I started creating family history books a decade ago. These 6 strategies helped me share my genealogy research findings in books that made fascinating, affordable and easy-to-mail gifts.
My Dilemma: How to Share My Family History
Several years ago, I began sharing my family history research with my relatives. We don’t live close to them, so I had to mail whatever I shared.
Initially, I sent CDs full of digitized photos and documents, but they just didn’t get looked at like I had hoped. Individual items on CDs didn’t easily or smoothly tell a story.
Also, I think some of my relatives found the technology a bit intimidating back then. And many people just don’t care for viewing photos, documents or stories on a computer screen.
I found that the solution to sharing with all family members was a good old fashioned book!
Books are still hard to beat for telling a story in words and pictures in an extremely easy to use way. Self-publishing little hardbound family history books helped me break up my research sharing into digestible chunks. And the best part? My family actually opened and read them them cover to cover.
Cover of the family history book I created about my Grandma.
But where to begin the family story, and where to end it? It’s tempting to tell the story of one generation in each book. But even this can become an overwhelming project, with an end product that is not as meaningful for your readers (lots of dates and names, without a lot of room for stories or photos).
I wanted my family to get to know our ancestors intimately. For me, that meant focusing on one person or one event instead of entire generations or families.
Where to Start
I started with my favorite ancestor: my grandmother.
I’ve transcribed many years of her diaries, which are full of her stories about years spent in nurse’s training. Those journal entries taught me so much and led me to some great discoveries about her life. They also dovetail beautifully with my collection of photos from that period.
So I decided that my starting point would be her graduation from high school and her decision to enter the nursing field.
Grandma was proud to be a nurse and I’m proud to tell her story.
By the time I had pulled everything together from 1930 to 1933, I had more than enough for a nice size book: “A Nurse in Training.”
Tips to Create Family History Books
It’s really important to create your book with your “customer” in mind: your family member who will be reading the book. So here are my top tips for making your book fascinating to your reader:
#1. Convey an overall theme
Review all the available material that you have. That will give you a sense of what stories you can tell and, hopefully, a sense of your ancestors’ goals, experiences and emotions.
In the case of “A Nurse In Training,” I wanted to communicate my grandmother as a young woman, taking on a new adventure away from home. Both funny times and deeply challenging times formed the foundation of this warm, caring woman’s successful career. And she just happened to meet her husband at the same time!
A page from “A Nurse in Training.”
You don’t need every scrap of research and every photo to get this theme across. It’s your job to be a sharp editor to pick out the critical pieces.
#2. Make it readable in one sitting.
Like it or not, if the book takes too long read, your relatives won’t. Strive to create a book that doesn’t look intimidating.
I create books that are 20 double-sided pages. People will be willing to pick up a thinner book off the coffee table. And if it’s well done, they’ll find that they’ve suddenly finished the entire book without once thinking of putting it down! Hopefully they’ll walk away with a real sense of having gotten to know that ancestor.
#3. Fill it with the best of what you have.
This goes back to conveying the theme and being a tough editor.
My grandma had many funny stories, but there just wasn’t room for all of them. I picked only the best of the best. Anyone who reads the book should hopefully come away with the fact that my grandma had a sense of humor and could laugh at herself.
Grandma working the TB ward at San Francisco Hospital in 1933
I made sure some of the most compelling stories were at the beginning: if you can capture their interest in the first three pages, you’ll have them hooked for the entire book.
#4. Pack it with photos and graphics.
A picture is definitely worth a thousand words. And since words in a small book will be limited, photographs will be your best friend.
If you’re lacking in family photos, consult my Genealogy Gems Podcast episodes for countless ideas for finding appropriate images.
In A Nurse In Training, I included scanned images of skating rink tickets, programs and announcements from my grandma’s scrapbook and journal pages in my grandmother’s own hand. These types of items really add texture and interest to a book, and help the reader to see that you’ve really done your homework.
#5. Keep it in chronological order.
This seems obvious, but it’s easy to get side-tracked and start going back and forth in time. Believe me, for the reader’s sake, use dates and keep things in chronological order.
You as the researcher know this information backwards and forwards, but this is probably your reader’s first exposure to it. Be gentle with them and keep it straightforward and simple. Your reader will thank you.
#6. Choose quality!
High-quality glossy pages, good image quality and a hard cover binding all shout to the reader, “I’m worth your time! Read me!”
For example, I found a drawing of Dameron Hospital, which was part of my grandma’s story, but it was a low quality image and didn’t look good in the book. As much as I wanted to include it, I ended up leaving it out, and I’m glad I did. It wasn’t critical to my theme, and there were other ways to illustrate the hospital setting for the reader.
From Book to Movie: Create Your Own Family History Videos
My “Nurse in Training” book eventually became the basis for my very first family history videos. Watch them here–and see how I turned her own words into an illustrated narrative:
Next Step: Turn Your Family History Book Into a Movie
I created these before do-it-yourself video services like Animoto made it so easy. (And I think that’s why I appreciate them so much!)
If you’d like to put an ancestor’s story into video format but you’re not sure how, try writing it up as a short book first. By the time you’re finished, you’ll have an excellent start on your “screenplay.” You’ll also have a great little book to send loved ones as a gift. (If you do eventually turn that story into a short video, they’ll love it even more, because they’ll already know the story that they will see come alive on the screen.)
Click here to learn step-by-step how to create your own family history video.
The biggest obstacle to writing family history can be getting started. Try one of these prompts to jump-start past the opening paragraph – then join me for my workshop!
Have you ever started to write a family history narrative, only to get stuck on the opening paragraph? “Charles John Andrews was born on….” You rattle off dates and parents’ names. Then you realize you’ve bored yourself in the very first paragraph. You give up.
(Note from Lisa: Don’t give up! Keep reading and then sign up for Sunny’s incredible new workshop which starts this week!)
One trick to writing a compelling family history is to find the storylines in our ancestors’ lives. A life isn’t a single story from birth to death. It’s many stories. The steamboat explosion the child survived. Teen years on the farm, attending school part-time. The Civil War skirmish that raged through town and wiped out the family farm.
The following series of writing prompts can help you identify and sketch out the stories you want to tell. Scan through the list of questions and see who or what story comes to mind. Then take 10-15 minutes and just start writing or typing the story. Don’t worry about grammar. Don’t go back and look up historical details. Just write:
1. The course of _____’s life totally changed when….
2. A big mystery in my family history is….
3. If I could meet _____, I would ask him/her _____ and this is why….
4. I am fascinated by my “black sheep” ancestor, who….
5. My ancestor lived through a (frightening, important, rapidly-changing) time in history. Here’s what was going on, and here’s his/her story.
6. A great love story in my family is the story about _____ and _____. This is how it goes.
7. I often wonder whether the life of _____ was as (sad/exciting/lonely/boring) as I imagine. Here’s what I know….
The real purpose of these writing prompts is to help you identify the stories you most want to tell–and to get you excited about telling them! But you should also find a use for these brainstorming paragraphs. Copy them into a blog post. Expand on them for a short biographical sketch you can share with your family. Expand even more, and you’ve got an article for your local genealogical society’s newsletter.
Come Learn with Me in this Week’s Writing Workshop!
Now is the time to write some your family history, and I’m here to help and support you. THIS WEEK I am leading the fun and productive Genealogist’s Essential Writing Workshop at Family Tree University. It starts October 19. You can do this and I’m here to help!
Click to Read These Gems to Help You Write Your Family History:
This 3-step project will help you capture a relative’s life story in plenty of time for the holidays!
Reconstructing the life stories of our ancestors can sometimes feel like squeezing water from a stone. By comparison, gathering the life stories of the living can be like turning on a tap. All you have to do is direct and catch the flow.
Turn your family history interviews into a beautiful book–just in time for holiday sharing–with this three-step project. Simplify it or doll it up, depending on your time, talents and what you have to work with. Just do it! Write your family history! Here’s the basic outline:
1. Record an interview. Invite a relative to chat with you about his or her life stories. Decide together what the relative WANTS to talk about: childhood memories? Stories about a certain loved one or a particular time period? A little of everything? Consider using a list of life story questions or memory prompts like those you can find in my book, My Life & Times: A Guided Journal for Collecting Your Stories.
Before you begin, be clear that your goal is to write these stories up for the family. Meet in person, over the phone or by Skype (click here to learn how to record a Skype conversation). With permission, record the conversation. Ask plenty of follow-up questions, but otherwise keep your own comments to a minimum. For more interviewing tips, listen to this free Family History Made Easy podcast episode.
2. Transcribe the interview. After you’ve finished your chat, go back and type up the interview. Give yourself plenty of time: this takes longer than you think. Consider asking a fast-typing relative to help or hire a transcription service (here’s one option). Type things just as you hear them, incomplete sentences and all. Don’t include anything your loved one wants to keep “off the record.”
3. Print the transcript. Save an unedited copy of the typescript in your permanent files. Edit it a little to make it “reader-friendly” if you want to. Print it out. Add any extras, like family tree charts or copies of photos. Bind it however you prefer. (Genealogy Gems Premium website members can check out Lisa’s 3-part Premium podcast series on self-publishing: episodes 52-54). Share copies with loved ones: they make great holiday gifts.
Here’s a page from a sample project I did. It’s a simple stapled book, printed in landscape (sideways) format on regular-sized paper. I left the narrative in the format of a simple Q&A, just like it was spoken. I did edit slightly for clarity and flow. My questions are in italics and the speakers are identified (I was interviewing a husband and wife together). I added a few photos.
I shared copies of this book with every family member as holiday gifts a few years ago. Now everyone has a special legacy gift featuring this couple: their children, their grandchildren and even their great-grandchildren.
Now is the time for you to write a portion of your family history, and I’m here to help and support you. I will be conducting a fun and productive one-week workshop called the Genealogist’s Essential Writing Workshop at Family Tree University starting October 19. You can do this and I’m here to help!
Additional Family History Writing Resources from Genealogy Gems
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It’s time (maybe past time!) to write your family history. Should you write a book or throw everything into a digital archive?
Recently Joyce attended a genealogy conference I taught that was sponsored by the Central Arkansas Library System. She wrote to us that she went home with a newly-resolved plan for how to write her family history:
“I thoroughly enjoyed hearing you speak. I learned a lot also. There was a question asked at the conference that I had also thought a lot about: how to leave your legacy to your family. With technology changing every day, I have decided that the old-fashioned way is probably the best. Technology will not change the fact that we can sit down to a paper book. So I will keep my CDs, DVDs, and flash drives; however, I will print out books for my family to have, whether they have access to the computer or not.”
A Combination Approach
I certainly agree that paper and books are certainly a solution for genealogical information being accessible for generations to come. I like a combination approach. Since paper can deteriorate and become damaged like anything else, having a cloud back up service (I use Backblaze) and digital items like flash drives is also a good plan.
Part of leaving a legacy also involves finding ways to share that help the next generations (particularly those not interested in research) understand the value of the family tree. That’s where a Google Earth “family history tour” or other innovative sharing comes into play. If you can click click, copy, and paste, you can create an exciting multi-media story that looks like a video game that will captivate the next generation! (Learn how to create a Google Earth family history tour in my 2-volume Google Earth for Genealogy CD). The combination of sharing the info in fascinating ways and preserving the info in reliable multiple formats is a comprehensive strategy for the future!
Ready to make your own plan to write your family history and preserve it digitally? Share your resolve–along with this post–with someone else! Use the handy icons at the top of the page to share on Facebook, Pinterest or your favorite social media site, or email the link to this article to a friend. Thanks!
More and more people are blogging about their family history. Here’s why!
When it comes right down to it, many of us want to write up our family stories, but we don’t really want to write or publish a 300-page book. Blogging your family history in short snippets is a perfect alternative! Why?
1. Its shorter, flexible format is much less intimidating for many people. You don’t have to lay out a book or fill hundreds of pages. You can write a little bit at a time, as your time and mood permit.
2. A blog is like your own family history message board. Every word you write is searchable by Google–which means others researching the same family lines can find and connect with you.
3. A family history blog can help bust your toughest brick wall. I’ve heard and shared countless stories here at Genealogy Gems from readers and listeners of how just “putting it out there” on a blog led to someone contacting them with a treasure trove of new information about their family tree.
4. Writing a narrative about your research will help you identify gaps in your research. Sometimes errors or bad assumptions you made will jump out at you.
5. Your kids and grandkids are (or will be) online. They will more likely want to read quick and easy stories on the go on their smart phones and tablets. Putting your research out there on a blog provides them with an easy way to digest the family heritage and subscribe to it, since blogs can be delivered to their email inbox or to a blog reader.
6. Because there are no excuses. You can start a blog for free. There are no rules, so you can decide how often and how much you write at once.
7. If you leave the blog online, it will still be there even when you’re not actively blogging. You will continue to share–and you may continue to attract relatives to it.
Start a family history blog with this free series from our Family History Made Easy podcast (an online radio show)
Part 1: What to Consider when Starting a Genealogy Blog. The “Footnote Maven,”author of two popular blogs, talks about the process of starting a genealogy blog. She gives great tips for thinking up your own approach, finding a unique niche, commenting on other people’s blogs and more.
Part 3: Step by Step on Blogger.com. How to create your own free family history blog on Blogger.com. Learn tricks for designing a simple, useful blog and how NOT to overdo it!
Final tips:Wrap-up and inspiration. In this concluding episode, learn how to add a few more gadgets and details to your blog; pre-plan your blog posts, publish your first article, and how to help your readers subscribe. You’ll also get great tips on how to create genealogy content that others looking for the same ancestors can find easily online.
SHARE! Invite someone you know to start a family history blog by sending them this post. They’ll thank you for it later!