Writing Your Family History and Leaving Your Legacy
Are you ready to write your family story?
How do you research your family history?
Wondering what you should include in your family book?
We are all story tellers, whether we think so or not. All families are full of rich personal history, events (both wonderful and tragic), and lots of stories. Who better to tell those stories than you? In this article, you’ll learn how to write your family history and leave a legacy behind. Let’s get started!
Getting Started with Family History Research
Researching and writing a family history can seem like a large task. But any sizeable task becomes easier when divided into smaller steps. Instead of focusing on the entire project, it may be best to concentrate on each small task as it comes along.
You may want to start by letting family members know about your plan to record your family history. Many family members will probably want a copy of the finished product. And you may even find a few people willing to participate. Take advantage of all the help offered to you.
Next, you may want to arm yourself with various family tree charts, interview forms, chronological timelines, and more. These charts and forms will help keep information readily available. You’ll also want to create your own system of organization. Do you want to keep folders by family member, by decade or by generation? Only you can decide the best way to organize your family research.
Where to Search Your Family History
Good news! You are in luck! Today, family researchers are finding an abundance of resources, both locally and online. Some online services are free, while others are paid or subscription-based services. Some websites offer free trials as well as options for DNA testing. The TODAY show recently tested several DNA testing kits with a set of identical triplets (with different last names). They found the most popular DNA testing kits to be highly accurate and consistent in their results.
Here is a list of local and online resources available to family researchers.
- com – Claims to be the largest database of historical records. You can discover your family history and start your family tree. Access billions of genealogical records including census, SSDI, and military records.
- org – Search for your ancestors in millions of historical records. You can also search in the catalog, books, genealogies, and Wiki.
- gov/genealogy – Access state archives, census records, a gravesite locator, the National Archives, Ellis Island records, and more.
- com – Trace your family origins back hundreds of years to find your ancestors and long-lost relatives. Search billions of historical records, including census records (1790–1940), birth records, death records, marriage and divorce records, living people records, and military records.
- Find a grave
- National Archives
- Library of Congress
- Ellis Island
- Castle Garden
- Local libraries
- Local historians
- City hall / town hall
- Family historian
- Genealogical society
How Much Does It Cost to Find Your Family History?
From online resources to hiring a professional genealogist, researching your family history is easier today than ever before. No doubt, you can spend a good sum of money tracing your family history back hundreds of years. But there are also plenty of low-cost and no-cost local resources available to you. Many of these sources have archived information going back to the beginning of record keeping.
Ultimately, the largest cost in researching your family history is your time. So, it may be wise to recruit other family members to help in your effort. Or you can simply decide that it will take you a few years to complete the project, and then budget your time accordingly. Just remember that it’s your journey too. Have fun!
How to Trace Your Family History
The best way to start tracing your family history is to start with today. Start with what you know and who you know. Begin by interviewing relatives who are still living. And gather the details that family members and friends can still remember.
Then start working your way backward in time. You should have gathered enough details that will allow you to research a person’s name, a birth date or death date, last city lived in, etc. Once you have gathered all available information from living relatives, then you can start using local and federal archives as well as online search sites and genealogy sites to fill in the blanks.
Important Elements to a Family History
Record the Family Stories – Every person that you discover in your family history has lived a full, rich, complete life story all on their own. They have their own individual life experiences, life lessons, and words of advice to share. It’s your job during this process to uncover as much of their stories as possible. That includes getting different points of view on the same event, if other witnesses are still alive. That also includes considering that different people will have different recollections and different takeaways of the same event. And that’s completely normal and acceptable.
Include Photographs – How amazing would it be to stumble upon a photograph of a distant relative or one who has long passed away? What could you tell from the photo? The fashion of the time? Clothing, shoes, hair? Automobiles? Architectural styles? Lifestyles? Mood? Emotion? A picture truly is worth a thousand words.
And with today’s technology, you no longer need the photo in your possession. You can take a picture with your cell phone and have it available to send, print, upload, etc.
Record Your Sources – The point of doing all of the work to create your family history is to have a permanent record for your family and descendants to treasure. At the same time, you don’t want to have someone else go back and redo all of your work. Don’t base your research on assumptions. Instead, the foundation of your family research should lie in both fact and documentation.
A missing photograph or story may not detract from the reliability of your research. But, if you have missing sources or records and cannot verify names, dates, places or events, it will be difficult to ensure that the information you have gathered is factual. If anyone tries to retrace your research, they can only guess which records you discovered and where you accessed them.
Incorporate History – Individual stories are quite interesting, and they tell us a lot about the person as a unique individual. But perhaps what ties everything together are the historical events going on at the same time. What was happening in the world, in the region or in the individual town? Was there strife and conflict or celebration? Was the economy good or struggling? What was housing like? What did the political landscape look like? What were the big issues and challenges of the day? All of these factors will tie in to your individual family history.
Therefore, you should make your steps traceable. Keep photocopies of documents. Link to sources whenever you can. If the account is verbal, then record the name of the person providing the story as well as the date.
Here are some other elements you can include in each person’s history:
- Birth dates, death dates, marriage dates (and places and times, if known)
- Meaning behind given names
- Places lived
- Religious upbringing
- Names of brothers and sisters
- Only child or youngest, middle, oldest child
- Memories and events with brothers and sisters
- School days
- High School
- Clubs and organizations
- First date
- Music, books, movies
- Clothing and hair styles
- First car
- Adult life
- Military service
- Courtship and marriage
- Wedding (date, time, place, events, etc.)
- Birth of children
- Political affiliation
- Family culture and life
- First home
- Children growing up
- Raising children
- Family traditions, rules, standards
- Neighbors and friends
- Extended family, in-laws
- Family recipes
- Career/work history
- Retirement Years
- Funny, lighthearted stories
- Struggles, tragedies
- And more!
Writing Your Family History
Find the Story – Every story in life has push and pull, ups and downs, conflicts and resolutions. Look for these stories within your own family as well. They’re there, but you may have to dig deeper to find them. For example, there are typically three types of conflict: conflict within an individual, conflict between two or more individuals, and conflict between an individual, or individuals, and society.
Consider Your Audience – Who are you writing your family history for? What will they want to know? What information or life experiences will be most valuable to them? Keep in mind that your family history book won’t be of interest to everyone, but just to a select group of individuals—your family, close friends, other relatives, and future generations.
Decide on Length – Do you want the book to be a certain length? Perhaps you want to devote a chapter to each person or to each decade. As you go further back, you’ll probably have fewer details about each individual. So, you may want to combine more than one person or one decade in those chapters.
Get Your Story Out – Turn off that internal editor. It’s important to not be critical in your first draft. First, focus on getting your story out—with all of its flaws, typos, misspellings, and punctuation errors. First drafts are always sloppy.
If you have writer block, you’re not alone. It happens to even the best of writers. There are a few ways you can deal with this common dilemma. You can take a break and come back to writing after a few hours or a few days. Another successful way to conquer writer’s block is to just keep writing through it—even if it’s junk. At this point what you write is not important. You can always throw it away. The end result is what you are after.
Revise and Edit – Once you get the whole story out, you can get more creative with chapter titles, book title, themes, and organization. Themes will typically rise naturally throughout your writing, and the book title and chapter titles may also come from those themes. Take the time to create a second draft, third draft, or more. You may need to take breaks and revisit your project after several days or weeks. Once you approach your family story with a fresh mind, you’ll be able to refine it even more. When you feel your story is complete, be sure to hire a professional proofreader or editor to catch any mistakes you may have overlooked. Don’t worry, there WILL be errors. That’s why this step is essential. You certainly don’t want those errors, especially embarrassing ones, going to print.
Print and Publish – Finally decide how you want your story printed and bound. You can go to a local office supply store, printer or a self-publisher. Consider your budget and whether others will be paying for copies. And consider how quickly you will need the finished product in your hands. You may want to have the family book finished to give as holiday gifts or have it available for sale at a family reunion.
Creating a Family Tree
A family tree allows you to see the fruits of all of your research at a glance. It’s a simple compilation of names, birth dates, death dates, marriages, and children. Family trees range from the simple to the ornate and everything in between. So, the choices and presentations are limitless.
You may want to explore different options until you discover which family tree format will best represent your family. Just like researching your family history, there are many free and paid templates and software programs available online to help you create your family tree. You can also design your own family tree template, if you desire.
How Is a Family Story Different from a Family Tree?
A family tree is a visual documentation of one's ancestry. Most family tree charts include a box for each person. Then lines are drawn between boxes to indicate relationships. Each box may also include the birth date, birthplace, marriage date, death date, and place of death.
Each generation is usually organized into a single level. So, it's easy to see at a glance which ancestors were part of the same generation. A horizontal line between two boxes indicates a marriage. A bracket from a couple to a lower set of boxes designates any children born from that marriage or relationship.
A family tree is a quick visual reference of your family with only the most important dates and places included. A family story, however, is a narrative or a full account of your family’s history—at least as full an account as you are able to piece together. Your family story will include further details about each person’s life, their experiences, their dreams, their hopes, their desires, their failures, and their successes.
In the end, writing your family history becomes your own journey. You will gain a better sense of yourself and your own well-lived life. Family histories humanize the family members you know or remember for those who never knew them. You’ll feel more confident in who you are and where you came from. You’ll also be wiser as you become an expert in your own family history.
The writing process is also reflective, and it is an investment in yourself. Writing can be therapeutic, not only for you but also for others. Your hard work and efforts can have a more far-reaching impact than you imagined.
At Lastly.com, we're working on an easy way to help you capture the stories and special moments throughout your life (or that of a loved one) so that your story will help your family history to flourish and not fade away. Taken control of how you will be remembered is an important step towards documenting your family's history.