It’s February, time for The Family History Writing Challenge. You have signed up, haven’t you? Regardless of whether you’ve formally registered, now is a perfect time to start recording your family history in a reader friendly form. You probably have quite a bit of information stored in some type of data files. Depending on the software you use, it may be stored online, in the native file format of programs like Family Tree Maker, or possibly in GEDCOM files. You may also keep your records in paper charts and notebooks. Regardless of which of these techniques you use, your family history is not likely to be in a format the most members of your family are likely to sit down and read. That’s what the writing challenge is all about.
A good way to get started is by writing life sketches, short summaries of your ancestor’s life story. Fortunately, you have most of the information you need to get started. If you’re using software such as Family Tree Maker or a web application such as Ancestry.com, there is probably a timeline view. What it’s called may vary from application to application, but it is a list of facts or events in your ancestor’s life in chronological order, along with supporting documentation for each. If you’re not using software that does this get out a piece of paper and start listing events in chronological order. Include the time and place (if you have it), a description of the event, an information source (such as a birth certificate, parish register or grave marker), and be sure to leave room for additional details. Most of the time this will be all you have, but keep your eyes out for additional details. Maybe you will know a bit about the church where your ancestors were married, or the town where they lived. Perhaps your ancestor owned property. How much? Where? What did he or she do with it? It may have been a farm or ranch, or it may have been a business such as store or blacksmith shop. It’s details like this that allow you to piece together a picture of your ancestor’s life.
The next step is to write this information out in the form of declarative sentences. In can help to imagine that a family member or friend has asked you to tell him or her about your ancestor. You might say something like: “David Andrews was born in a small town not far from Cleveland, Ohio. He was the third of seven children.” Don’t worry if you only have one or a few sentences for each event you have recorded. That’s okay. You can always go back and add more information later, when it becomes available to you. Right now, you’re just trying to take compiled information and put it down in narrative form. You can worry about polishing it later. Remember also that you have a lot of ancestors, and multiple life events for each of them. You will be busy!
There’s a funny thing about writing. When you start writing life sketches you will most likely start thinking of questions you hadn’t thought to ask, and you may discover you know more than you realized. So just start. Recording life events in narrative form may seem like a mechanical exercise at first, but you’re sure to find that some of your ancestors’ life stories will really start coming together, and you will soon discover that you have some interesting stories to tell. You probably already do. And if other people in your family are asking you about your ancestors, you know that you do.