Seeing your genealogical research between two covers holds a great deal of
appeal for many researchers. For some, wanting to write a genealogy or family
history is what began their ancestral quest. For others, publishing a book seems
like a way to spread and share information they have collected. Regardless of
the reason, there are several things a genealogist should think about before
beginning a book project.
Have a Focus
While you are not trying to prove a point, or cure any social ills, you book
needs to have a focus. A focus is necessary if for no other reason than to keep
you organized. Here are some examples of options I might consider when deciding
to write a family history book:
There are two known branches of this family in the United States; one descends
from James RAMPLEY (referred to as James I) who died in Harford County, Maryland,
in 1817, the other descends from William RAMPLEY who died in Spartanburg County,
South Carolina, in the 1790s. Their relationship is unknown.
There are several approaches I could take in writing a genealogy on the RAMPLEY
family. The first would be to document as many descendants of James and William
as possible and include them in one book. I may decide that this project is
too large in scope, or that the cost of such a book is too prohibitive. Their
descendants will easily number in the thousands and few members of either branch
will probably want to buy a book that's only "half" full of their
I could choose to focus on the first 5 generations beginning from James I,
including all lines of descent. I could also choose to focus on only the male
descendants of James I. Or, I could include enough generations of James I's
descendants so that the book stopped with the generation born in approximately
1900. In any of these books, I could include a short chapter on the William
RAMPLEY of Spartanburg County, South Carolina, without providing a comprehensive
listing of his descendants. There are other ways that I could choose to focus
on James' descendants. It is possible to debate which approach is most effective
or most desireable; however, this debate won't get the book published or written.
I should choose the focus that seems most applicable in this instance and one
that has a good likelihood of being completed.
It may be desireable to begin my book with a more recent member of the family.
I could include the descendants of James RAMPLEY (1803-1884), grandson of James
I. This would be a much smaller project (James (1803-1884) is only one of James
I's approximately 25 grandchildren). I could include information on James' (1803-1884)
parents, grandparents, etc., and include complete listing of children for each
of these ancestral couples. I could include separate chapters for each of James'
(1803-1884) known ancestors, or include the information in one appendix. A project
of this size might be more manageable. Choosing too large a project will make
completion of the book more difficult.
Samuel NEILL (1835-1912)
If there are families that either played an important role in your family's
history (or married into your ancestral family several times), you might want
to consider devoting chapters or sections of your work to these families.
Samuel NEILL died in West Point, Hancock County, Illinois in 1912. Of Samuel's
children, three married grandchildren of James RAMPLEY (1803-1884). Even if
I didn't descend from one of these NEILL - RAMPLEY marriages, I might choose
to make a book that combines the descendants of Samuel NEILL (1835-1912) and
James RAMPLEY (1803-1884), since there is a significant amount of overlap. However,
since I do descend from both families, I might consider this option more strongly.
I could include sections of the book devoted to the ancestors of Samuel NEILL
and James RAMPLEY.
A Book of My Ancestry
This would have limited appeal. Since it will only list my ancestors, few people
are going to buy the book because their name is in it (In my case, I have two
parents and two grandparents living - a market of five!). There are some people
who would be interested in a book of this type (especially if their great-grandparents
are in it). However, it would be difficult for people to locate this book in
a card catalog of some type and determine their ancestor is located in it. A
book entitled, The ancestors of Michael John NEILL wouldn't indicate
much about the surnames in the book, the locations involved, nor the fact that
5/8 of the ancestry is German! This does not mean that such a book would not
have value, it's just that most people won't be related to many individuals
in the book, or descend from many of them. Despite this, however, a book of
this type might be a very worthwhile one to compile. After all, if my eight
great-grandparents had done so, I wouldn't have as many dead ends as I do.
General Historical Information
There might be some historical background information that you wish to include
in your family history. This would help the reader to put the family in a historical
context. Be careful when making grand generalizations and keep in mind that
historical events might not have had any impact on your ancestors' lives (chances
are Thomas Jefferson's birth or William Henry Harrison's death had little impact
on your ancestor unless you are related to the Jefferson or Harrison
family). If there were historical events that caused your family to emigrate
from Europe (Prussia's annexation of Hanover), or that caused your family to
head west (the Homestead Act), then you might want to mention these items. Keep
in mind that the events should have logically impacted your family and that
you aren't trying to write a history of migration patterns within the United
States. Using historical events to place your family within the timeline of
history may be a good idea to give your readers a frame of reference.
Having a focus is more important than what your focus actually is. Radically
changing your focus may seriously delay your project and should not be done
with out careful consideration. Think about the family you are researching,
how it is structured, how it migrated, etc. These facts may provide you with
some ideas for your book's focus.
Set a Deadline
Even after you have decided upon your focus, you will continue to locate new
or corrected information (lucky, you!). This fortunate situtation presents a
problem. When do you stop adding new material and prepare the material you already
have? Setting yourself a deadline might be a good idea, and indicate that information
received after a certain date will not be a part of the published work. Exceptions
can be made, but too many and you won't have a deadline anymore and your manuscript
will sitting "in progress" at your funeral.
Put it Together
There are two main ways you can put your published work together. Since you
are viewing this article on the net, I am assuming you are going to use a computer.
However, preparing a book using typewriter is better than not preparing one
at all, and using a computer does not, in and of itself, make your book a better
product. It just makes it look better. There are basically two ways you
can use a computer to put together your manuscript.
By this, I mean preparing the book from "nothing" using some type of word processing
software. This approach will require you to retype all your genealogical information,
increasing the amount of proofreading. It will allow you flexibility, but will
create formatting and organization difficulties (such as keeping the numbering
system straight) that can be overcome by using a genealogical database that
will create a "basic" genealogy book.
Using a Genealogical Database
There are numerous genealogical database software packages that can produce
family histories from the data you have entered. In the simplest sense, these
programs take your genealogical information and produce a "book" from
it. Chances are there will be something about this automatic book you don't
like or wish were slightly different. Determine whether or not the package will
create the book on disk in a word proceessing format that you can then edit
with your word processor. If it does, you can manually go in and make changes.
A family history book should be created with an index, so pay close attention
to how the program does that. Is it appended at the end of the document and
if you change the page structure, do you mess up the entire index? Or does it
have "indexing codes" that allow the word processor to create a new and accurate
index, after you have made your changes (if you want to make changes
in the text, this is what you want).
Personally, I am never happy with anything and prefer a program that creates
a basic book, including the formatting, and then lets me go in and alter the
text, add biographical information, additional documentation, etc., without
messing up the index. If you don't want to edit the text yourself, then
you need to see sample books the software has created (so you know what it will
create before you create it). Find out:
- How does it format text?
- How does it handle abbreviations?
- How does it handle counties, or countries without towns? (Do you not like
- How does the software handle notes (Are all notes linked to the individual
in one file, or are they linked to each event in that person's life?). This
will effect how they are printed in any computer-generated reports.
You may wish to post queries regarding various "computer generated genealogical
books" to newsgroups or listserves.
Choose a Publisher
You are going to work closely with this person or organization, and this relationship
should begin before you have the finshed manuscript on your desk. Controlling
costs may be extremely important, depending upon your financial situation (you
aren't going to get rich writing your family history). There may be options
available to you that you aren't aware of now, and that you should learn about
before you begin formatting your manuscript. Do you want hardcover or softcover?
What type of binding? Do you want a picture on the cover? The questions go on
There are advantages with working with a printer in your area, such as having
easier access to the person. You may also wish to work with a publisher that
specializes in genealogical books. Publishers of this type frequently advertise
in national genealogical magazines, such as Ancestry, Heritage Quest,
and the Genealogical Helper. Many libraries have copies of these magazines
on their shelves.
Printers that specialize in genealogical books have already dealt with genealogists
and understand what the genealogical author is trying to do. Requesting more
information or flyers from several of these publishers is a good idea before
you get your project started. This allows you to compare costs and services
before you begin the real work of putting your masterpiece together. Before
you commit or sign any contracts, view samples of the printer's work. You need
an idea of what you are getting yourself into. Seeing these sample works also
might give you ideas for your own book. Getting references may also be a good
Go to Your Library
Take a look at some already published genealogies. They don't have to be on
your family. It's better if they aren't. This way you can look at the book for
its structure, content, and general style (instead of trying to locate your
family!). Critique several , making notes about things you like and things you
don't. You can easily get ideas for your own book by taking a look at what others
Give Credit Where Credit is Due
Genealogical research isn't done in a vacuum (unless it involves the Hoover
family). Chances are you have obtained information from other relatives. That
information may have been about the relatives' family or ancestors you share
with the relative. Credit the people who have helped you along the way. People
appreciate being thanked and seeing their name in print. And you never know
when they might find something else you need or don't have! If they remember
they sent you information and weren't acknowledged or thanked in some way, they
might think twice about sending you more.
Come up with a Title
Cute is tempting, but avoid it. "Keeping Up with the Jones': William JONES'
descendants," doesn't say much and can prevent future card catalog users from
locating your work. "The descandants of William JONES (1814-1900) of Dawson
County, Nebraska," is more precise and allows individuals who might need information
in your book to more readily locate your book in a card catalog.
Preparing your own genealogy is a lot of work (I'm not going to lie, although
a computer can make it much easier), but does offer great rewards. Otherwise,
all your information sits in your filing cabinet!