Consider joining the Family History Writing Challenge

This February, The Armchair Genealogist, another genealogy blog, and one that I recommend, will be running The Family History Writing Challenge. To participate, you need to make a commitment to write a fixed number of words per day (say 250 or 500) during the 28 days of the month. It sounds like a lot more fun than ice buckets, doesn’t it? Well, it does, except for the minor detail that many of us feel fairly comfortable with the technical task of genealogical research, but when it comes to the prospect of actually writing about our family history, we freeze. We face an empty screen (or piece of paper), thinking we have nothing to say, or at least nothing anyone really cares about.

But wait, why are we studying our family history? Because it’s interesting. One of the most rewarding aspects of family history is learning enough about our ancestors that they begin to seem real to us, and not simply names and dates. We know there’s an interesting story to be told, we just don’t quite know how to start. When you register for the challenge, you will gain access to advice and ideas on how to start writing. And what i just as important, you will be making a commitment. This may not be true of everyone, but it is often simply the act of making a commitment to do something that makes it possible to overcome the mental hurdles that are holding us back. It won’t necessarily solve all your problems, you’ll likely feel tongue-tied at times, or feel that you have nothing to say. But that’s okay, just push through it. Write something. You are always free to revise it, or even just throw it away and start over. But you’re also likely to find that, as you start writing, you have more to say than you ever thought you did.

So, how can you get started? If you’re like me, you’ve already collected a number of stories in the form of newspaper clippings, reminiscences and firsthand accounts written by your ancestors. If you don’t know a few stories about your grandparents or great grandparents, someone in your family probably does. You have most likely compiled a fair amount of information on where your ancestors lived (for example, from census data). Have you ever tried looking up those place names online or in an encyclopedia? Don’t forget to look for its history. What kind of place was New York or London in 1870? How did people live? of course, you’ll want to know what your ancestors did for a living, whether they owned land or a business. Did they hold public office? Fortunately, these are all things that you typically can find in public records. With census records, the questions changed from year to year, so you may not find a detail such as national origin or occupation in one census, but it may be in another. Passenger lists are also a great place to look for information about people’s occupations. When you think about it, wouldn’t you want to know what special skills passengers on an ocean voyage had to offer? You might not need a doctor, a weaver or a blacksmith during the voyage, but it’s likely you will. I know that my second great-grandfather John Woodhouse, who was a tailor, was able to earn extra money en route to America by doing tailoring work for the officers – and he did not have much when his family left Liverpool.

Of course, everyone is different, and what is important to your family story – and how you tell it – may not be that important to another person. But that’s okay: just start collecting pieces. You don’t need to have a clear idea of the story line when you start. Writing is a discovery process. And that, by itself, is a very good reason to start writing.