Sunday, June 9, 2024

Writing Your Memoir or Family Story

After spending years working on my family history and pulling together a rather hefty book on the subject (it weighs in at two pounds and 309 pages!), I thought I'd share a few things I discovered along the way that, should you decide to engage in such a project, might make your journey a little easier.

An inch thick, two pounds, many years of research and 309 pages!

1) What Do You Want to Say -- And Why Do It in the First Place?

Is this  a solo memoir? Your life and yours alone? Or is it a family story? How far back do you want to go? (This is based on either how much you already know or how much more you want to research about your family history). I wanted to back as far as I could find, but I knew the lion's share would focus on the times beginning with my grandparents.

As to the why -- I have cousins who have children. I don't want this collection of history to end with our generation. Perhaps this will give the next group a head start. (Besides, I was curious -- and I wanted to find out if I was related to Stephen Colbert. And yes, I am! We won't be celebrating the holidays together but it is fun to know!)

2) How Do You Want to Say It?

Is this going to be a first person narrative? A generational story where you will be in the third person (along with siblings or others)? Is it linear (for example, starting at the beginning of life and ending at the end? Or does it jump around. 

I started in the 1700s but the largest focus of the book began with my great grandparents.

(With my book, it was semi-linear. By that I mean that with my grandparents' lines I needed to look at both the maternal and paternal. And, I focused on my mom's family, as that was the side where there were cousins. (My dad was an only child, too.) 

Mom (at far right) with her sisters and my grandparents, 1950)

I decided I'd do my grandfather's line sequentially up to the point he met my grandmother and her line up to the same point. So, I started with his story from the 1700s, to 1900. I had less info on grandma, so that started in the mid-1800s and from the early 1900s on, the paths converged, adding in my mom and her sisters and my generation. You could do this any number of ways; that worked for me.)

3) What Kind of Research Material Do You Currently Have?

This includes things like journals, letters, photographs, family stories and personal memories, obituaries, funeral handouts, and birth and death certificates. I was lucky to come from a family of savers of personal memorabilia.

Obituaries can tell you things you never knew about your ancestors.

4) What Kind of Research Might You Want to Do?

This would include things for which you might need a (free) account on or a paid Ancestry or My Heritage account or other online sources (free and otherwise). This includes census records, access to books written about your family or family line, birth or death certificates, military or farm census records, newspaper articles and city directories. Perhaps even more important were interviews with family and those who knew our parents (see below).

City directories can offer home and work addresses and career info

And, depending on how much time or money you want to invest in your research, you might add travel to the list. Rick and I visited Canada to find graves of my distant relatives and when we were in England, spent time in the archives, as well as visiting the church in which my second great grandparents were born and their parents married.

St. James Piccadilly

5) What Else Do You Want to Include?

For me, this included a look at the times in which they lived, adding context to the lives of my ancestors and clarifying information for readers. For example, I have a long line of Mennonites in my family, which no one in my generation (or to my knowledge, my mom's) knew. So I took a couple of pages to talk about how this came about in Europe and how my relatives became part of this faith and how it motivated, in part, their emigration to the United States.

A look at mental health in the 1900s at the Traverse City Asylum for the Insane

I wrote at more length about the confectionery industry in the late 1800s, the cholera epidemic of 1852 England, the impact of World War II on our community, the state of mental health institutions at the turn of the last century and farming in the 1800s in Michigan. Now when my family reads this, they will better understand not only our ancestors but the lives they led.

6) Who Can You Talk To?

Some of my best material came from my cousins, one of whom had the most clear memories of our grandfather because he was older and spent much time with him. Since I was writing a family story, my cousins shared much about the lives of Mom's three sisters, as well as their own memories of growing up. If your parents have living siblings or friends, that's a rich source too. Some of my most treasured memories are hours spent with my mom's childhood lake friend. It fleshed out both the color of life at the lake during those times and painted a picture of my mom as a child and young woman.

Mom (left) and best friend, Fran at the lake

7) Write, Write, and Rewrite. Then Proof, Proof, and Reproof

You can wait till you have everything to begin to write but I found it helpful to write as I went along and then go back and revise, adding more details as they became available. And proof. Proof as you go along. Proof after you think you are done. Proof it again. Have someone else look at it and proof. Revise, edit, over and over. If you wait till you are at the printer, every change will cost you. (I know this because I kept proofing the print galleys with a fine tooth comb -- multiple times -- and I still found minor things. A misplaced comma, a spot where I copied and pasted and then didn't delete something, sometimes things no one else would notice but I wanted it right. It probably added $250 to my costs.)

8)  What's Your Format? 

I opted for a large size book to better show photos and documents.

This may not matter till you go to press but if you are preparing the document as you want it to print (more or less), you'll need to know. Do you want it to be the size of a trade paperback? I wanted mine to measure 8 1/2 x 11 inches, so typing a regular word document was fine for me. I also inserted my own (hi-resolution) photos in the document where I wanted them (versus several pages of photos in the center of the book together.) If you can scan your own photos, you'll save a boatload of money, rather than having a printer do them.

9) Picking a Printer

Lots of people do the Amazon thing and I can't comment on that because I didn't do it. It probably would have been less expensive and people could order directly from Amazon. I chose not to for several reasons. First, I wanted a local printer. Second, I wanted full control and that meant being able to work with them on the cover design and have ease when proofing or changing a photo. I paid for it. But it was worth it to me. Finally, the document included much personal information, including birth dates and  information on minors. Some in the family had concerns regarding their children or that information available in a public format. 

If you don't know much about choosing a printer, find a friend who does! (My buddy Bill helped me with that and getting quotes, local and otherwise.) I knew printing but I'd been out of that business for many moons!

10) Determining a Quantity

Cousins purchased copies for themselves and their children

I queried my cousins and determined the quantity (25) based on them, what I wanted for myself and a couple extra. It would have made little difference in price if I'd only ordered the bare minimum. Should you be self-publishing for sale, of course, you might want to order more and consider things like a bar code. Your printer will be able to help with that. (Note: If you are self-publishing for sale, have a plan of what you will be doing with those copies before you order them -- query local stores before you order more than you can unload.) 

Once again (and this could matter), I repeat: because my book included sensitive documents and dates, as well as birth and death certificate information that could potentially have security issues (particularly when mentioning the very youngest members of the family who are still children), I did not want a public volume.

11) Then You Wait!

Once you drop your manuscript off at the printers, the waiting begins! First, it's for the proofs. I decided to have PDFs for the first batches of proofs to save money. I proofed it well on the screen (though I could have printed it out and used up a half ream of paper and a lot of ink!). After giving complete notes on what needed to be changed (spelling, grammar, something that just didn't make sense), it went back to the printer who made another PDF. I checked those corrections to be sure they were made, and then read the whole thing again. Of course I found more. So back a second time. Then another PDF and still, a few more. The next time, I had them do laser printouts of just those corrections (by then, there were only about 10 and probably no one else but me would have noticed them. Then I said I was ready for the final. 

At this point, they gave me the full piece and said to make changes on those pages. So, I saw it as the full book -- all two pounds of it! And yes, I still found a few things again!

At some point, you fish or cut bait. I said "Print!" 

 And finally, it arrived at my door!

Front and back covers, packed and delivered from the printer

I could hardly believe that finally, after all those years, it was in my hands!

What a feeling!

Doing this project was loads of fun. I enjoyed the research (I'm still finding new things!) and connecting with the family members -- both those I knew well and the next generations, some of whom I've never met face-to-face. And learning about my family's past was a real gift. If family history is your thing, jump in. Holding it in your hands is a remarkable experience!

Sharing with:    Love My Creativity    /   Calling Fellow Bloggers!  /   Talking About It Tuesdays    /   Share Your Style  


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Your family history project came out beautifully! And I bet it was great fun putting it all together.

Bill said...

Very impressive, I love the way it all came together for you. Well done, Jeanie.

Rita said...

That is an amazing feat! Congrats on all your years of hard work and dedication. What a wonderful feeling to hold your book in your hands! Wow! This will be something to be handed down for generations, too. Congratulations again. :)

David M. Gascoigne, said...

A job well done, Jeanie. I am sure it makes you happy.

Tom said... mother was adopted and never had an interest in know about her birth mother, so I know nothing about that side of the family. Her adoptive parents are my grandparents and I'm happy with that.

Steve Reed said...

Terrific! What a great legacy for your family's descendants. My dad did a ton of genealogical research that is all on ancestry, but it sure would be nice to have it in book form. Maybe that should be my retirement project!

Misadventures of Widowhood said...

I know the thrill of holding a finished family history book. (I've done twice, one for both sides of my family.) Yours looks totally professional and with your artistic flare and background with blogging that shouldn't surprise anyone. Also being childless, I understand the desire and drive to leave something behind for future generations of cousins, nieces and nephews to not only know our shared family line but also leave an enduring little piece of us behind as well.

Sandi said...

Oh, wow! There are going to be so many people who are grateful to have this, even some who aren't born yet, I bet!

"... I have a long line of Mennonites in my family, which no one in my generation (or to my knowledge, my mom's) knew. So I took a couple of pages to talk about how this came about in Europe and how my relatives became part of this faith and how it motivated, in part, their emigration to the United States."

That is so interesting!

Did they flee persecution or simply move?

gz said...

A marvellous result..and good advice

Boud said...

That was a massive undertaking. You must be proud it's complete.

eileeninmd said...

Wow, Jeanie, you did a great job on your book and family history.
I wish I had family information written down from my mother or grandmother.
Take care, have a great week!

Divers and Sundry said...

I'm impressed. You must be so proud. I imagine your relatives now and in the future will be happy to have this story told. said...

Congrats Jeanie and what an accomplishment! I know it will be treasured by generations to come! It is so important to know family history and share it~

Lowcarb team member said...

How lovely to see it in your hands :)

Many congratulations and an amazing accomplishment.

All the best Jan

roentare said...

A family history book like the one you have done is an heirloom to pass down the family line.

Linda Johnston said...

I am so impressed that you actually got this done! A labor of love. Thank you for sharing your journey.

Joyful said...

Well done Jeanie. A big congratulation!!! Thank you for the tips. I understand what you mean about leaving information for your family members. At one time I too had a similar desire. Now I'm not sure I want to write such a book anymore. I think I'm pooped out from the constant decluttering and organizing. Perhaps I'll change my mind later and still have time. Take care and enjoy book distribution.

gluten Free A_Z Blog said...

Thank you for sharing all of these tips.I've been thinking about putting together a family book and these tips will be very helpful . You did a great job..

Prims By The Water said...

What an accomplishment for you! I do have my recorded family history on my dad's side. I should also do one for my moms side. Janice

Pam Richardson said...

Jeanie, congratulations for a job well done. After all the time spent, it must have been an awesome feeling of accomplishment. Thank you for sharing your tips. I know future generations of your family will appreciate your labor of love!

Debra@CommonGround said...

Jeanie, this is so amazing. What a monumental accomplishment. My mom has worked on her side of the family for several years thru "Ancestry" but there are blanks and spaces in her information. You have so many wonderful photos thru the years, something we just didn't have. What a gift to your family members!

Linda P said...

I worked on my family history project some time ago although mine is still still in file form. Your book is very impressive. Well done Jeanie!

Pamela said...

What a treasure! Great advice for others wanting to write their own family histories.

Sue in Suffolk said...

What an undertaking and so good you kept going until you had the book finished. Well Done!

Sami said...

Your book looks amazing! I can imagine the time spent searching, as I'm also researching my family tree. Sadly I only have family photos up to my grandparents and one from a great-grandparent.
Hope your family appreciates your wonderful work Jeanie.

My name is Erika. said...

You look like you did a fabulous job with this Jeanie. And it sounds like it was a lot for work, but what a wonderful gift for your family members. I love that you added photos. They do make a story so much richer Congrats on finishing this project and thanks for sharing with us. hugs-Erika

shoreacres said...

It's been a long process, but it's great to see the final result -- and to know that you're pleased with it!

Valerie-Jael said...

Well done on getting your book finished, and it must be great to hold it in your hands. One of my cousins made a family biography, I gave him my material to use. Have a great week, take care, hugs, Valerie

DUTA said...

The ability to write and compile such a significant book, gives you, the writer, tremenduous satisfaction. The readers, mostly family, will highly appreciate your work, keep it and forever cherish it.

The French Hutch said...

How fortunate for your family you decided to take on this huge project. Now you know your history will be there for future generations. The big smile on your face says it all! Congratulations Jeanie, beautifully done.

gigi-hawaii said...

I, too, self published 3 books of memoirs and sold them on Amazon. They are now out print since 20 years have gone by. They are in public libraries in Hawaii, as I did have a distributor. Most of the time, I did not publish any info about last names or birthdates, etc., so there has been no backlash from relatives. Your book is outstanding, Jeanie. More people should publish their memoirs.

Anvilcloud said...

Kudos to you. I would never do this. I once thought to write a chapter about one of my great grandfathers, but I never got around to it. I am terrible that way.

La Table De Nana said...

Standing ovation to you!!Wow.. What a silly compliment for such and endeavour.Truly remarkable!

Jennifer Wise said...

This is WONDERFUL!! Congratulations on this fun and important accomplishment. I'm sure it's meaningful to you, but it's also going to be meaningful to generations to come. In my work as a memory-keeping consultant, I've read quite a few studies that have found that knowing where you came from has all sorts of mental and emotional benefits--increased self-esteem, greater resilience, all sorts of things. This really is such a gift. Visiting from the Love Your Creativity linkup.

The tips you've shared here are excellent, too. I'd love to see you share them at my linkup for my readers also, if you'd like.

Carolyn Marnon said...

Hi Jeanie!

I loved reading about your family history book. I know you've been working on that for forever! When you were creating it, did you just write it in a regular word document and add your photos as you went along?

Sandi Magle said...

Wow, Jeanie. I applaud your tenacity on such a huge project. Finding all that information alone is a journey, but to get it compiled into a REAL book is amazing. I've worked a bit on my grandmother I thought was an abandoned orphan---and the tree on that side with the new information is HUGE, just the ones in Denmark/Norway---and I think it will continue further back then 1600...have to love the Danish record keeping! HUGS, and congrats on what a wonderful project to leave your family!.

Tina said...

What a great gift for future generations! I love things like this. I hope your family treasures this for generations to come!
Visiting from 'Will blog for comments'
Have a great week!

Salty Pumpkin Studio said...

What a project!

The scary part for me is the photo of your family on the sofa. There is one almost the same in my family records. They were in Virginia though.

Thankfully, my brother has been doing all the geneaology in our family back to King Henry.
It is amazing how many people there are.

carol@The Red Painted Cottage said...

This is truly a work of love! I love learning about family history, but my mother didn’t talk much about it, and whenever I asked my older cousin questions about our history, she always said it was in the past and she had no interest in the past at all. Fortunately, on my dad’s side, there were a lot more photos and information. I put together a photo and memorabilia album for us and for each of our three kids. It was shortly after my mother passed and it took months to do. You can see more at and the two posts following this one. A relative of my husband is supposedly doing research on his family which dates back to the 1600’s or more in England.

Lisbeth said...

What a huge project you have finalised. It must have been great fun, although lots of work to talk to people, look in archives, papers etc. You can be really proud. I am sure your whole family is grateful for your work. Well done.

This N That said...

Wow Jeanie... Congratulations on completing such a large project. Thanks for "the how to guide"... Sister and I are the end of our line so there really wouldn't be anyone around that would be interested in something like that. I once had a cousin who was working on a family tree. Don't know what happened to that. Have a good week.

Danielle L Zecher said...

Congratulations on finishing it!

Jenn Jilks said...

This is a fabulous guide.
I wrote a book about caring for my ailing parents. I wish I'd printed fewer. Silly me!
It is a therapeutic process, however.
You look so happy! And you should be. Well done.

Sally Wessely said...

Congratulations on completing this book and getting it printed. What an amazing accomplishment this represents! I see all the hard work, the research, the editing, and compiling, and re-reading that went into this and think just have to tell you that I am in awe of it all! Your dedication to and love for the project comes through.

Thank you for sharing all the tips and tricks with us. I really don’t know how I would ever be so dedicated to get such a work done, but at least if I ever do, I know who to go to for advice!

Did you use Word to do the entire thing? I know others use Word for books etc, but again, that takes so much organization to keep all the drafts straight. I think my executive function skills have diminished enough that I could never keep it all straight!

Bravo Jeannie! You are my hero.

The Joy of Home with Martha Ellen said...

I am beyond impressed with your amazing accomplishment, Jeanie!! How very wonderful to have all your hard work come to fruition. What a gift to your future family members!! Well done!!

Carol @Comfort Spring Station said...

Writing a book even on the last 4 or 5 generations can be a huge project. I'm so proud of you for your sustained efforts that produced a beautiful book. I was doing good to develop the family tree for about 3 years. That last year for Christmas I gave cousins, nephews, brother, and sister the permission (as I started the tree on Ancestry and "owned" it) to fully access, add, and change the tree in the future.

Your work is very tangible and can be held and read. It's very special.

Marilyn Miller said...

How amazing! Really a labor of love.
It sounds and looks beautiful.
Mennonites from Europe. My father's family were Mennonites from the Netherlands, then Germany, then Russia and finally the US.

Barwitzki said...

First of all, my warmest congratulations. Great job!
All attention.
And the nice thing is that you were able to learn a lot about yourself and your family and give something to your family's future.
A nice greeting to you.

Jennifer Wise said...

Thanks for sharing this wonderful and inspiring post with us at the Will Blog for Comments #40 linkup. Hope to see you at #41, too. Have a great week.

Red Rose Alley said...

Oh Jeanie, I'm so happy for you that you completed your book. How wonderful.....and so impressive. You went to lengths to find out information about your ancestors, even going to the grave sites, and checking out the archives when you were in England. So nice that you could talk with your cousins and got information from them as well. It sounds like they have a good memory. I just love all these old photos too. What treasures they are. And what happiness is shown on your face when you finally had a copy in your hands.

Well done, Jeanie!


Mae Travels said...

Congratulations on getting this huge task completed and receiving the physical result.
best, mae

Susan Kane said...

What a wonderful project! Your progeny and descendants will appreciate such a treasure.

Karen said...

Congratulations. That is a brave project! What a legacy.

Lorrie said...

Congratulations! That's a huge undertaking. I'm writing a memoir just now and it's more my story than my extended family's. There are so many things to consider. You should be very proud of yourself.

Debbie-Dabble Blog and A Debbie-Dabble Christmas said...

WOW! That is amazing....My son was just telling me that I should do a family Tree or something like that because my cousin passed away and I was talking about other cousins who my son had no idea who they were...I started one years ago but will have to find it and work on it or do you have any suggestions???
Thanks once again for stopping by!
Debbie-Dabble Blog

Iris Flavia said...

YIPPEEE on your book being there!!!
Not a chance here - not even interest anymore.
The more so I adore your work!

Sandra Cox said...

Many congratulations on this wonderful achievement, Jeanie;)

Sandra Cox said...

Many congratulations on this wonderful achievement, Jeanie;)

Joanne said...

That book is lovely! My grandfather traced his family lineage back to the Mayflower and put together a whole spiral bound book for each of us... sadly he didn't include any sort of narrative with it and I honestly don't know the importance of a lot of the documents and things he chose to enclose. I still treasure it though!

Regina said...

Congratulations on your book. I wish I had the patience and the resources for such a project.

Sandi said...

I came back! 😃 I see my comment way up above. I wanted to thank you for the email response about your relatives. It is interesting, isn't it, where we all come from?

I am struck by the thoughts of your readers here. It looks like everyone should write a memoir.

Anonymous said...

This is Lisa. What an amazing gift you have given to your family! I bet they are so happy to have all of this documented! It sounds like an overwhelming project but also fun at the same time! Well done, Jeanie!

Karen (Back Road Journal) said...

Congratulations, putting it all together over these years and then seeing the end result must be so gratifying.

Beatrice P. Boyd said...

Jeanie, my comment will echo that of so many others in congratulating you on such a wonderful accomplishment in documenting your family history. It is wonderful that you had family members so interested in helping out and who also wanted to buy the finished book. Unfortunately, there are no senior members left in my very small family to ask the pertinent question of and while I did start a genealogy project several years ago, sadly it is now dormant because of dead ends. But many kudos to you!

Beatrice P. Boyd said...

What a great sense of personal accomplishment, Jeanie, and so glad to see your finished family history in printed form. You also presented a thorough list of tips here for anyone interested in a similar undertaking. Kudos again to you, my friend!

anno said...

Jeanie, this is such a fantastic project, and a beautiful work of art. Definitely something to be treasured. Thanks so much for sharing it -- and maybe especially for sharing your process, the key decisions to make, etc. There's certainly a lot to consider!

Hena Tayeb said...

Wow.. just wow. That is incredible.. what a labor of love. Something you and future generations will be able to cherish.

Jennifer Wise said...

Stopping in again with congratulations! This post was one of the most popular at the Will Blog for Comments #40 linkup! It will be in the spotlight for the next two weeks, starting today. You are welcome to save the "This Blog Post Was a Featured Favorite" over there to share with your readers here, if you like. We hope to see you at #41 which opens Monday, sharing more posts (old or new). Have a lovely weekend!

Popular Posts