Most published genealogies aren't meant to be read. You know the type.
The ones with just names, dates, and places, some of them no more creatively
done than printing out computer databases. Keep in mind that no one's
family history is compelling and interesting, until you make it compelling
Writing your family history so people will want to read it is not all
that difficult. You can write a completely factual account of your family,
fully documented, yet as readable as a novel. By borrowing techniques
from fiction writers, you can turn your dry facts into a compelling family
Remember, all good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and
it's these three parts that are the secret to writing a readable family
Grabbing Your Reader
I don't know who came up with the brilliant idea that a family history
had to begin with, "Samuel Martin was born on 3 March 1849 in a log
cabin in Illinois." Good grief. Who'd want to read any further? Would
you read a novel that began that way? Why do we think we have to begin
our family history with the day someone was born? Instead, use the same
writing technique that fiction writers use: start in the middle of a story,
then flashback and tell the reader how we got to that point.
After I've thoroughly researched a family, I look for the most interesting
aspect of their lives and open my narrative there. Say you're writing
about an immigrant family, begin the story aboard ship or the moment they
step foot on American soil. Or say you're writing about a family who made
the overland journey from east to west; open with what it must have been
like on the trail. Reel the reader in with an exciting, happy, or tragic
event, or a conflict. If you have letters, diaries, or an interesting
record, you can open by quoting that source. But remember: You are
writing nonfiction, so you have to write your family history within the
confines of fact. Here's an opening example:
Hannah Martin was senile. In 1904, Hannah was eighty-two-years-old
and since 1879, living off of her third husband's Civil War pension.
Nervous, agitated, and afraid of loosing her one means of support, Hannah
had mislaid or lost her pension certificate and could not find it anywhere.
Without it, the pension agent in Indianapolis could stop her payments.
Fortunately, Walter Hughes, the resident agent for the Phoenix Insurance
Company, came to her rescue. Hughes reassured Hannah that he would handle
the problem and wrote the pension office on her behalf.
See how I plunged us right into the middle of the story? In the paragraphs
that follow this lead, I'll use a flashback technique to fill in the reader
on how Hannah got to this point. All of the details in this paragraph
came from the letter Hughes wrote to the pension office. Rather than printing
a transcription of the letter, I just paraphrased it into my own words.
And, of course, in the actual narrative, I inserted a footnote and gave
the citation for the letter.
Keeping the Story from Sagging in the Middle
How do fiction writers keep you turning the page? They build suspense.
Now I'm not talking Stephen King suspense. All you need to do is leave
something hanging, either within a chapter or at the end of a chapter.
You don't need to give us everything you know all at once. Create an air
of mystery. Here is a quote from a letter that I used to end a chapter
in a family history:
I thought I could see the thing through, Grace, but I was a fool to
think so. It's no go. The last few months have been pure hell, and I
don't have to tell you to what silly, foolish little things I stooped
in constantly trying to suppress the big thing, which I considered I
had no right to say
. I've got to know whether I have a chance.
As you probably know, I haven't anything to offer you; to ask you to
marry me at present would be no compliment
. But if I'm ever lucky
enough to be able to ask you with a clear conscience, will I have a
chance? Will you write real soon and tell me, and tell me in words of
one syllable, because nothing could be worse than uncertainty.
I'm not saying the things that are usually said and that I want to
say so badly, because I want to keep this letter as rational as possible,
and I'm sure you know them anyway. But if I get a certain answer, oh
what a letter I will write! Will you send it right away, you wonderful
Now, be honest. Could you put the book down at that point? Even if you
were late to pick up your kids from school, wouldn't you turn the page
for a peek at Grace's answer?
Ending the Story
So who was the other wise person who thought that a family history had
to end when everyone in the story died? Or who thought the story had to
have a happy ending? Not true! You certainly don't have to kill off your
ancestors if you don't want to, nor does everyone have to live happily
ever after. You can end the story with your great-grandparents in their
old age. You can conclude with a tragic event. After all, tragedies, throughout
literary history, stick with us longer and have more of an impact on us.
When I was writing the biographies of Jay Roscoe Rhoads and his wife
Grace (soon to be published by Newbury Street Press, Boston), I didn't
want to kill off Roscoe and Grace at the end of the story. I had grown
fond of this couple, and I didn't want to see their demise, even though
in reality they've been dead for about fifteen years. So I didn't end
their story with their obituaries. Instead, I put family stories of their
last days in an Epilogue, followed by something more haunting and enduring.
Fortunately, Roscoe had written a fabulous two-page reminiscences on his
eighty-fifth birthday, about two and a half years before he died. It contained
his life's philosophies and ended with a great closing sentence: "Well,
so much for the ruminations of a tin horn philosopher, just turned 85."
End of story. Make documents work for the story, so they become powerful
openings, middles, or endings.
But what about all those facts? In writing narrative, some facts might
not conveniently work themselves into the story. Divide your book into
two parts. Part One is the readable narrative family history; Part Two
is the reference section of genealogical reports or summaries with all
the bare bones facts.
So that's the secret to writing a compelling family history: crafting
your facts into a nonfiction narrative, using fiction techniques. As you
read fiction, pay attention to how the author opens the story, how he
or she keeps you reading, and how the story ends. You can apply just about
any fiction writing technique to nonfiction writing. Now you can write
a compelling family history, too.
Courses in Family History Writing
Check with adult education and community colleges. Many offer courses
in life story writing, creative writing, and creative nonfiction writing.
You can apply the techniques you learn to writing your family history.
Writer's Digest Online
Workshops offers courses in life story and personal/family memoir
||Bringing Your Family History to Life through Social History
by Katherine Scott Sturdevant (Betterway Books, $18.99)
||Writing Family Histories and Memoirs by Kirk Polking (Writer's
Digest Books, $14.99)
||Writing the Family Narrative by Lawrence P. Goldrup (Ancestry,
||For All Time: A Complete Guide to Writing Your Family History
For more on writing your family history, see the January 2001 issue of
Family Tree Magazine.