Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Writing Your Family Story -- Tips and Ideas

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, hathitrust,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 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.

Mine letters for information. When my mother was ill, one of my cousins wrote her quite regularly, chatty delightful notes telling about her children and their lives far from my mother's hospital bed. Quoting from those letters not only added color and personality to my story but also said much about the kindness of my cousin and helped tell me more of their family as a young family -- things they didn't think to share when we spoke. Postcards also help tell a story. This one was sent by my grandmother to her neighbor in 1940. I found it at an antiquarian book fair. The card was fun for two reasons -- it showed the cottage area as it was "back then."  

And, it also was the only sample we have our grandmother's writing.

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.

Sharing with:    Pink Saturday      /     Meraki Link Party     /    Let's Keep in Touch    /     Tuesday Turn About     /       Timeless Thursdays    


Iris Flavia said...

You have seemingly endless treasures there!
My parents hardly spoke about their childhood, there are no letters or diaries. Three pictures from my Father as child, one of his father when being a young man, that´s it. Nothing from my Mum. My Grandmother took her seven surviving kids and flew in the icy cold winter of ´45 from the Russians, they left everything behind.
I am very far from 300 pages (insert ironic laugh).
Back to the 1700s, that is really amazing.

Will your book be available to public? It sounds really interesting! I don´t read novels, but the real life I always love to learn about.

Valerie-Jael said...

Good post. There were a few nice ones in the family, but most of them are people I just want to forget! Have a fun day, Valerie

Lisbeth @ The Content Reader said...

What Hercules work! Fantastic! It must be wonderful to have an account of your family. It seems you have a very big family. Must have taken you years to gather the information. I am sure your family is very grateful that you put it all together.

David M. Gascoigne, said...

Congratulations on completing this, Jeanie. i am sure it is important to you.

coffeeontheporchwithme said...

Jeanie, that was an incredibly detailed post. I'm sure all of that advice will help many who are on a journey of discovery. You put so much work into your family history. You should host one of those shows on tv - Who Do You Think You Are? , or something like that! I liked looking at the pictures you posted, even though they aren't my relatives. People dressed up for occasions then, now we (I'll speak for myself) are all quite boring and 'comfortable'. Again, great post! -Jenn

Rita C at Panoply said...

Wow, Jeanie! This is fabulous! You are one fortunate lady to have a family who obviously appreciated the written word, photos and history! Our family's is strangely disjointed. Even though an in-law on my Dad's side tried to compile a book of at least a form of genealogy, even it could be better organized (But I certainly wasn't going to critique that since she took the challenge of the project!). I like your advice of conversational style and how you chose a referencing to relatives. Now, tell me, is that your mother on the left in both the c.1930s photo in swimsuit at the lake, and in the dress with bow (1920s?) standing with the babe on tricycle and other little girl? If so, you are a spitting image of her! And opium lozenges?! In the era when consumers had to get prescriptions for whiskey, I bet opium could be bought off the shelf, am I right? Love the historical references in the photos alone!

nassah said...

Nice post and beautiful photos

Rita C at Panoply said...

Oh, and a HUGE congratulations for completing such a project, Jeanie!

La Table De Nana said...

I know you poured your heart into this..kudos..and the pics are treasures:)A cousin of mie is doing this..for my father's side of the family which is her mom's side..we had a few nice chats this year.I would have no one to ask re my mom's side..

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

You are SO lucky to have all this information and research data. I think I told you when I was an undergrad, we had to search our genealogy. I was raised by grandparents, both of whom died when I was 19. I had NO one and no way to look for information. I explained this to my professor, so he allowed me to do some research on something else. It's hard when no one has written information down. It's also hard when you have NO living relatives. And of course, I will have no one to leave my information to. I don't have any idea about my father's side of the family, since he died four months before I was born and my mother, who I only saw four times in my life, died when I was 17. I think you touched on some very important information that those interested in genealogy can build on. And of course, your photos are great, too.

Martha said...

This is fantastic Jeanie and it sure looks and sounds like you've done a great job! I have boxes and boxes of old family stuff but have never sat down to try to put anything in book form. I should at least sit down and work on my own story to add to the boxes if nothing else. Thanks so much for sharing this with us and congrats on all you've accomplished so far!

Misadventures of Widowhood said...

I've done what you're doing for both sided of my family. All of your suggestions and tips are right on point. I especially think it's important to know when to quit and get it into a hardcopy that can be shared and given as gifts because the alternative is we die and all our research gets lost.

I also think it's very important to include the current generation, like you said. I have a page in my books that lists all the living descendants right down to the newest born.

Laurie said...


Karen said...

I found a really interesting questionnaire on the internet which I used with my Dad. He was very selective in what he shared about his chaotic youth, but I found some of the questions in that file brought out more detail.
Edward Rutherford's book are always an inspiration for me in writing family history. He puts (mostly) fictional people into verified historical settings. This really brings history to life.
I'm fortunate to have a vast collection of my fathers local history books from our county. This has helped me write similarly to Rutherford with my own family in the leading roles!

ashok said...

Wow that's an incredible effort

DUTA said...

'I've been there, done that' - though not on such a large scale as your research.
When I retired I decided to find out what happened to my great grandmother who as a widow of 50 decided to leave the little town in Romania and try America. Her children emigrated too, except my grandfather who was already married and his wife objected. So he stayed behind and after a while lost touch with his family.

I'm very proud of my research as I started with almost nothing - two names (of my greatgrandma and her eldest daughter), and the name of the city of Cleveland.

The Joy of Home with Martha Ellen said...

How wonderful for your family that you have done the hard work for all of them, Jeanie. I can't tell you how many times we both have wished we had asked our parents some of the questions you have raised. Still the information we have is valuable! Bravo to you! We've done the ancestry work, but the everyday stories is sometimes the most interesting. Maybe not when you are young, but so important as the years pass.

Lowcarb team member said...

It really is time consuming but so worthwhile.
Many thanks for this post and the tips.

All the best Jan

Lynne said...

Inspiring . . . you are Jeanie . . .
I enjoyed this post, thoughts, suggestions, ideas, stories, photos.
Please tell me about the people in the final picture.
Is there a great grandmother in the middle . . .
What a gem you have created.

Susan Kane said...

You are a dynamo, lady. Your descendants can find more than they expected.

How lucky you are to have such amazing hard copies of your ancestors!

Don't wait too long---good advice.

The French Hutch said...

Wow Jeanie, congratulations on completing your family book. This surly has to be exhaustive, so much time and research. I know you and your family will be happy reading the stories and history of your family and having this book on your shelf! How inspiring and thanks for all the how tol information.

Lisa from Lisa's Yarns said...

What a treasure you have created for your family. It takes patience, passion and perseverance to complete a project like this! We gave my mom a story worth subscription for her birthday this year. Every week they email her a question about her life and at the end of the year they put a book of her answers together. So I am glad we will have that!

My name is Erika. said...

Stories disappear so quickly so this is a wonderful thing to do. And so much work too, but I am sure it is a labor of love. I've been recently sharing photos with a distance cousin in Sweden I met on Ancestry. It is really interesting to share these stories. Hope your week is going well. Hugs-Erika

Beatrice P. Boyd said...

This was a great information filled post, Jeanie, and I am sure that many will benefit by the tips you have included. Last year, I started trying to find more information on my family. Sadly, I waited far too long to talk to parents or relatives that could help and never wrote down any stories, etc. my grandparents all immigrated from Italy and they are gone, along with my parents, aunts, uncles. Kudos to you on your family history achievement. The few cousins still living seemed to have no interest in such a project.

gigi-hawaii said...

I self published 3 memoirs and they are in the public libraries in Hawaii. Still being sold on Amazon, too. Lots to say about my extended family, particularly my maternal grandfather.

Jean | said...

Jeanie, this is wonderful! Something I would love to do, but won't. People who come after me will have to be satisfied with all the research I've stored on Ancestry. A book would be fabulous! Loved reading about your dining out with two other couples.

Pam Richardson said...

Jeanie, you have poured yourself into this book. Your relatives are the recipient of a fabulous gift. I am passing on lots of stories to my son, they are so much a part of who we are. Great post!

Kinga K. said...

Fantastic memories ❤

Victoria Zigler said...

Congratulations on getting a first draft that's good enough to share with others completed. Awesome job!

Also, these are excellent tips.

Salty Pumpkin Studio said...

Great reading! The last photograph gives me chills,our family album has a similar one. I'll have to find it, have a look to compare.

Carola Bartz said...

300 pages! You did a lot of work. I have several letters from the time when my mom, my sister and my grandma were fleeing the Soviet Army in the past few months of WWII in Europe, plus a few more letters from the 20's and early 30's Berlin, mainly written by my grandma and her sisters. These are true treasures and of course they reside in the evac box. I'm currently trying to write my memories of my childhood, and it's interesting all the memories that suddenly come up when you start. As a conincendence I'm currently teaching a creative writing class at the German School, and my students all make this same experience.

Carol @Comfort Spring Station said...

Great tips Jeanie. Unfortunately my mother's siblings and friends were all gone when I tried to do family research. I have photos that have no name on them. I know my mother and grandmother just thought everyone would recognize them. You did such wonderful research on your family stories. So impressive

Pam said...

Having that info means so much. I know mom did a lot of studying, searching and locating info for years before her death. She would rattle off stuff to me that she found but I had a hard time knowing who was who that she was talking about. She did some on her moms side of the family but she mainly spent years working on her dads mothers side of the family. I have all that here with me. I will not work it cause I do know there is too much info out there that folks add to links and it might not be correct. I need to make copies for my brothers and my kids. One thing I am doing also is taking pics of family heirlooms to put in a folder with the info mom gave me about each piece so my kids will have that info. Very interesting. Great job.

Sandra Cox said...

This is quite an undertaking. Good on you, Jeanie.

Sandra at Maison De Jardin said...

Oh, Jeanie, what a grand accomplishment. You should be really proud. You are such an inspiration. I have started to put a few things together, but will never have the amount of information you have. You are a blessing to your family. I will go back and really read this further. My last couple of days have been a little stressful, as I am sure yours has been too.

I will be in touch about this post - I love, love it!

Sami said...

You are amazing Jeanie, what a mammoth undertaking!
I'm sure your family will be so happy with your family book.
I'm researching my family through births, marriages or death certificates that are now online (from 1911 back) but it takes a huge amount of time.
Loved all the back and white photos, so cute. That's one thing I don't have is old family photos. Will need to ask my parents more questions about their memories.

Anca said...

What an achievement! I love this post and all your tips. I have only one recommendation, to include parts of the family tree in chapters, alongside the pictures, so it's easier to figure out which one is which.
As a historian, I'm interested in my family's history, but it's (nearly) impossible for me to find out anything, for different reasons.

I would like to read your family story. I've read one, Mad Dogs and Englishmen: An Expedition Round My Family by Ranulph Fiennes, on his family's history and it was fascinating. said...

I so admire you for doing this Jeanie! My father's side of the family was very diligent in recording family history and recently my sister found a whole book that we had not seen before. She made copies for all the cousins and I'm in the process of reading it, fascinating! My father was one of eight children so there are lots of stories, and I have LOTS of relatives!! One of my cousins did our family tree about 10 years ago and traced our family roots back to the Mayflower and Europe before that, again, fascinating. We found out that we have a relative that was hung in Salem Mass as a witch {my husband used to love to bring that up 😂] and that we are related to Winston Churchill! Fun stuff and so important to pass down to our children. Great work Jeanie!

anno said...

This project has taken you on a tremendous journey, Jeanie -- thanks so much for sharing it all with us. (Great photos, too! And I bet there are some amazing stories in there as well. Opium lozenges? How intriguing!)

Having recently inherited a literal room full of photo albums and other various memorabilia, I've wondered about starting a similar kind of project. This post will provide some very useful guidelines if/when I finally begin... Thank you!

Marilyn Miller said...

Wow! What a project. I won't be doing this but a few years I was so surprised when I got together with a group of cousins and their stories were so different than mine. I had no idea that each person had their own family prejudices and memories. It was amazing! That would make it even harder to be accurate. Good job and I love seeing the old pictures.

Little Wandering Wren said...

I know you will have done a fabulous job with this Jeanie - how lucky are your family to have you doing this! Your last words are so poignant.

Stevenson Q said...

Dear Jeannie, you just made me feel like I won the lottery today! This is such a beautiful post. It inspired me so much to try and write our family's as well especially on my mother's side which I am not very familiar with still but has a very beautiful story. My mom passed away a decade ago but her father is still living, my grandfather. Though I don't often see him especially now in this pandemic. I really hope I can visit him soon. And maybe start from somewhere in hearing stories about his life. Thank you dearest Jeannie!

Naush said...

Jeanie, the information you shared here is invaluable !! Its like a dream come true for me - becoz its one of my life's mission to complete something similar before I move on to my grave. My children and their children will never know ANYTHING about their great great grandparents - their roots - their stories.
You have given such brilliant and useful pointers - I can't thank you enough.
Happy to let you know that you will be one of our features for today's Meraki Link Party.
Thank you so much sharing this information with us.

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