Sharon DeBartolo Carmack: You Can Write Your Family History

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack
Book Review: You Can Write Your Family History
Sharon DeBartolo Carmack
Betterway Books, 2003
Paperback, 245 pages with bibliography, appendices, and index

This book is in my Reading Guide at

“Being a ‘writer’ is really a frame of mind,” Carmack writes. “Sure, some of it has to do with talent or learned skills, but if you think you’re not a writer, than you won’t be one. I believe practically everyone has the potential to write a family history.”

She turns her extensive experience as an author, instructor, speaker, and business owner into a no-nonsense, uncomplicated, system to writing your family history. It’s much like baking cake—follow the recipe and you’ll get a cake. Follow her recipe and you will get a family history manuscript you will be pleased with and proud to share with family and friends. She also shows how to turn your manuscript into a book.

Carmack writes in a style that is easily grasped by professionals and newbies, and skillfully and passionately covers all the bases. She is especially strong for two major aspects of the process: creative nonfiction and what she categorizes as the four key parts of your story. Creative nonfiction uses techniques of fiction writing to tell a good story: scenes and summaries that reveal character, drama, emotion, and meaning while staying true to the facts.

Scenes and story parts
“Scenes allow your readers to feel like eyewitnesses to the events you describe,” writes Carmack. “Summaries, on the other hand, simply tell the reader what happened in a way that moves the story along in time more quickly.”

The four key parts of your story are “a primary focus on people, a strong beginning, a ‘keep ‘em reading’ middle, and a powerful ending.” These will fall into place quite comfortably if you have done your planning and research.

“You will make the whole process of writing your family history easier and give yourself a better night’s sleep if you think through the family history you want to write before you begin writing, then tackle it one step at a time.”

Before starting to write, Carmack suggests you:
  1. Pick the type of family history you want to write: reference genealogy, narrative, memoir, edited letters and diaries, biography, or fiction based on truth.
  2. Define the scope and structure of your project; which generations and which groups.
  3. Prepare family group sheets and transform the data into family summaries.
  4. Look for the plot.
  5. Develop a thematic chronology of localities and time periods.
  6. Revisit genealogical sources.
  7. Search social history sources for relevant details to flesh-out your narrative; proper citation is a must.
Stories jump off the page
Now, you have the foundation from which to make your ancestors come to life as real persons in real settings with real conflicts. The stories of your family, not just their genealogy, will jump off the page with “suspense, humor, and romance.”

Her final two chapters are a mini-course in publishing your manuscript. She covers copy editing, proofreading, copyright, obtaining permissions, print-on-demand, distribution, promotion, commercial publishing, dealing with an agent, and contracts. Resources in the chapters direct you to more helps as does a separate bibliography.

Three appendices are special bonuses: an example of a family narrative and of reverse chronology structure, both with footnotes to illustrate proper citations; and a list of writing courses, contests, organizations, and conferences.

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is a certified genealogist and a partner in the research firm of Warren, Carmack & Associates. She is author of sixteen genealogical guidebooks and family histories, including You Can Write Your Family History.

Photo courtesy Sharon DeBartolo Carmack.

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  1. Sharon's book sounds like an excellent resource for all of us memoir types. I'll look into it, and will probably list it as a resource on my blog. Thanks for letting us know about her book.


  2. Looks like a great resource for my bookshelf. Thanks, Wayne.

  3. Likewise for me, Linda. I usually don't buy books I review, but this one is going onto my shelf.