Writing Your Family History, Part 1 of 3: Getting Started

Coat of Arms of Jean d'OstFrise
(1506-1572). See caution at left.
Besides being a treasure, the beauty of a written family history is its versatility. It can combine memoir, creative nonfiction, historical research, and genealogy. You decide how much of each, if any, to include. Family history is also a perfect project for those wonderful old photos you’ve been putting off identifying and organizing for your children and grandchildren.

Many people searching their family histories get caught in the excitement of purchasing a family coat of arms. Caution: A true coat of arms is granted to a person, not a family, and is passed to male descendants of the original grantee. If there was a coat of arms for you, you would already have it. Today, only a few countries have official agencies for making authoritative grants. Coats of arms available for purchase on the Internet are generic representations for entertainment purposes and decorative wall hangings.

Family Tree Magazine lists its 101 Best Websites for discovering and sharing your family history.

Kimberly Powell, who writes on genealogy for About.com, has tips on writing your family history and a list of—and comments on—print-on-demand publishing options for your family history book. Here is a summary of her tips:

Choose a Format - Options include photocopied booklet, hard-bound book, newsletter, or website. Contents can be memoir/narrative, scrapbook, album, or family tree.

Define the Scope - This could be a single line of descent, all descendants of . . ., grandparents, or other family groupings such as persons of a particular surname or country.

Set Deadlines You Can Live With - Schedule a writing time and frequency so each stage of your project can be completed in a timely fashion.

Choose a Plot and Themes - These give your family history focus. Immigration/migration, rags to riches, pioneer or farm life, rising of slavery, and war survival are a few to think about.

Do Your Background Research - This makes the reader feel like an eyewitness to your family's life. You could include social and political histories, wars, natural disasters, occupations, fashions, transportation, and foods. Interview relatives for family stories to add a personal touch.

Organize Your Research - Create a timeline for each ancestor you plan to write about. Order your material chronologically, geographically, by character, or by theme.

Choose a Starting Point - Open with something exciting that grabs readers’ attention and draws them in. Review the openings of your favorite fiction books to see how this technique works. Use flashbacks to fill in.

Use Records and Documents - Compelling first-hand accounts can be found in diary entries, will excerpts, military accounts, obituaries and other records. Cite your sources. Use captions and dates for photos.

Make it Personal - Facts are great, but stories and family traditions are what your readers will enjoy and remember most. Stories with more than one perspective add interest and keep readers engaged.

Include an Index and Source Citations - An index makes it much easier for readers to find the portions of your book that detail the people in which they are interested. Source citations provide credibility to your research and leave a trail to verify your findings.

Next week, Part 2: “New Hope in America,” an article by Gene A. Groner showing what a family history might look like using Kimberly Powell’s tips. 

Photo courtesy heraldique-europeenne.org

What have been your experiences with writing your family history? If you have questions, solutions, or tips please send your comments.


  1. Great info! I have compiled several volumes of history pertaining to my maternal grandparents going back to the 1600s or so. I've put the stories and photos in 3-ring binders for my mother, her sisters, my brothers, cousins, and my kids.

    Thanks to the Internet, we have a wealth of info at our fingertips. Are you acquainted with archive.org? If you click on the right column (books / texts), you can search for topics you're intereted in, for example, early settlers in Connecticut. You'll find a list of old books pertaining to that topic, and most are in the public domain. Within each book, you can do a search for your family name and you'll see markers on each page with that name. It's an amazing resource! But be careful, it can become addicting. (It doesn't work well with AOL, but fine with everything else, as far as I know.)

    Thanks for your resources above. I look forward to checking them out.


  2. Hi Wayne,

    Thanks for all the neat ideas in this post. I especially like this quote: "It can combine memoir, creative nonfiction, historical research, and genealogy. You decide how much of each, if any, to include." I think it's important for all of us to "follow our bliss" and gather these stories based on our own preferences. Eventually, some of us will want to organize the information in a shape that can be read by strangers, but the initial stage of pulling it all together is most fun when it is fueled by your own passion.

    Memory Writers Network

  3. Great resource list Wayne. I like the way you begin with a distant view of the goal -- publishing your results (via print-on-demand). I'm a strong believer in the power of vision and purpose. I look forward to the other two posts.