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How to Write a Family History

By Charles Hopkins Published 01/19/2007 | Genealogy

For many people, there is nothing that is quite as important as preserving the history of the family. If you are feeling the urge to begin compiling a history so that future generations can appreciate where they came from, here are a few tips to help you get started.

As with any writing, a good place to start is by writing down what you know. As the author, you know yourself better than anyone else. Make yourself the starting point for the history. Include information about your life up to today, remembering to include information about all the events that have impacted your life the most. Include details about things you, your siblings, and your parents have done together as a family. Include details about where you have lived, where you went to school, your first love, and anything else that you want to pass on to those who will come after you. Once you have prepared the story of your own life, you will be in a very good position to begin tracing back in your ancestral line.

Moving backwards in time, gather all the data you can about your parents. Using your own personal history as a guide, ask your parents for details about their lives, including childhood dreams, major events, and things that brought them joy. Record details about their brothers and sisters, and how they got along with them. Whenever possible, use some quotes from your parents as part of the history.  This will help bring them alive to generations that read their story many years down the road.

In like manner, move back into each succeeding generation, interviewing persons who are in good enough health to provide you with information.  At this juncture, you may also want to begin asking for help in locating diaries, family Bibles, and other documents that normally remain in families after a loved one passes away.  All these details will help you continue to paint as complete a picture of your family's history as possible.

Inevitably, you will need to step outside the resources within your family and find information that may be saved in state archives or catalogued by a genealogical society or other entity. You will find archivists and genealogists quite willing to help. Often, the information you have already obtained from family sources will go a long way in helping these experts to point you in the right direction for uncovering even more of your heritage.

When it comes to the tone of your family history, do not be afraid to imbue the writing with a little bit of sentimentality. While it is true that you do want your information to be a hundred percent accurate, that does not mean the history has to read like formula or a grocery list. Do not be afraid to include information about temperament, character traits, and other observances that you either find a source for, or that you perceive from reading a diary or other document that is from the hand of an ancestor.  Including a little emotion along with the facts will make the stories of the people you are profiling seem much more real to anyone who reads the history. Make sure you include examples to support the observations you make, such as excerpts from diaries and letters, or direct quotes from people who knew your relative.

Writing a family history is both a challenging and a rewarding task. While not something that can be done in a short period of time, the end result is a family treasure that will have meaning for many generations to come.