It’s time to start writing

pocket watch

Image credit: Kayla Kandzorra

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, 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.

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.