Most published genealogies aren't meant to be read. You know the type. The ones with just names, dates, and places, some of them no more creatively done than printing out computer databases. Keep in mind that no one's family history is compelling and interesting, until you make it compelling and interesting.
Writing your family history so people will want to read it is not all that difficult. You can write a completely factual account of your family, fully documented, yet as readable as a novel. By borrowing techniques from fiction writers, you can turn your dry facts into a compelling family history narrative.
Remember, all good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it's these three parts that are the secret to writing a readable family history.
Grabbing Your Reader
I don't know who came up with the brilliant idea that a family history had to begin with, "Samuel Martin was born on 3 March 1849 in a log cabin in Illinois." Good grief. Who'd want to read any further? Would you read a novel that began that way? Why do we think we have to begin our family history with the day someone was born? Instead, use the same writing technique that fiction writers use: start in the middle of a story, then flashback and tell the reader how we got to that point.
After I've thoroughly researched a family, I look for the most interesting aspect of their lives and open my narrative there. Say you're writing about an immigrant family, begin the story aboard ship or the moment they step foot on American soil. Or say you're writing about a family who made the overland journey from east to west; open with what it must have been like on the trail. Reel the reader in with an exciting, happy, or tragic event, or a conflict. If you have letters, diaries, or an interesting record, you can open by quoting that source. But remember: You are writing nonfiction, so you have to write your family history within the confines of fact. Here's an opening example:
- Hannah Martin was senile. In 1904, Hannah was eighty-two-years-old and since 1879, living off of her third husband's Civil War pension. Nervous, agitated, and afraid of loosing her one means of support, Hannah had mislaid or lost her pension certificate and could not find it anywhere. Without it, the pension agent in Indianapolis could stop her payments. Fortunately, Walter Hughes, the resident agent for the Phoenix Insurance Company, came to her rescue. Hughes reassured Hannah that he would handle the problem and wrote the pension office on her behalf.
See how I plunged us right into the middle of the story? In the paragraphs that follow this lead, I'll use a flashback technique to fill in the reader on how Hannah got to this point. All of the details in this paragraph came from the letter Hughes wrote to the pension office. Rather than printing a transcription of the letter, I just paraphrased it into my own words. And, of course, in the actual narrative, I inserted a footnote and gave the citation for the letter.
Keeping the Story from Sagging in the Middle
How do fiction writers keep you turning the page? They build suspense. Now I'm not talking Stephen King suspense. All you need to do is leave something hanging, either within a chapter or at the end of a chapter. You don't need to give us everything you know all at once. Create an air of mystery. Here is a quote from a letter that I used to end a chapter in a family history:
- I thought I could see the thing through, Grace, but I was a fool to think so. It's no go. The last few months have been pure hell, and I don't have to tell you to what silly, foolish little things I stooped in constantly trying to suppress the big thing, which I considered I had no right to say Ö. I've got to know whether I have a chance. As you probably know, I haven't anything to offer you; to ask you to marry me at present would be no compliment Ö. But if I'm ever lucky enough to be able to ask you with a clear conscience, will I have a chance? Will you write real soon and tell me, and tell me in words of one syllable, because nothing could be worse than uncertainty.
I'm not saying the things that are usually said and that I want to say so badly, because I want to keep this letter as rational as possible, and I'm sure you know them anyway. But if I get a certain answer, oh what a letter I will write! Will you send it right away, you wonderful girl?
Now, be honest. Could you put the book down at that point? Even if you were late to pick up your kids from school, wouldn't you turn the page for a peek at Grace's answer?
Ending the Story
So who was the other wise person who thought that a family history had to end when everyone in the story died? Or who thought the story had to have a happy ending? Not true! You certainly don't have to kill off your ancestors if you don't want to, nor does everyone have to live happily ever after. You can end the story with your great-grandparents in their old age. You can conclude with a tragic event. After all, tragedies, throughout literary history, stick with us longer and have more of an impact on us.
When I was writing the biographies of Jay Roscoe Rhoads and his wife Grace (soon to be published by Newbury Street Press, Boston), I didn't want to kill off Roscoe and Grace at the end of the story. I had grown fond of this couple, and I didn't want to see their demise, even though in reality they've been dead for about fifteen years. So I didn't end their story with their obituaries. Instead, I put family stories of their last days in an Epilogue, followed by something more haunting and enduring. Fortunately, Roscoe had written a fabulous two-page reminiscences on his eighty-fifth birthday, about two and a half years before he died. It contained his life's philosophies and ended with a great closing sentence: "Well, so much for the ruminations of a tin horn philosopher, just turned 85." End of story. Make documents work for the story, so they become powerful openings, middles, or endings.
But what about all those facts? In writing narrative, some facts might not conveniently work themselves into the story. Divide your book into two parts. Part One is the readable narrative family history; Part Two is the reference section of genealogical reports or summaries with all the bare bones facts.
So that's the secret to writing a compelling family history: crafting your facts into a nonfiction narrative, using fiction techniques. As you read fiction, pay attention to how the author opens the story, how he or she keeps you reading, and how the story ends. You can apply just about any fiction writing technique to nonfiction writing. Now you can write a compelling family history, too.
Courses in Family History Writing
- Check with adult education and community colleges. Many offer courses in life story writing, creative writing, and creative nonfiction writing. You can apply the techniques you learn to writing your family history.
- Writer's Digest Online Workshops offers courses in life story and personal/family memoir writing.
- Bringing Your Family History to Life through Social History by Katherine Scott Sturdevant (Betterway Books, $18.99)
- Writing Family Histories and Memoirs by Kirk Polking (Writer's Digest Books, $14.99)
- Writing the Family Narrative by Lawrence P. Goldrup (Ancestry, $12.95)
- For All Time: A Complete Guide to Writing Your Family History (Heinemann, $15.95)
- For more on writing your family history, see the January 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine .
Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is a Certified Genealogist, executive editor of Family Tree Books (formerly Betterway Books), contributing editor for Family Tree Magazine, and the author of eight books, including A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your Female Ancestors. Sharon is also a consulting editor for Newbury Street Press (the publishing imprint of the New England Historic Genealogical Society) and a contract advisor for the National Writers Union. Sharon is a former editor for the NGS NewsMagazine; Speak! (the newsletter of the Genealogical Speakers Guild); and the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly.
Family History Project
By: Brandon Penny
College Now Course - BSS 1
The Penny family is one of a long history, rich culture, fascinating stories, and best of all - strange but true facts. For example, I bet you didn't know that I am my own 8th cousin! Before approximately four years ago, neither did I. These days I know an awful lot about my family history. In fact, I know more than I could have ever imagined. I can currently trace my family back nine generations (count 'em, nine!) all the way to Devonshire, England in the year 1755. I can name almost 99% of anybody that was born between the late 1700s and now and is somewhat related to me. I can probably tell you their name, family members, date of birth, date of death, and their relation to me.
The way this all started was back in 2003, just four years ago, when something clicked in my father's head and he decided he wanted to learn more about our family background and the genealogy of the Penny family. When he began his journey, he acquired a great deal of drive and determination. Nothing could stop him and he would let nothing get in his way of finding out as much as possible about the family history. He began - where else - on the Internet. He's browsed through, what by now must be, a few hundred web pages (one of which is the records of the Latter Day Saints, because, interestingly enough, one of my relatives is/was a Mormon and posted some family records on there), purchased a few books, and I'm sure even made some telephone calls. Lucky for him, Newfoundland (the part of Canada that, for the most part, we are from), keeps excellent genealogical records and has some of the oldest parish records in North America! Within the past four years, he's been continuously filling in little pieces of the family history, but amazingly it only took him approximately a year to trace all the way back to William Penny who was born in 1755.
Speaking of William Penny, let's start my family history with him. William Penny is my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. He was born in 1755 in Devonshire, England and at about the age of 18 he moved to English Harbour, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland with his two brothers, George and Ralph. He settled there to fish because at the time fishing was a big industry in Newfoundland. Once there, he married Ann Jones and they had William, John, Charles, James, and Samuel. Little did they know that down the line there would be a total of eight William Pennys, seven John Pennys, two Charles Pennys, three James Pennys, and three Samuel Pennys.
William Penny was one of twelve jurors in the trial of Mary Power and Robert Fling, who were accused of the murder of Maurice Power, Mary's husband, in 1772. They were accused of strangling Maurice, Mary's husband, in his sleep. As it turned out they were guilty and Robert Fling was sent back to Ireland, while Mary Power was sentenced to be hanged; however this is where it got interesting. Sometime after they sentenced her to be hanged they realized/found out that she was 5 months pregnant! Fortunately, they allowed her to give birth after four more months and then they still hanged her!
As we move on down my family tree, the next significant person would have to be Alexander Penny, who was born in 1849. Alexander was the master builder of the only church in English Harbour, Newfoundland - All Saints Anglican Church. In fact, this church is of immense relevance today because of what has become of it. Just recently, there is a group of people who are trying to save the church and turn it into an Arts Association. If this does not occur, the church that my great-great-great-grandfather built 100-150 years ago will be destroyed. The bigger plan is to turn the town of English Harbour into an artist community and have the church as a giant studio. Last year, an art auction was held in Toronto to raise money for this project, and they also applied for government grants to assist in the funding. Turning the church into an artists' studio would be a great idea, considering they cannot find any other alternate use for the church, and this would hopefully bring about a rise in the population of English Harbour. At the height of the town, in the mid-1800s, there were approximately 1,000 people in the town, whereas today there are only 48.
Today, I am beyond glad that my father decided to do all of this research and found these hundreds of people that make up my rich family history, for without it I would know close to nothing about my history. For example, I can tell you that there have been some interesting first names to share the last name Penny, such as Absalom, Bertram, Colin Gilbert, Gertrude, Honor, Mahalah, Malcolm Wilifred, Martha Sweetland, Miriam, Muriel, Pierce Francis, Solomon, Sweet, Urias, and Violet. Speaking of interesting facts, please allow me to explain how I am my own 8th cousin. My great great-grandparents, John Francis Penny and Janet Wells each had a great-grandmother (obviously). Their great-grandmothers were sisters; therefore, when the two of them got married every single person before and after them became related in a very strange way. That is why I am my own 8th cousin and my father is my 7th cousin once removed.
As I have mentioned, I am simply enthralled by all of the work that my father has done over the past four or five years. Through his hard work and dedication I have been able to find out about many, many, many relatives that I have and now I can trace my family back nine generations! This amazes me compared to the knowledge that most people have about their family. Not only does my family go way back, but now I found out many interesting anecdotes about them. (One more thing: my 15th cousin 4 times removed shares my birthday! Only she was born 118 years before me) My father now holds over 500 pages worth of family history and when I go through those pages, I feel as if I have the world at my fingertips. What is the one most interesting thing that I found out, well in my opinion that would have to be that my family really came from England, and because my grandfather left Newfoundland before Canada became free from England, I am British and not Canadian like I was lead to believe my entire life. Now that my father has gone back nine generations, he has one path in mind - to keep going back! He now plans on finding out exactly where in England William Penny is from, and who his parents are. In order to do this and find out even more, he plans to visit
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