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How To Write A Family History: Begin with Yourself

Although publishing a book of family history looks like a monumental job to most people, there are logical and really quite simple steps for doing it.


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Most ancestor hunters sooner or later feel the urge to assemble their findings into a written history to pass on the record to succeeding generations. Although publishing a book of family history looks like a monumental job to most people, there are logical and really quite simple steps for doing it.

Every family historian begins by compiling a mass of ancestral notes, charts, photos, and documents. Soon one workbook becomes two and then three. But multiple workbooks don't make a book manuscript.

When writing a family history, it's imperative to identify the exact sources of information. If there are conflicts with the sources, the writer must recognize them in the text or footnotes and tell why he resolved them that way.

Since no history is ever finished, one of the toughest decisions to make is when to stop collecting and start publishing. If the material at hand seems fairly well rounded and well documented, consider it ready. Don't omit the renegades. Every face discovered both good and bad is part of a family's heritage. A family history is a mirror of human lives. But it shouldn't be a fictionalized adaptation. It should be as objective as possible. So include the bad ones as well as the good ones.

The best place for a family historian to start is with himself or herself. By telling his own story in a direct manner, the historian sets the tone for the book. And don't forget a little humor. A family history should not only be factual but fun to read.

A family history book should be a family project. Not just the immediate family, but the greater family. The writer should include all pertinent information about himself and everyone that is living–vital statistics, full names and nicknames, the delivery doctor's name. The same should be done with parents and siblings, spouses and children. How did the writer's parents earn a living, what was the household like, what was the surrounding area like?

The writer should include information about childhood memories–diseases, pets, classes, teachers, about young adulthood–early jobs, meeting a spouse, in-laws, military experiences, and about life today. Predictions about what the world will be like in a hundred years might be included. Writing a personal history may seem like a great deal of work, and it can be if done all at once. Most writers do it in sections to ease the load.

A family history book might be arranged like this: Begin with a coat of arms, photo or portrait of the family progenitor, the old homestead, a map of the family migrations. Then add a title page, with book title, author's name, printer, date, and copyright. This should be followed by a dedication, then a foreword, explaining the numbering system and any unusual or amusing incidents that occurred while writing the history, and acknowledgment of people who helped.

Next comes the author's personal history, followed by family lineage charts and an explanation of the family name, its origin and meaning.

Finally, the contents appears, including the story of pre-American ancestry, the stories of immigrant ancestors, and the family lineage of succeeding generations to the present. Some authors also include a list of family sayings, recipes, other miscellaneous traditions. Many family histories include appendices, with a list of abbreviations used or a short dictionary of genealogical terms, a bibliography, and an index of names included.

But family histories can be arranged in different ways. The system favored by the New England Historical and Genealogical Society is the Register Plan. In the contents section of the book, the first known ancestor is listed as Roman numeral I. His children are listed as lowercase Roman numerals–i, ii, iii, etc. His sons are also given consecutive numbers–2, 3, 4–if they head their own family unit. The personal history of each individual is inserted when he or she appears as head of a family. The personal history of children, who, as adults, don't head family-surname units, should be given when their names first appear.

(Part 1 of 2 parts)

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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