Written by Diane Haddad, unless otherwise noted.
Once you’ve been doing genealogy research for a while, and you have a family tree or a computer hard drive or a filing cabinet with a bunch of notes and old records, you might wonder what to do with it all. Or perhaps you’ve always harbored the dream of sharing your family history, and you’re not sure how.
It’s a hard truth: Few people have much use for an unstructured assortment of documents and computer files. Even folks who are curious about their family history—and that describes most I’ve met—aren’t likely to sort through your research and rebuild the store of knowledge you’ve amassed over years.
If your family research is to live beyond you, you’ll need to do the work of putting it into some shareable, lasting form. That usually means summarizing your finds in writing, maybe enhanced with photos and images of interesting documents. Whether you go all-out with a self-published hardback or just pass out stapled pages at the next family reunion, you’ll create a legacy—a framework others can use to understand your family’s story and the genealogical evidence you’ve gathered.
We can’t promise the project will be a breeze, but we can promise it’ll be easier when you follow these tips and use our handy organizing worksheet.
1. Know Your Purpose
Before you begin, it’s important to know what you hope to accomplish with this writing project. Do you want to summarize all your research, share your family legacy, pass down the stories Grandpa told, tell how your family fits into local history, share the story of an ancestor or family you admire, celebrate your ethnic heritage, or something else?
A strong focus makes the project more manageable, says Sunny Jane Morton, author of Story of My Life. “A small, finished project is better than a three-volume tome that exists only in your dreams.”
Need help narrowing the scope? Morton advises looking at your research for the most compelling story or interesting person. Author Sophia Wilson, who penned an 160,000-word history of her family, started her project by writing as many family stories as she could think of, then turning them into short biographies of the people involved. She wrote every day for at least 15 minutes, but sometimes for hours at a time. Taken together, those biographies served as the starting point for her project.
Alternately, you could choose a topic that commemorates an upcoming family milestone, such as your parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. Or you might start with whatever’s most doable.
Your audience is an important aspect of your goal. For a project just family will see, you might use a casual writing style, refer to relatives with familiar titles (“Great-grandpa Thornton”), and use in-text source information. If other genealogists will read your work in a newsletter, journal or published book, you’ll want a more authoritative style with an emphasis on your research process, and formal source citations in footnotes and source lists.
Think about your audience’s age (or level of maturity), too. Wilson recalls how her research turned up stories that might not be appropriate to a younger audience. “Instead of shifting the focus of my book, I decided that children could simply read the unvarnished truth once they were mature enough,” Wilson says. “Age-appropriate stories could be extracted and adapted for a younger audience, for whom I would also write at a lower reading level.”
“I kept coming back to what I wanted the project to accomplish (preserving and sharing memories for the younger generation) and letting that guide my decisions,” she says.
2. Make a Plan
An outline gives you a framework for building your project, especially if it involves multiple people or a long time span. Make a list of elements you want to include. Don’t worry about organizing the list yet.
Here’s an example for my maternal family history opus:
- a family tree of Mom’s family
- information about the places the family came from with a map, including why so many immigrated from each place
- names and immigration details of all the immigrant ancestors: Henry Seeger, Eduard Thoss, Mary Mairose, Thomas Frost, Edward Norris, Elizabeth Butler, Henry Hoernemann, Anna Maria Weyer, and so on.
- where these families settled in the United States, their jobs and their children
- Eduard Thoss tavern in Northern Kentucky
- info on Cincinnati Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, where so many settled
- Dierkes boys in family cemetery plot
- Henry Seeger’s cigar store, with photos and timeline, and two babies who died as infants
- Thomas Frost/Mary Wolking divorce
- Ade Thoss and the Covington Blue Sox
- possible family connection to Windthorst, Kan.
- death of Elizabeth Teipel Thoss and several of her children
- Benjamin Teipel trap-shooting invention and death
- Civil War service of Frank and Benjamin Thoss
- firefighter Raymond Norris and Newton Tea & Spice Co. Fire
- how Grandma and Grandpa met
Your list might cause you to rethink your project scope. For example, I’m seeing that I could divide up my project by family branches, breaking it down into smaller parts (and this is only part of my list).
When you know the topics you want to cover, arrange them in an order that makes sense to you. You could do chronological order, geographical order (group all information related to Germany, all immigration information, all second generation information), family branches one at a time, or some other arrangement. You could opt for a general overview then add several shorter profiles of specific ancestors or families.
Wilson shares how she thought about structure while planning her project:
One option would be maintaining individual biographies, organized in the book by birth year, generation or location. Or I could combine all biographies into a single narrative chronology, or even organize the stories by theme (women, farming, culture, etc.).
I opted for the most straightforward and comprehensive order: chronological. With this approach, I gained a deeper understanding of how my ancestors’ lives developed over time, and how one event flowed into another.
Next, create an outline by organizing topics into sections or chapters. Read published family histories for examples. One of my favorites is Family by Ian Frazier.
3. Say It with Pictures
Pictures and graphs will engage your readers, help them follow complicated lineages and show what you’re talking about. “Plan as you go which pictures, documents, maps, charts and genealogical reports will best illustrate your narrative,” Morton advises.
Depending how many photos and documents you’ve found, you’ll want to winnow the options to those from key moments in your family history, selecting those that will reproduce well in the finished product. Consider adding transcriptions for hard-to-read or foreign-language documents.
Keep copyright in mind. If you plan to publish your work (including on a website), get permission from the copyright holder or owner of any images you didn’t create or that aren’t in your personal collection. For a quick read about understanding copyright laws, check out this article.
4. Get Organized and Utilize Apps
Now you’re ready to write. As you work, go over your records for families and people you’re writing about. Wilson developed a filing system that automatically sorted documents by individual. “I created a separate document for every event so I could easily insert new findings, titling each with the event, the date and the location,” she says. “I then grouped the documents into folders, one folder for each year.”
To help you organize source references, add in-text references with the title, author and page or record number in parentheses when you use information from a record, article, book or website. Also create a bibliography of sources as you go. This should include everything needed to find that source again: title, author, publisher or creator (such as the National Archives), publication date and place, website, etc.
Later, when your project is mostly complete, you can keep the in-text references, or number the references and create footnotes (short-form citations at the bottom of the page) or end notes (short-form citations at the end of a chapter). Include the bibliography at the end of your work. For help with source citations, use the book Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Genealogical Publishing Co.).
You might have a writing head start if you can pull together blog posts or short essays you’ve already written about your family history. Your genealogy software or online tree might offer a timeline you can follow, or even generate a narrative report for you. For an ambitious project or if you do a lot of writing, you might invest in software such as Scrivener. Additionally, writing apps can help you create an outline, organize and edit your story.
5. Generate Ideas through Prompts and Research
If you’re still having trouble knowing what to write, try answering the family history writing prompts in a book such as Stories From My Grandparent or from Family Tree Magazine. These will help you flesh out ideas and take your family stories in new directions.
Revisit your research for story ideas, and let what you find in documents inspire you. Wilson consulted books (both digital and physical) about her ancestors’ location and ethnic group, as well as documents on genealogy websites like Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com. One book on Ancestry.com contained all the church records for her ancestors, some written by her great-great-great-grandfather’s best friend.
Wilson also revisited local histories and newspapers she had found early in her project. “Now that I was further in my research, I recognized more names and better understood the relationships among them,” she says. “People I had dismissed as “townsfolk” turned out to be in-laws and close friends of my lineal ancestors.”
6. Seek Out Help
Look for writers’ groups and classes in your community. From online groups to friends and family members, having a community you can rely on for feedback and encouragement is essential.
Reaching out can also lead to new research finds, important for sourcing the details in your stories. Wilson connected with other family historians, as well as genealogical societies and libraries (who scanned entire chapters of reference books for her to consult). One cousin-in-law even sent her photos and a relevant family keepsake they found on eBay.
7. Begin in the Middle
Don’t let the “how to start” roadblock stall your project right out of the gate. If you don’t know how to begin, just start writing a story you like—maybe it’s about an ancestor’s immigration, military service or venture to the wrong side of the law. The words will flow from there.
“My goal wasn’t perfection, just to get memories on the page,” Wilson says about her first step of writing family biographies. “I didn’t waste time checking spelling and grammar—that would come later.” An interesting or dramatic event is often the best way to begin a story, anyway. Remember, you’re not carving in stone: You can always rearrange things later.
8. Write Naturally
If you’re writing for relatives, pretend you’re telling your family story to a friend. If you’re writing for a publication, tailor your work to that publication’s style.
Wilson had to wrestle with how to balance facts she found in her research with storytelling. “I thought of how much I hated history class growing up—all those names-places-dates to memorize, and no story to latch onto,” Wilson says. “I resolved to … strive for historical accuracy without resorting to the dry tone of a textbook.”
9. Take Your Time
A deadline can motivate you, but give yourself plenty of time. You want this project to add fulfillment to your family research, not cause stress. Start now and work on your writing project a little at a time, once a week or every evening if you can manage it. Imagine where you’ll be a year from now.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2018 issue of Family Tree Magazine, written by Diane Haddad. Sophia Wilson’s article on the steps she took to write her family history narrative appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Family Tree Magazine.