Sunday, April 26, 2009

Writing Family History

I am redoing my Berger family history project that I wrote last year. When I originally wrote it, including sources and allied lines wasn't a top priority as there was a time crunch so now I am amending the information to include all those things before I give copies to my cousins. While working on the book it got me to thinking about all the other family history writing projects I've done and am doing on my branches. It also got me to thinking about all the things I should have done and all the things I did and wish I hadn't while writing family history. Here are some of the things I've learned the hard way:
  • Include sources. Even if the person you are giving the book to doesn't care about that sort of thing, future generations (who will inherit the book) might and it also makes the book more professional and gives the information more credence and credibility.
  • Don't tackle a big branch or project on your first time out. I made the mistake of trying to write a genealogy book on my Jackman family for my first project. I originally wanted to make it about every descendant of the progenitor of the family in America who came over to Massachusetts in the 1600s. Since that quickly proved too daunting, I narrowed it down to my line, the progenitor's grandson, who came to New Hampshire around 1700. Then that proved too overwhelming so I narrowed it down further to my ancestor who came to New York around 1800. Finally I wised up and scrapped the project (for now) and settled on a smaller branch of my tree which consisted of just three wonderfully manageable generations.
  • If you REALLY want to do a big project like my Jackman idea, then consider doing it in increments. Start with your immediate family and trace back on your line. If you are still motivated enough and undaunted, then tackle allied lines BUT start with close allied lines like your grandfather's siblings and their families or your great-grandfather's. If you are still going strong on the project, THEN start on the allied lines of great-great-grandparents and on back. By doing it this way, if you cop out at any stage you still have SOMETHING and what's more, by doing it this way you are establishing a foundation that can be built upon easily if you ever revisit the project.
  • If the project is more than fifty pages, include an index. Trust me, you and anyone who reads the book will be glad you did. If the project is an e-book or PDF, however, the find feature pretty much eliminates the need for an index.
  • This will sound like a pretty silly tip to some, but trust me, I've learned this one the hard way and I want to prevent it from happening to anyone else: number the pages! If the book is not professionally bound you'll be glad the pages are numbered. I've had loose projects fall and sail off into a million un-numbered pieces and I've also had overanxious cousins who wanted to make copies take projects apart and mix up pages. There isn't much worse than having to sort through a 200 page book, trying to get it back in order.
  • Include the edition number. Even if the book is a first edition, it needs to be marked as such. That way, if anyone else besides you comes across the work and any subsequent revisions, they will know which is the most recent and (hopefully) most correct.
  • Include pedigree charts! I actually made the mistake of NOT including these in one project and looking back on it now, anyone who finds that book and doesn't know the family history like I do will be TOTALLY lost and probably give up reading after about page five.
  • Include a generation system. You can either be generation one or the furthest back ancestor covered can be, just be sure to mark everyone as a part of a specific generation. If possible follow the system of including in parenthesis the direct male line to the ancestor, for example: George Washington Wellons (John Chapple, Richard, John).
  • Include visuals, lots and LOTS of visuals. You could be recounting the rousing story of how your ancestor was abducted by Indians and sold to French fur traders or the story of how your ancestor made the trek across the country in a covered wagon during the Gold Rush, but without visuals, the story won't be nearly as interesting. Page after page of text is boring. People are visual, especially in the current times and with recent generations like mine where video games, television and the internet are almost necessary to function. Colors, pictures, maps, documents, flags and a variation in fonts used (make sure they are easy to read fonts though) make anything a more stimulating read. Visuals also add necessary context and background to the project and make it and the information richer.
  • Break the project up into sections, for example, chapters (or volumes if the project is really large). This makes reading easier and also makes it easier to locate people within the project.
  • Focus the project. Not much is more overwhelming than trying to write family history without a focus. It also isn't a good idea to go into a project thinking that you will discover a theme as you go. You end up with a lot of superfluous information and scrapped work and lost time if you go into it without a focus. Also, the narrower the focus the better, I've found. For example, write a biography on a specific ancestor or do a project strictly on the male line of a particular branch. Once you have figured out your focus, sit down and make an outline then go see if there are enough resources to make it a viable project. Once you've established that a story can be mined from the chosen topic, try and find others connected with the ancestor or theme chosen. Interview them if possible and try and collect information from them if they are willing to share. Once you have things in order and a clear focus check over the original outline and revise if necessary. After all this, start out writing with a contents page (which is basically just the outline) and write from there and around that page.

Well, those are my tips, hopefully someone will find them of use. Just remember, what works for me won't necessarily work for you. A certain amount of trial and error is involved in anything we do and the lessons we learn from our mistakes are usually invaluable so don't go into a project thinking it will be all smooth sailing. I find writing family history very rewarding and I've actually learned a fair amount of family facts from doing research for these projects. Perhaps the most rewarding thing about writing family history, however, for me is the opportunities for sharing and communicating with family that it presents and the habit these projects have of bringing us closer together and collectively interested in our family's past. If you haven't done any family history writing projects, I highly encourage it. To make the experience even more rewarding, consider including siblings, parents, cousins, etc. in the process and take them on the journey with you.

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