By Susan Lewis CBE, author of Home on the Range and Diagonal Ties
Interested in writing your family history? Let me encourage you to do it. It’s not as hard as it might seem.
Maybe you are the family detective and archivist. If you’ve already amassed boxes of photos, letters, copies of hard-to-read census returns, birth, marriage and death certificates, parish register entries, copies of wills and much more, then you are ready to start.
If not, the first step is to gather as much information as possible. Listen to your family’s anecdotes and stories, yes, even if you’ve heard them many times before! Audio or video record the stories and memories if your relatives are happy with you doing so. Use old family photograph albums and artefacts to prompt conversations. Tease out reactions to people from the past so that you begin to form a picture of the character of people and not just their names and dates. Make notes, but, take some details of family stories with a pinch of salt. Stories about the same event will vary according to who is telling them. Sometimes they are myths or massaged versions of what actually happened handed down from generation to generation.
If you can, take older relatives to places they knew in their youth as this is a great prompt for recalling events. Armed with some clues to the previous generations, you are now in a position to use local record offices and ancestry websites to track back through the centuries as far as you can or want to go.
Make sure you have actually found your family and not someone else’s with similar names. Internet sites are littered with family trees that are full of errors and wrong tracks. There is something called the Genealogical Standard of Proof which you can find online which will guide you as you conduct your research and review your evidence.
The process of writing your family history is a bit like having a cupboard full of ingredients and no recipe book. This can be either frightening or exciting as the options of what you can produce are pretty endless. You have some decisions to make, and probably remake, before you settle on what you are going to write. Don’t give up now! Plan what kind of a book you are going to write. As with any writing, think about your audience and tailor your approach accordingly. Is it just for your immediate family, or do you want to appeal to a wider audience of people fascinated by family histories and the times and places you might write about? What will be your unique selling point? It could be a story based on a single family name which has caught your imagination; something set in a particular area; or a tale based on someone’s occupation.
You don’t have to trace your family back to 1066, few have. You can write an interesting story limiting it to one or two generations. You can track back on one strand or outwards in any one generation. You could limit your book to your own experiences in the form of a memoir.
Think about how much you are prepared to share with the world at large. You might be about to declare to the world things which don’t bother you but may be the source of hurt, anger or embarrassment to older family members who grew up with things you may reveal such as poverty, illegitimacy, family rifts or criminality. You have to decide how much to include and omit while still having a story of integrity.
Now is the time to convert your findings into an interesting vivid story. Work out your structure. Do you want to write it going backwards from the present day or forwards from a particular event or time? Do you want to concentrate on one strand of your family because the yarns you can tell will be of special interest, or will you present it thematically? Will photographs add to your story and have you got copyright for those images?
Ancestry comes alive when you weave into it something of the times, places and circumstances in which your ancestors lived. Without this scene setting and addition of colour and shade, your family history will be little more than a list of names and dates. It will be hard to write and even harder to read. There are many accessible sources of background information: internet sites where you can research articles in old national and local newspapers; records concerning occupations such as medicine, teaching, post office workers, coal mining; and books and websites about what places were like in previous centuries.
As you start to appreciate more about where your ancestors lived, what was going on more widely in that time and place, the conditions in which they lived, why they lived there and the social and personal circumstances which shaped their lives and decisions, you will start to bring to life their characters and stories.
Don’t limit yourself to visual descriptions. Try to use all of your senses in stepping back in time. For example, you only have to get back to the 1950s before the passing of the Clean Air Act to be able smell and taste the acrid air in our towns and cities. Touch the surfaces indoors and outdoors when coal or wood were the household fuels and you would instantly see why women (and it was women) spent so much time washing and cleaning, especially when electric cleaners and washing machines were still expensive luxury goods.
Good luck! You are now moving from being a detective to writing your ancestry.
How to write your family history: step by step
- Assess, analyse and verify what you have and work out the purpose of your book
- Note down and research the gaps in your historical background
- Connect your family tree with social and economic history
- Envisage your story layout and design
- Settle on your structure
- Type up your text
- Review, revise and rewrite until you have what you want
- You should now have the yarn for which you yearn!