For more than five years I've been working on the genealogy of my mom's side of the family and pulling together the stories I've found into a "book" form to share with my cousins and their families.
After hours of research, phone calls and emails with many of my cousins, distant travels and loads of editing and rewriting, it is done. For now.
I consider this a final first draft. As I sent it off to the cousins and their children, I asked them to please let me know if there were corrections or memories that may have been triggered by stories in the book (currently in pdf form, till I hear back).
It clocked in at 300 pages and a little less than 56,000 words, counting the sources and photos. (It would probably be a lot fewer pages with smaller photos, but to me those are important!)
Here are a few thoughts if you are thinking of pulling together your own family story.
Decide on your content style and voice. I don't care all that much about the dates and places, or don't for this purpose. That's fine for the official online family tree. More than fine. Essential. But what mattered to me was the stories -- and when you go back to the 1700s, those can be harder to find. And, I wanted my voice to be conversational, not academic. I want the reader to more or less feel like we are having a talk.
Avoid Confusion. This isn't as easy as it seems! With so many second and third and fourth great grandparents, it was easy to mix up generations (especially when many of them have the same name!). Finally, I decided that any reference would be through my grandparents' perspective. So, J.P.'s great grandfather was referred to in that way, although he would be my mother's second great and my third great. I figured the later generations are smart enough to figure that one out, as long as they know what to look for and it makes it consistent. (Hence, the introduction!)
When doing research, my guess is that you are already mining sites like ancestry, myheritage or familysearch. But don't forget to look not only at census data and similar "legal" documentation but find sites like familysearch.org, hathitrust,org, archive.org and others and google books in which your ancestors might have appeared. I was lucky in that in the 1940s, someone compiled a very full genealogy of this line of the family with names, birthdates and death information, even wills going back to the 1700s. Those make a story.
Speaking of Books -- Tap family Bibles and cookbooks for notes and clippings. A treasure for me is my great grandfather's recipe book. He was a confectioner. I won't be making any of his recipes -- you'd need an enormous, professional kitchen! And a large supply of controlled substances! But I love reading them in his hand.
Tap Your Releatives' Memories -- and Those Who Knew Them. If you are lucky enough to have living parents find out all you can about their lives -- what were their childhoods like, what did they enjoy doing, going, studying? What was life like at home? What were the best and saddest times of their childhoods? How did they meet their spouse? What stories do they remember of their parents and grandparents.
And yes, memories cloud. You may have conflicting information. If you can ferret out a final answer, great but if you can't, list both. (In one case, on a honeymoon location for my aunt and uncle, I took best two out of three memories of my cousins.)
The point is, you're doing the best you can with what you have. People will have different perspectives and that's OK.
As for checking with "the people who knew them," you may find a friend who knew your parent as a child. One of my favorite parts of my "research" was long talks with my mom's childhood best friend who spent summers at the lake with her. She told me so many wonderful family stories, it made that time come alive. Whether it's a friend, neighbor, former colleague -- you may find marvelous information from a conversation.
Check newspaper clippings and other memorabilia you may have in your home. I came from a mom who saved news clips and lots of family ephemera. I learned a great deal about my grandmother who died before I was born by her obituary. News clippings told me of some of the volunteer activities in which my mom and aunt engaged and a wedding announcement for my great grandparents told me a bit about their reception. Some of this is online but check the family lore first. And yes, there are sites like newspapers.com where you can access some of this -- but look home and online first. And don't forget digging through the family Bible or those boxes of drawings and themes that your parents may have saved. The same goes for event programs and letters.
Don't Forget Diaries. I have a stack of about 25 diaries from my paternal grandmother (that's a post in itself!) But from diaries of someone not directly related, I learned the weather on the days that my maternal grandparents died, that one of my cousins had stayed with my other grandparents when her family came to the funeral. They are just little bits that can help enrich your writing and story.
Legal Documents can reveal a good deal. Death certificates can send you back another generation by giving you the name of someone's parents and their birth places. You can also find medical information and cause of death which can be useful in your own history. Other legal documents can help solve mysteries -- we learned my great grandfather was in an asylum for 13 years before he died.
Photos can tell you a lot. Use them in your writing, both as scanned art and to extrapolate information. You will write far livelier descriptions if you have a photo to look at. Did they live on a tree-lined street? What were some of their hobbies? There was no doubt at all when looking at photos of us water skiing as kids or my dad with a pile of fish what some of the family passions were. They give an idea of fashion at the time and a sense of place that words can't alone convey.
Know when to quit -- and when to start again. This can get exhausting. And frustrating (when you send out a request for info and don't get a lot of feedback). So, do something else. Come back to it. I could write more and probably will. But when Covid-19 came along I decided I needed to get a final draft done and distributed so that if I got sick and died that it wouldn't be stuck, incomplete, in my computer.
When I sent it out, I told people to add to it, to tell me things they wanted to include. Then I will print hard copy for people. But for now, stopping is good. It will be equally good when I pick it up again.
Include yourself and your next generation. With something like this it's easy to gloss over your own generation. Don't. The next one will want to know the stories that you and your siblings or cousins shared as much you may want to know your parents. And those memories are the freshest and the ones most easily shared.
Also, find out what you can about your generation's children and grandchildren. It may be sparse. You won't have loads to write about with someone who is still in school or just starting a career. Or eight! But include them and what you know. It is up to them to carry on the story. You are just giving it a head start.
When you're not sure about something, say so. We can often extrapolate information based on location and timing. For example, I don't know why my second great grandparents and their children decided to emigrate from London in the 1850s to America. But I do know that a London cholera breakout occurred within six or eight blocks of their home the year before. I found that fascinating. It may not be why they left, but it may have been a factor. Be sure to indicate if you are making a supposition or educated guess.
It is your story too. So don't forget to include your own memories, anecdotes or experiences. Traveling and discovering the graves of great and second-great grandparents was not only fun but it helped tell the story. I could visualize the road from the house to the Mennonite cemetery by the church and additional research filled in blanks on what that would have looked like back then. You're not telling just names and dates, but stories of lives lived and lost.
Don't forget to include information like an introduction, acknowledgements, appendices, and more. I listed a cast of characters in the beginning from the families involved so readers can go back and say, "now, he was who's son?" I also included scans of death certificates and cause of death, if known, when those weren't available as medical information is important. And do credit the people who helped you because without both moral support and information assistance, it would be a much harder journey. In fact, many of my "cast of characters" shared the best stories of their moms and it made my story all the better for it.
List Sources. You may not have them all, if you collected information some time ago. And this isn't your graduate school dissertation. But if you referred to certain publications or sites for information, it never hurts (and is recommended) to add them. I'm sure you would do a better job than I.
Finally.... some of you may be starting with information already done by another family member! You have options. You can continue simply adding to that or take that information and document and use it as a source to write things your way.
There are remarkable stories about our family members we never knew -- we just have to find them. I never thought of myself as being from pioneer stock but like descendants of immigrants of the 1700s, I am. In our line we have farmers, business people, artists, weavers, city pioneers. There were Mennonites and mentally ill, candymakers and shoemakers. As I learned about them I found myself researching their occupations and including that information. It helped give context to their lives and stories.
Doing this takes time. Most of the people I know who have become involved in genealogy are older and largely retired. Younger people have children, jobs, and other things eating much of their time. But I would recommend to younger readers to do a couple of things now.
- Save things. Special letters, funeral cards, obituaries, newspaper clips, letters (especially ones that tell something about the person or their times), photos, birth and death certificates, and other information that tells you about someone. You can do it in archival boxes or page protectors or scan items. Just remember to back them up! Media storage will change over time. (Anyone still have 4" floppies you can't access?)
- Talk to the elders. Record them and transcribe or take good notes. They won't be around forever.
- Record your impressions of others. Were they strong, did they laugh a lot, argue. You'll probably remember most of yours but time changes things.
- Know your parents' friends and talk to them while you can. Not every friend, of course, but the ones who knew them best. Their memories will make your story richer.
Don't wait too long. We've seen what has happened with Covid-19, taking more than 232,000 lives in the U.S. alone. A lot of stories died with those men, women and children.
Don't let your stories die when you do.