Saturday, February 15, 2014

Compiling and Writing Your Family’s History

Compiling a family history is an exciting, adventurous treasure hunt. Why not share the treasure with the rest of your family?

Very few people will claim that they have no desire to know where they came from and who might be hiding among their ancestors. Am I a descendant from kings? What skeletons are in our closets? Why do I have a propensity for learning languages? Why do I have red hair? Is my surname Irish or Scottish? What year did my family come to the country I live in? Do I still have family in Italy? These and many more similar questions can be answered, for you and your extended family, when a family history comes into being.

There are a few important steps to keep in mind when compiling your history into a narrative that will keep your family members and others reading to the end.

Finding the Family

If you haven’t already done so, the first step is to put together a family tree, and the best place to start is with you. Write down your name, birth date, and place of birth. If you are married, write down the name of your spouse, his/ her birth date, place of birth and the date of your marriage. Next, write in the same information for your parents and for your spouse’s parents. If you have children, add them to the list, under you and your spouse.

If you are lucky enough to still have your grandparents, they can also provide their personal information and possibly information about their own parents. From here on, the search becomes a little trickier, but also more exciting because of the challenge in finding more information. You will possibly need to go to churches, cemeteries, and other public and private archives in order to follow the tracks left by your ancestors. However, Internet can also be a big help, as there are several wonderful genealogical sources online such as and

Be sure and include a source list of where you obtained your information, in case one of your readers would like to learn more, especially if you write the history of a surname.

Include Family Stories

On June 13, 1917, 21-year old Edith Jenkins and a group of her friends had gone on a day trip to London for a shopping spree. Edith’s best friend was getting married the following week and a few small items still needed to be purchased. Shopping in Folkestone, where they lived, was out as it had been bombed only 3 weeks earlier.

The girls had just walked out of the store, but the bride-to-be suddenly remembered something else and dashed back into the store. The others continued walking towards the train station when a loud explosion caught their attention – they turned in time to see the store where their friend was crumble, after a bomb dropped from a passing Gotha fell on it. The wedding day, which should have been a day of rejoicing, became a day of mourning.

Including stories like the one above – told to me by my grandmother – will help bring the history alive for your readers. Readers will be better able to relate to the people in their family tree if they know something personal about them. Be sure and add historical context so that people will better understand what was going on at the time the story took place. This will also help bring the stories alive. A good way to find stories is to encourage your parents or grandparents to tell stories about their youth.

You could also include a description of why you decided to write the history and even relate stories that happened to you while you were researching certain names. For instance, while searching through an old family history written on one line in my genealogy, I found a family that had eleven children listed. After doing further research on my own, I discovered a twelfth child that the original authors hadn’t known about. Think about it: twelve surviving children in a period that survival rate was about 25%, and this family had 100%! Amazing!

Add Photographs, Portraits and Illustrations

Photographs are another way to bring your ancestors to life. Some of my most prized photos were take during the American Civil War of the Grazier family and the Chadeynne family; the Graziers were fighting for the South while the Chadeynnes were fighting for the North. Another was taken in Folkestone in 1901 of my six-year old grandmother; it was considered bad luck to smile in photographs then, and there she was, wearing an ear-to-ear grin. It was very typical of an extraordinary person.

Keep It Simple

This could prove to be the most difficult of all the rules. We like to sound super-intelligent or all-knowing; however, a tendency toward language that is flowery or too erudite in your writing just won’t make it with most of your readers. The best idea is to use simple language that even the least educated reader will understand.

Writing a family history can be fun and rewarding, and can help us understand ourselves from learning about those family members who came before us. Happy writing!


Bombing During World War I, Pamela Feltus:

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