How to write up your family history

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03 May 2017
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Discover how to write up your family history to share with relatives, with our guide to planning and writing up the information from your family tree.

Discover how to write up your family history to share with relatives, with our guide to planning and writing up the information from your family tree. Start your family history journey with Family Tree's digital guide for beginners.

So, you’ve made a good start on tracing your family tree and found some fascinating ancestors, what next? You may be lucky enough to personally remember your Victorian ancestors and recall the tales they told, or perhaps your mother and father were brought up by parents who lived during this era. If you have some great family stories, consider writing them down for your own descendants to enjoy.

Even if family anecdotes for your ancestors are thin on the ground, you can still write up your family history by using your own memories as a starting point.

Write your family history - the planning stage

Whether you’re aiming to produce a small booklet or a complete family record book, the basics are the same: make a plan before you start to write.

First of all, who’s your intended audience? If you’re writing for relatives, you can stick largely to featuring your own ancestors and their immediate environment. However, if you hope to appeal to a wider readership, you might want to include some local history.

For simplicity, it’s usually better to concentrate on either your maternal or paternal line. Organise your research notes so that you can decide on a timeframe, the number of ancestors and different themes.

Starting to write up your family history

Before you begin, take a moment to consider your reader. You’re going to be taking the bare facts from certificates, censuses, directories, etc, and weaving these into an appealing account. A good way to start your story is to begin at an exciting moment.

Opening with words such as ‘Alice Hemingway was born on 1 October 1940’ will do little to engage your reader. Instead, a few extra words to put that fact into context could make all the difference: ‘Alice Hemingway made her entry into the world on 1 October 1940, in a busy hospital which was struggling to operate during the London blitz'.

You don’t have to write your family history as an exact chronology; consider whether the tale of your ancestors might be better arranged into themed chapters such as marriage, childhood, working life, etc. You could also include details of local or national events to put the lives of your ancestors into context.

For example, say which monarch was on the throne when an ancestor was born, or how many people lived in your home village at the time your great-grandparents set up home there. Remember, not all of your readers will share your enthusiasm for dates, so ‘softer’ details such as local news, popular songs of the time and styles of dress will enliven the text.

You could also include excerpts from sources such as letters and diaries – allowing your ancestors to speak for themselves. And don’t be afraid to include the ‘black sheep’ among your ancestors – people’s faults and failings are another way of bringing the story to life. Having said that, beware of including information which affects people who are still alive and could be upset by the family’s story.

Finally, don’t forget to include information about yourself and your family, so that the story can be continued by your own descendants.

Your finished family history

 Once you’ve completed your story, if possible pass it on to a friend or relative who can check it for grammatical errors. You can then consider which illustrations would help bring the text to life. Photos, letters, tickets and certificates can all help brighten up the pages and allow your reader to literally picture the family’s story.

When you’ve printed your final version, consider depositing a copy with your local family history society, particularly if you’ve included a large number of ancestors, as your work may help someone else researching the same surname.

Layout tips

  • Consider using an index to help readers locate a particular topic
  • List your sources
  • Have a ‘further reading’ section for books you found helpful

(Image copyright Petar Milošević)