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Writing a Family History

by Moira Allen

"You should write all that down!"

That comment from my mother-in-law prompted me to write my first family memoir. I'd intended to create a print-on-demand album of digitized family photos, but those photos kindled memories, the memories kindled stories, and... well, the rest, as they say, is history!

In this digital age, we have the resources to turn family archives and historical documents into a work of art and literature that will be treasured for generations. With a scanner, we can digitize (and preserve) photo archives to create family albums that everyone can share. With the Internet, we can research the histories of long-dead ancestors. And with a basic grasp of layout and design, we can assemble all the elements of a family history into a beautifully designed book and send it straight to the printer with the touch of a button! Here's how to get started.

1. Decide What to Write About

The term "family history" encompasses a host of possibilities. Do you want to write your own story? Do you want to write the story of your immediate family? Do you want to research the history of your ancestors? Do you want to create a memoir of a specific time or event in your family's history? Do you want to record the life of a particular individual?

Family histories typically fall into one of three broad categories: The memoir, the biography (or autobiography), and the genealogy. Think of these categories rather like a camera lens zooming in or out. Thus, a memoir generally focuses in on a specific period, event, or location within an individual's life, Many veterans, for example, have written memoirs of their military experiences. Books like Carol Drinkwater's The Olive Farm or Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun focus upon the author's experiences in a particular place. Events in the subject's life that may have occurred outside that place or event may be touched upon tangentially, but rarely play a large role in the memoir.

A biography (or autobiography if it is your own story) covers an individual's life history, often from cradle to grave. A biography will generally touch, at least briefly, on every significant stage of the subject's life, including childhood, education, career, marriage, major events, and so forth. However, as the timeline of a biography tends to be much longer than that of a memoir, a biography may not offer as much detail about specific periods or events in the subject's life as a memoir.

A genealogy widens the focus even farther, to cover family, extended family, and long-dead ancestors. Some genealogies are little more than a record of births, marriages, and deaths. Others provide more historical detail -- and with the Internet, it is becoming increasingly easy to track down such information. For example, I recently came across a newspaper account written by one of my ancestors in the early 1900's, recounting his pioneering experiences in 19th-century Ohio.

Another important factor in determining the type of history you want to write, and how you want to write it, is your audience. When I sat down to write Mendocino Memories, an account of life at our family's "weekend cabin" in the backwoods of Mendocino, California, I realized that while this book would be enjoyed by family members who had shared my experiences, it would also be read by those who had never even visited the cabin. Thus, I knew I couldn't just write, "Remember how we enjoyed decorating the house for Christmas?" Instead, I'd have to record exactly what we did for Christmas, from scouring the woods for the perfect tree to digging a mouse-nest out of the creche that had been stored in the attic.

It's also important to remember that your readers may not share your knowledge of the time and place about which you are writing. It's not enough to say, "Uncle Henry was a captain in the Mosquito Fleet" if your readers don't know what that is! It came as quite a shock to me to discover that my British-reared niece had never heard of Pearl Harbor and was completely unaware that the US had fought in the Pacific during WWII! Your readers may also be unaware of the social, cultural, and physical milieu of your story. It will give your readers a much better picture if, instead of telling them that your great-grandmother fixed supper every night, you explain that she had to chop the wood, light the fire, harvest the vegetables from the garden she had planted, and quite possibly kill the pig!

2. Gather Your Documents

One factor that may influence the type of family history you choose to write is the availability of material. The inspiration for The Andersons in Black and White, an annotated family album that covered my family history from the 1930's to 1950's, came about because my sister wanted to get rid of a bulky photo album full of black and white snapshots. I'm currently working on a memoir of my father-in-law's WWII experiences, having come across his letters and photos while scanning my husband's family archives.

Start by determining what sort of documentation you already have. This may include official documents such as birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, immigration papers, and baptismal and burial records. It may also include personal documents such as letters and journals. It may include photos. (If you're lucky, some thoughtful family member will have noted who a photo is of and when it was taken -- but all too often, this information is missing).

Once you've searched your own closets, start asking other family members to search theirs. My sister was convinced that I had all the family documents -- only to find an entire box of official papers, plus a collection of my grandfather's writing and artwork, stowed on a closet shelf. Ask your family members to share their photo albums (a good way to encourage them is to offer to scan the photos).

Keep in mind, however, that not everyone in the family may be enthusiastic about sharing personal documents and papers. Some may feel that these materials are too private; others may feel that they are simply too uninteresting; still others may be concerned about raking up issues they'd prefer to forget. In some cases, digging up personal papers means digging up painful memories; when my father-in-law died, my mother-in-law wanted to destroy all his old letters and papers because they were too painful to keep around. Fortunately, she let us take them home instead!

If you have little success in locating documents within the family, an alternative is to hire a professional genealogist. Most of my knowledge of my family past comes from the efforts of a genealogist hired by my sister; now, I can trace my ancestors back to Colonial days and beyond. A genealogist may also be able to put you in touch with other branches of the family who have conducted their own historical research; one of the documents located by the genealogist included letters written by my great-grandfather.

Once you've gathered your documents, it's a good idea to scan them. Old papers can be fragile, and can be harmed by repeated handling. Scanning them not only gives you an easy way to refer to them without damaging them, but also enables you to preserve these documents and share them with your entire family (or even incorporate them into your history as illustrations).

3. Ask Questions

If your goal is to create a history based on memories of living relatives, it's time to start interviewing them. If at all possible, try to do your interviews face-to-face, as this creates much more opportunity for give-and-take and information gathering. Keep in mind, too, that you're talking to family: An interview should be a conversation, not an interrogation.

Beyond that, all the tips and techniques for successful interviewing still apply. Prepare in advance by developing a list of questions that you'd like answered, or topics that you would like to cover. Set a specific time and place for the interview. Use open-ended questions, such as "Where did Uncle Henry serve during the War?" or "What do you remember best about Aunt Phoebe?" It's a good idea to use a tape recorder, so that your subject can ramble on without worrying about having to slow down so that you can catch up on your notes. Be as patient and polite as you would with someone you were interviewing for an article -- if not more so!

When interviewing family members, remember that you're not just after "facts," such as names and dates. You're after a story -- so in this type of interview, you actually want your subject to ramble or "go off on a tangent." When asked to recall when something happened, an older person is often likely to try to "place" the event by recalling details of the period or location, such as "Well, let's see, I remember that I caught the streetcar to go to John's house, so that means it had to be before 1925..." This sort of reminiscent rambling is just what you need to bring color and detail to your story!

Photos can be another excellent way to elicit memories from family members. Just start passing old photos around and ask questions like "Who was that?" or "Where was this taken?" or "What was this gathering about?" Photos can trigger far more memories than questions alone. If, for example, you asked, "Who attended Grandmother's birthday party in 1932," your subject might be hard-pressed to remember. But if you can hand your subject a photo of that party, chances are that you'll immediately get a list of names, relationships and recollections to accompany those sepia-toned faces!

4. Check Your Facts

Don't assume that everyone you interview is going to be truthful! In some cases, you may end up with a collection of family stories that have been passed along until everyone believes them. In other cases, you may find that someone is telling outright lies!

My grandmother, for example, invented a completely fictitious background for herself. Her children and grandchildren grew up believing that she had emigrated from Britain and was a descendant of Sir Francis Drake! We later learned that she was born and raised on a farm in Idaho. Such fictions can also spill over into official documents. While my grandmother listed her birthplace as Idaho on her first child's birth certificate, on a later birth certificate she listed it as England. Her marriage license gives an incorrect name, age, and place of residence; even my grandfather's name is misspelled (though I suspect this, at least, was a clerical error).

The more documents you can find, the easier it will be to cross-check family stories and papers. Official genealogical records can also help, though the older the records, the less likely they are to provide accurate dates. If, however, you find that some of the family stories are false or misleading, tread carefully. Even if the family members who invented these fictions are long-dead, surviving relatives may prefer the story to the reality -- and may not appreciate your efforts to explose the "truth"!

5. Put It Together

Kipling once wrote, "There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal laays, and every single one of them is right." Similarly, there are many ways to tell a family history. Do you want to tell the story in your own words, or to use the words and voices of other family members? Will letters, journals, or other family documents stand alone, or do they need to be annotated, paraphrased, or interpreted? Do you want to stick to "just the facts" or add creative elements, such as descriptive scenes or invented dialogue?

You also have a wealth of options for presenting your family history. Those scanned photos or family documents can be incorporated directly into your text as illustrations. If you're familiar with desktop publishing, you can import scanned images directly into your document; otherwise, just leave blank pages where you'd like your images to go, and format those images separately in a program like Photoshop, then import them into a final PDF document.

Today, dozens of print-on-demand firms are wooing the family history market, but the only one that charges no upfront fee is Lulu.com. At Lulu, you can have your book printed in black and white or color, in a variety of page sizes, and pay only for the books that you order. If you need help with interior or cover design, or with converting your document(s) to PDF, you can find a number of "consultants" on Lulu.com to assist you for a reasonable fee.

Another way to distribute your family history is electronically. If you'd prefer not to go to the trouble (or expense) of producing a printed book, you can simply save your text and images as separate files on a CD-ROM. This is a wonderful, inexpensive way to let the entire clan share photos and documents that were once relegated to someone's closet.

Researching and writing a family history, memoir, biography or genealogy isn't just a great way to share and preserve family stories and memories. It's also fun. In fact, you may find it addictive. I know I have; if you'll excuse me, I have another memoir to write!

More Information:

Lulu.com
http://www.lulu.com

Life Story Network
http://www.lifestorywriting.net

Association of Personal Historians
http://www.personalhistorians.org
A site dedicated to those who want to preserve personal history.

Writing the Memoir: Truth to Life, by Judy Barrington
http://www.judithbarrington.com/

Ancestry.com
http://www.ancestry.com
A good place to find information about one's ancestors; requires a paid membership to review such resources as journals, newspaper clippings, etc.

Mendocino Memories, by Moira Allen
A warm, funny, unsentimental look back at a childhood spent in the "wilds" of Mendocino County, California, amidst dogs and cats, redwoods and rats -- not to mention apples, huckleberries, and acres of Christmas trees! Available from Lulu.com.

Copyright © 2008 Moira Allen
This article originally appeared in The Writer.

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.


Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts Mostly-Victorian.com, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.

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