Throughout this post, we are going to look at how to write a family history story.
- Why tell your family history as a story?
- Getting started
- Gather all the facts and information
- Decide what and who to focus on in your story
- Look at the social, economic, financial times in the history during the lives of your family story members
- Decide what form will your family story take?
- Types of Illustrations to include
- Break your story down into a beginning, middle and end
- Helpful tips for story writing
- Editing and Polishing
- Writing your own life story
- The Reliving App. 9
I once visited the Imperial War Museum in London and remember vividly seeing a British soldier radio pack from WW2 with bullet holes penetrating halfway through. I looked at the radio pack thinking, wow that is one lucky guy to escape that bullet. How easily he could have been killed if the bullet hit just a few inches either side. Sometime later, I was talking about what I had seen to my grandmother. She looked at me in delight and said, “That’s Uncle George’s radio pack!” My great uncle George, my grandma’s brother, had narrowly escaped death during the war, and his good luck charm turned out to be his radio pack. How I didn’t know that story amazed me, and what an exciting feeling it was to have seen such an iconic piece of history in the London War museum be related to my family.
Have you come across fascinating stories throughout your family history research? Maybe you feel inspired to write a family history story of your ancestor’s life experiences, adventures, triumphs and tragedies.
Most of genealogy is documenting the facts and figures of your family history. Things like birth, marriage and death dates are recorded, careers and where they lived. Your family may take an interest, but wouldn’t it be more intriguing to share your family history through your ancestor’s real-life stories. Understanding the individual characters, and reading how their lives played out?
Knowing the stories around your ancestors gives a wonderful insight into who came before you, the dreams they had for their future families, and traits that may inspire and be true to who you are today. Looking at the lives of people in our pasts can help build our own characters.
Keep on reading to find out how you can record your genealogy through storytelling. We will also look at which information to document and the best ways to record it for your book. Then we can look at ways to present your family history story so that people will take an interest in reading it, and so that you can inspire others to record their family history stories.
Storytelling is ingrained in us as humans. We know the history of villagers all gathering together to listen to elders recite their stories to all the inquisitive wide-eyed children. In the eighteenth century, infamous narrators would travel from place-to-place, gathering large congregations to listen to their tales.
Our history with storytelling doesn’t only run deep into the lives of our ancestors, it’s ingrained into our minds.
Deep-rooted in our brains is the foundation of storytelling. Cognitive Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has found in his research that storytelling is a way for us humans to make sense of our reality. His research discovered this through running tests on patients when monitoring the right and left-hand side of the brain activity. Many of us know that the right and left-hand sides of the brains have different functions. Not only do they work differently, but as well-known is they also work totally independent from each other.
One of the bizarre facts Gazzaniga found from the study was that the two sides of the brain have no idea what the other side is doing. To put this to the test, his team put a sequence of actions and questions to the patients. The right side of the brain would instruct the left on what to do. – Here’s the interesting part, when asked, “why did you do that?” the patient would fabricate a story that explained their reasoning. This demonstrates that the left-hand side of the brain wants to explain and justify all actions and emotions after they occurred.
Gazzaniga believes that storytelling is a way of dealing with survival. Our basic way of preparing us for the unexpected. We play out stories in our heads or observe fictional stories helping us process and learn our future actions for that scenario.
Reciting stories is an amazing way for us to hold onto memories.
One of the methods used in the book Harnessing The Parabrain by Tony Buzan, uses storytelling as an effective way to remember shopping lists. This method of reciting stories and linking information to remember facts demonstrates our need as human to use our imaginations and associations to retain information.
So what’s this got to do with recording your family history story? The more you can get your reader compelled in the story, using their imagination. The more likely the story will stay with them. Then the more likely it is for them to share and write their own family history story.
Just looking at facts and detail without context or historical background can give us a certain perception of how something was.
But digging in a little deeper, we can find rich and powerful stories that give context to gaps in our family history facts. It can shed light on a situation and give us a whole new perception of who and what someone was like.
Take this example from Laura Hedgecock and her story on RootsTech.org. Laura highlights that as part of her genealogy research she found that looking at the wider story behind the facts changed her perspective on how she viewed her great-aunt.
Her story from RootsTech is as follows:
“Hedgecock shared a story example from her own family history, which was missing important details. Her great-uncle Buddy was killed in a mining accident early in the 20th century. Shortly after his death, his wife Carrie remarried. A hole appears in the story when the two children belonging to Carrie and Uncle Buddy ended up in an orphanage following Carrie’s remarriage.
According to Hedgecock, “Buddy and Carrie’s descendants might well look at Carrie as a heartless woman for giving up her children to have another family with a second man,” but Hedgecock decided to look for context surrounding the story. She studied Virginia and West Virginia laws and discovered that women didn’t have any rights over their own children if they were married. Men had all of the rights—even if they were not the biological father. Layering that information on top of what Hedgecock discovered in her grandmother’s diary—the mention that Carrie had remarried a cruel man—has the potential to drastically change the story.
“We don’t know whether Carrie was heartless, spineless, or a victim … but what it tells me,” said Hedgecock, “is that tying up our stories in nice little bows isn’t what makes them compelling. It’s when we engage the curiosity and we expose the mysteries—that’s what makes people sit up and want to read a little bit more.”
Someone reading your family history story may come forward and share more information on your ancestors. It’s amazing how small the world can be when stories are shared. Take this example from FamilyHistoryProducts.com :
“In the late 1990s, I came across an individual with my same last name of Boyter. As you probably already know, Boyter isn’t that common of a name. I was 30 years old and, up to that point in my life, I had never crossed paths with a person with my same surname and not known immediately who they were and how we were related.
I was puzzled and intrigued!
On a side note, this gentleman lived only two hours north of where I had grown up and my grandparents didn’t know who he was either. We sat and talked for several hours that day, swapping family information, stories and looking at family photographs. As we talked I couldn’t help but notice how his general look and mannerisms reminded me of my grandpa Boyter. He told a story of his ancestor James Boyter who, in the 1870s, left Scotland and came to the United States with his older brother Alexander. According to family legend one or both of the brothers found themselves in trouble for hunting on royal property. The story went on that these two, in an attempt to escape the law, fled to the United States. The brothers eventually went back and brought their mother to the U.S. and became skilled masons building many homes in the southern Utah town in which they settled. Alexander ended up in Utah after the U.S. Army assigned him there.
I sat and listened as this man told me this story. I kept silent and held my excitement inside until he finished telling the story. I had heard that exact same story countless times at family gatherings all during my childhood. Now here was a complete “stranger” telling me the same story.
I Immediately Knew How We Were Related! It was a bizarre feeling. It was pretty cool as well. I immediately knew how we were related! He was excited when I told him that I was a descendant of the older brother Alexander; my great-great grandfather Boyter.
If that story had been lost to my family over the years, I would have regained a knowledge of my great-great grandfather Boyter that day thanks to the diligence of life story preservation of the long line of descendants of James Boyter. In this case both sides of the family had held on and had perpetuated the story down through the years”
This is a classic example demonstrating the importance of passing down family history stories through your family.
To get others interested in your family history, you need to make your story compelling and interesting! Make your family tree come to life with sharing your ancestor’s stories. Your work will be preserved and passed through the family for future generations.
Before you can get going with your family history story you need to gather all your data first. This means that you will need to make a dent in your genealogy research if you haven’t already.
Look out for physical and electronic records. This can include information from census records, deeds, military, immigration, and even wills. Talking to living family members is also an amazing source of information behind finding the stories.
For more information on genealogy research if you’re only now getting started, check out our post here.
How to get started writing your family history is probably going to be one of your hardest challenges when writing your story.
Whose life do you begin with? Who has the most interesting story? How many people’s lives will you include in this story? How far back in time are you writing about? Are you going to begin your family history with your immediate family or start with the furthest back you can find?
Deciding on what you want to accomplish, your time frame and who you are writing your story for is important. Otherwise, your story can become too bloated, hard to digest and uninteresting to any reader.
Begin small, maybe focus on one story in history or just a single families story. You can always add to this as you progress.
Look at the social, economic, financial times in the history during the lives of your family story members
As highlighted from the Laura Hedgecock example above, knowing the context of socio-economic factors around the times of your ancestors drastically changes the perception of how events played out.
When completing your own research, look into the local and world events of your ancestor’s timelines. Things to look out for include, war, politics, immigration, the Depression, religion, patriotism, and the economy.
Deciding on the style of your book will determine how you present your story.
If your story is regarding a larger scope of ancestors you’ll likely have fewer personal stories, documentation and photos. In this context, you can record your book as a reference book, for which your readers can search and select which parts to read based on a table of contents at the start.
If your story is narrowed down and focused on a particular family or event, you are likely to have more space for illustrations and images for which you can include an index. –Especially if the focus is nearer our time, as the availability of photos and documentation is easier to find. This style of book can be presented as a story-based narrative, read from beginning to end.
Using a range of images and text gives your story variety. It breaks up large blocks of text and makes it easier and more digestible to read. Plus, having illustrations make the book more interesting to look at. Especially if you can find portraits, old photographs of neighbourhoods or even personal handwritten letters.
You don’t necessarily have to have only pictures of the family members themselves. There are many interesting pieces you can use to make up your book illustration.
Deciding on the types of illustrations:
- Birth certificates, marriage, death
- Photos of streets they grew up
- Newspaper clippings
- Family portraits
- Buildings of work, schools
- Certificates or achievements in paper form
Your opening to the book is one of the most important pieces to work on. This is what will grab the attention of the reader and help them decide if they want to continue reading, or put the book down. Your introduction gives an indication of how the rest of the book will follow.
Many family history stories begin with facts on the person’s name, date of birth, birth location and their life achievements. While it is factually correct, it can be a dull way to read about their life.
“Samuel Martin was born on 3 March 1849 in a log cabin in Illinois.”
Does that make you want to read any further?
A great tip to begin your story is to use the flashback method. This involves beginning a story with a very interesting aspect of their life. Plunging right into the middle of a really interesting story not only gives the reader an idea of where this story is going to go, but it also makes them invested in finding out their journey to that place in their life.
It’s a great way to add interest to a factual story that needs to include all the dates, numbers and important information for genealogy record keeping.
Keep up the suspense throughout the story. You want your readers to stay interested and desiring to read more.
Do this by creating tension and suspense in your stories, don’t reveal all too soon. As we highlighted from our past post How to write an autobiography about myself, let your chapters form the structure of your book. You set the tone for what is to come at the start, and you close that part of the story at the end of a chapter while creating suspense for what will come next.
You don’t have to end your family history story on death.
You can create a feeling of wonder with your reader by posing a question to them, or wrapping up your thoughts on the story and how it has impacted your life as a living ancestor.
Try to make the ending just as powerful as the beginning. Do you want to close the story on a revelation? Maybe you have the resolution to conclude the story. You can decide to end the story on something tragic that leaves your reader with a lasting impact. Or if you don’t want your story to have a sad ending, focus on a happier way to write a close on their life. How they spent their last days, and so on. Or you can even bring it back to the opening story of the book creating a full circle.
You can even separate your story from the hard facts if you find them difficult to tie in without causing too many breaks to the narrative. Part one of your book can be totally focused on the narrative and part two can be all the documentation and facts for your reader to look up afterwards.
- Plan your story outline first.
- Write draft stories under each section so you know what you’ll write about.
- Store your images and documentation separately while writing. Keep an index so you know where to find them when it comes to adding them into the final draft. Make brief notes in the text where you want to put pictures.
- Write a rough draft for your book, then once all the pieces are in place go back over with a fine toothcomb.
- Don’t overdo it on the details. Leave some things to the imagination.
- Include a family tree chart in the book so your readers can see the relation to different characters in the story.
- Leave white space, and use paragraphs to make your writing digestible.
- Decide on whether to put your illustrations together in an index or interspaced throughout your story.
- Have family members read your story to fact check.
- For a more advanced editing solution, you can use a professional editor. This will save you time, and you know your story will be edited to a high quality ready to be published.
If all this family history talk has left you with one thing, it should be the importance of writing your own life story. After all, who better to document your own story than you!
Take a look at a past blog post of ours here where we go into detail on how to write your own autobiography.
Our own stories are important pieces of record-keeping that need to be captured and documented for our future families to look back on and help understand who they are.
I have often looked back on my own grandmother as a source of strength in my own life. Raising five young children alongside running a household, while surviving with just the bare necessities. Knowing the personal stories of our relative’s struggles and how they have overcome them in remarkable ways is a wonderful source of inspiration.
Writing a journal is one of the easiest ways to keep track of your life stories and events. Just like my grandmother, what would seem like normal everyday life, can be a very interesting tale to your offspring down the line!
Life story app
There is an easier way to keep track of your journaling and storing all your media in one easy place.
Using a life story app is a remarkable way to documents your life with pictures, video, and recordings as you live it. In real-time, you can fill out your daily journal, attach media alongside your stories and document it in a wonderful story narrative.
The Reliving app is a life story creating app that not only helps you preserve your family history through family tree builders, but you can also record your life story in real-time.
The Reliving app features:
- A daily journaling feature
- A family tree builder
- A story creation feature
- Your story can be inherited and added to after you pass away
- Unlimited storage of media in a secure database, images and videos won’t get lost or damaged.
- A digital life story can easily be shared between family members. It won’t get lost, damaged or stolen!
Writing your life story through an app is the easiest way to maintain and manage your story. Be the creator of your story, for your family.
Don’t forget that writing a journal is an amazing way of recording your own wonderful life stories. One day your family will look on and cherish, be inspired from and want to share.
Check out the Reliving app here.