This is common is conversation, but a fatal roadblock to good writing. The following example has both unnecessary words and repeated words:

“The attendees of the Spring Workshop of the New Brunswick Genealogical Society, Southeastern Branch listened to writer Sandra Devlin explain the do’s and don’ts of good writing as it pertains to writing their family histories ”

How would you fix this sentence to eliminate the unnecessary and redundant (repetitive) words. First what words are repeated? Second what words are unnecessary?

Edited the sentence might begin to look like this: Do’s and don’ts of family history writing were explained to genealogy enthusiasts by Sandra Devlin.

This sentence contains less than half the words of the first and conveys the essence of the thought without the distraction of unnecessary information. I do not think the editing of this sentence is complete, but that is how it starts.

So practice eliminating useless words and repetitive words in your work. Ask yourself: Does this sentence still make sense with that word gone? If the answer is yes, get rid of the word.

You have to work and rework your writing to eliminate these unnecessary words. It is not uncommon for me to do four, five and six rewrites of an article. And every time, besides spelling, grammar and other changes -- I am eliminating words and repetitive phrases. No writer ever sat down, wrote an article and passed it in on the first try. Let me repeat this: no writer - no matter how famous or how experienced or how talented -- ever gets it right the first time. And that leads me to the second bit of advise:

2. Every piece of writing needs more than one person to edit It is very important to have a good editor who will look at your work with a critical eye and even after the sixth rewrite still not be shy to point out errors or ambiguities.

One of the reasons why someone else should read your work before it is final is because you are too close to it. You know what it is supposed to say. But only someone who doesn’t know in advance what you intend to convey can judge whether you wrote it clearly -- accurately and concisely.

3. Experiment with words Expand your written vocabulary beyond the few hundred which you speak everyday. I don’t mean you should start to speak or write like a dictionary or use words which are obscure or unlikely to be understood by the majority of your readers. Use precise language instead of general language.

Take the verb “make/made”, for example.
I can make cookies.
I can make a sweater.
I can make a trip.

But it is more descriptive if I:
Bake cookies.
Knit or crochet sweater.

Walk -- stroll, hike, wander, tramp, march, stride, strut on my trip.

Now make these concepts come alive even further with precise language.

Bake gingersnaps.
Knit cardigan.
or fly, sail, walk, drive, bike -- to,on, down, up, around, through, across -- fly to Hawaii; sail across the glassy lake; walk the sun-baked beach, drive through rush-hour traffic, bike around the crime-ridden park.

These simple changes dramatically enhance the mental image in the mind of the reader.

Careful choice of words will stimulate your reader’s senses -- the sense of taste, the sense of smell, the sense of hearing, the sense of touch and the visual senses.

This is the end of the excerpts from my lecture. It generated lively discussion and several questions at the spring workshop. I hope it has opened up some new ideas for you, too.

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