Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Writing Your Family History

By Jacque Graham

Just tell somebody that you are a writer, and everybody replies that they always wanted to write a book. My advice to them is to start with what they know the best, their family. As a writer and a genealogist, it is important for me to preserve some of my family’s stories and history. What could be more important reading to your children and grandchildren than the stories of where they came from and who their ancestors were.

What a wonderful present it is for someone you love to receive a notebook full of stories about your family heritage. Perhaps you even have a picture or two to add to the book. I did this for my children one Christmas, and the books have become a treasure for them and their children to browse. History stories start a wonderful conversation at a family gathering.

I am going to share with you some of the steps I took when I began writing stories for my .family.
The Big Six
1. WHO is your audience?
Do they know you? Are they within your circle of influence? Will the reader be familiar with the topics you choose to write? Choose words that have meaning to your audience. Some words have different meaning to the present generations than they did “back in the days.” Will you need to anticipate and overcome any objections or any ambibivalence? Some family stories embarrass persons involved.
2. WHAT are you writing about?
What kind of information will you give? What do your readers already know? Give as much information as necessary to provide context. Include sensory details.
3. WHEN did the major events or action take place?
Maintain the flavor of the time period without jarring the reader with inconsistencies.
4. WHERE did the events or action take place?
What as the setting for the event (if you know), and how did that setting affect the people involved in the story.

5. WHY are your writing about it? (This keeps you focused.)
What is the main point you want to communicate? Are you providing strictly factual information or are you trying to entertain the reader?
Every word in your passage should contribute to the end-move the story along..
6. HOW will you tell the story?
How will you get your point across? What format will you use? Will it be
a series of short paragraphs about random events, or do you want to tell a linear story (sequence of events as they happened)? How do the key events in your story occur or progress? Do you plan to use flashbacks to establish the history of your character/personality?
What was play like for you? Your parents? Your grandparents?
Use family names when you describe the play. Describe the play or the game the
characters are playing. Is it indoors or out? What were people wearing? How well did the participants get along? What season of the year was it? Were there any smells, sounds, feelings, that will add to the story?
What is the worst incident/ best incident your parents/grandparents/relative told you about? Use descriptive words to relate the incident.
What were some of the survival stories you were told? Was someone a homesteader? An explorer? An orphan? A veteran of war?
What was your favorite sport?
What foods did you like/dislike?
Did you ever have an embarrassing moment?
Where did you go to school? On vacation? To work?
How did you meet your first boyfriend/girlfriend?
How did you meet your spouse?
What was it like growing up in ______? (city, state, country)
What was the hardest, the most important, the most foolish decision you ever made?
What would you change if you could?
What stories have you heard about your birth? Your Christening? Your first dance recital or game sport?
What new inventions made an impact on your life?

These are just a few ideas you can use to get started. Make your own list of the most prominent events you have heard about your family, or the ones just in your own life. All of these events will add to your reader’s understanding of who you are. I include one of my stories to give you an example.

My Most Embarrassing Moment

As a rather shy junior in high school, I was pleased to meet Mrs. Dacus at the grocery checkout. “ Dacus” lived across our street when I was young and was my frequent and favorite babysitter. Mother and Dad had gone to Easter evening church without me, a three-year-old at the time of the incident that Dacus was telling to anyone in earshot of us that day. I knew she would tell it. She did each time we met.

“I was babysitting with Jacque. She was a cute little tyke. After putting her brother into his crib that night, I took her to the front porch to sit in the rocker and try to get her to unwind and go to sleep also.”

My mind went with her to that day. I remembered that time we had together all too well. I loved Dacus,. I particularly like it when she would rock me and tell me stories. It was springtime and the birds were singing outside. The sun was going down in the west, and it was a peaceful time of day on our porch. Easter morning had been a wonderful experience. I found lots of colored eggs in the hunt on the church lawn and had played hard all day hiding and finding my treasured eggs. As I sat on Dacus’ lap, she asked about my day. I began to describe my Sunday school lesson that morning.

“Dacus, did you know that God made everything?”

“Yes, honey, I do.”

“He made that tree out there didn’t he?

“Yes, He did,”

“He made the grass too, didn’t he Dacus?”

“Yes, dearie, He did,”

“He gave us eyes to see them too.”


“And noses to smell those flowers in your yard over there.”


“He made me, and Little Jack, and my mommy and daddy, too.”

I looked up into Dacus’ very wrinkled old face and asked, “Dacus, did He make you, too?”

“Yes, he did, honey. He made everybody.”

Looking at all the wrinkles around her loving eyes, I said, “He didn’t do a very good job, did he, Dacus.”
As Dacus finished the story, relishing her public audience, there were several listeners chuckling or with smiles, and I am absolutely sure that my face turned beet red. I was embarrassed several times in my growing up years by Dacus’ storytelling, but I loved that woman who had loved me enough to not get offended by my na├»ve statement all those years ago.

The Big Six give you something to think about to make your writing clear and your characters come alive in your story. Choose your story to tell and decide on the people involved, the setting of the story, and the time period. Take your pencil or computer out and list the story details as they come to you, After you finish the outlined draft, read it aloud and see if you can visualize what happened. Go back and add some sensory details and “flesh out the story.” Make it clear and interesting for your reader/listener.


  1. Good article to help readers begin to write about themselves and their families.

    You've become quite the expert in genealogy. Thanks for sharing with us.


  2. Very helpful and inspiring. We all have something in our families we would love to write about, but approaching it in just the right way makes a difference. If I write about my family for fiction or non fiction I want to make it interesting for the reader. This is a great help, thanks Jacque!

  3. What a great post. Thank you for sharing this information. This will be a big help to me.

  4. Thanks for the responses to my post. As you can tell, my motive for writing centers and telling my family stories.

  5. As a lover of family stories and a genealogist myself I enjoyed your article, Jacque. And I'm making it one of my goals for this year to finish the stories of my memories that will be lost unless I write them. Oh, and label all the photographs, so future generations will know who all the people are.