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The 3 Basic Phases of Compiling a Family History

When it comes to finding our ancestors, we dive into databases to discover whatever we can but don’t always consider if that’s the only step to compiling a family history.

Let’s be honest. When we start on our genealogy journey, we rarely plan a thing. We don’t think past following our first real clue and discovering a hidden gem or unknown detail at the end of the trail. Then, we’re looking for the next discovery and the one after that.

Almost before we know it, we have a pile of discoveries and the overwhelming task of making them shareable. Ugh. Seems impossible, right? Especially when you show off all those newly discovered photos, certificates, and signatures only to get eye rolls and yawns.

That’s when it’s time to get familiar with what’s involved in compiling a family history, breaking down the tasks and creating a plan to make shareable keepsakes. Ones, where you’ve interpreted the dry data, added some visual enhancement and compiled it into a format that’s both inviting and easy to read.

Join me in Episode 23 to hear:

  • My definition of “family history” after 30+ years of research
  • A broad overview of the three basic phases of compiling family history
  • Standard tasks and outcomes in each phase

Are you ready? Let’s dive in.

Here’s a glance at this episode…

  • [01:52] What are the 3 basic phases for compiling a family history?
  • [03:08] Starting with Phase 1
  • [04:18] Unlocking Phase 2
  • [05:58] Finishing strong with Phase 3

A family history book is the standard format, but what you create is limited only by your imagination. Therefore, you can make a book, use binders, create trading cards, make videos, record audio or use any other format that feels the right fit for you.

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PRUDENCE: What comes to mind if I say the magic words “your family history”? Is it the research? The sharing of stories? Or creating an heirloom keepsake to hand down through your family for generations?

In this episode of Art of Family History:

  • We’ll explore the different phases of compiling a family history
  • Outline what is included in each one, and
  • Why it’s important not to do them all simultaneously.

INTRO: If this is your first time here, hello, I’m Prudence, The Creative Family Historian. I’m a graphic designer, and I help amateur genealogists — like you — bring your family history to life by converting research to stories and beautiful heritage keepsakes.

On this channel, I provide tips on family history productivity, organisation, writing and design, as well as sharing my current journey as I undertake a genealogy reset.

If you enjoy this type of content and want more tips on those topics, hit subscribe and the notification bell, so you get updated every time I upload a video.

PRUDENCE: Before I dive into our chat today, I have a quick update about the name of this video series. Behind the scenes, I’ve struggled to find my feet with this channel and the content I produce for it. I’ve tried a couple of different formats — Q+A, 10-minute training — but I found it hard to work out what to say next.

Finally, after much umming and ahhing, it all clicked into place. Everything I do here on this channel and online is created to help you bring your family history to life. One of the best ways to do that is to have a conversation and share visual examples of how to organise, write and design your family history. After all, I believe those three topics are the integral ingredients. So voila, welcome to the Art of Family History.

Which segues perfectly into today’s topic: the three different phases to compiling your family history. Before I reveal what they are, I will define what the term “family history” means to me. After all, we should start at the beginning, right?

For me, family history brings everything together – the stories, the photos, social history and your research discoveries. It’s an overarching term for the shareable part of everything you’ve spent years or decades discovering. Where you’ve interpreted the dry data, added some visual enhancement, and compiled it into a format that is easy and inviting to enjoy.

The format can —and should— vary. You can make a book, use binders, create trading cards, make videos, record audio or use any other format that feels the right fit for you. Maybe it’s one format or a combination of #allthethings.

Okay, now that we’ve established that, let’s look at those three phases, what they involve and why you shouldn’t try to do them all at the same time.

After spending over 30 years delving into my ancestry and working on compiling family histories for various lineages, I’ve segmented everything into three phases:

  • Research
  • Writing
  • Design

First up is the research phase. One that I’m sure you know very well. It’s where you dive into the databases, interview family members, take genealogy field trips and develop a lifelong love for the archives. So, it’s the information-gathering phase, where the goal is to find out as much as possible about your ancestors.

It includes a deep dive into analysing your discoveries because:

a) sometimes the answer you’re looking for isn’t obvious, and

b) there are clues in the details, and you never know where they will lead you.

So this is very much a discovery phase where you piece together the building blocks you’ll later use to tell the story.

This phase is always the first because you can’t tell stories if you don’t know them. That makes sense, right? And sometimes, what you discover may seem a little dull. Such as “he was born, lived a good life, passed away and was remembered fondly by many”. Not every ancestor will have a Hollywood worthy story; however, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a story worth sharing.

Next is the writing phase. Now that you have a few research discoveries under your belt, it’s time to start to create stories from what you’ve found and what you believe. You don’t need to consider yourself a writer to be a storyteller, and “writing” doesn’t have to be the traditional interpretation of words on a page. It can also be video or audio. Whatever help you start. Whatever helps to tell the stories.

I’m not going to talk about how to do that in this video as it’s a topic I mention a lot. However, I have a couple of great videos to help you get started, and I’ll pop those on the screen now. You’ll also find those links in the description box below.

And, if you’re interested, I have a course for non-writers where you’ll learn a system to use to convert your research into a character-driven narrative. It’s called Ancestral Stories, and I’ll pop that link in the description box as well.

Sometimes writing reveals more clues. After all, clues do love a good game of hide and seek. So you may flit between research and writing a couple of times before you’re confident that you’ve found everything you can for now.

Before moving on to the next phase, I want to stress that writing is not a once and done process. It won’t be easy, and you aren’t aiming for perfection in that first draft. Maybe not even in the final one, either. The goal is to tell the stories you’ve discovered and bring your family history to life.

When writing, be prepared to have multiple drafts. The first one is where you tell the story, and the ones after that are where you’ll start to refine it to be shared with others.

Finally, you’ll design your heritage keepsake. When I say “design”, I don’t mean that you must sit down with a blank screen and create an epic artwork. Instead, you might purchase a template and create a plan to include your stories and other content in it. The design phase consists of several tasks: such as making layout plans, formatting files, print production, or digital distribution, to name a few.

There is more to design than adding content to a page. First, you need to have a strategy, create a structure, and finally develop a blueprint or plan for the project. Then you get to put the content on the page.

I’ve been a designer for 25 years, and it’s the best process to follow. Every time you think you can take a shortcut and do it on the fly, you’ll end up wasting a lot of time moving and rearranging things. I call these long-cuts because you usually spend 2 to 3 times longer and have to go back and follow the process at the end anyway.

So by now, you can probably see why I recommend focusing on each phase separately and not trying to research, write and design at the same time.

Each phase requires and deserves your full attention. You know that you’d kick yourself if you missed an important clue. But, especially if it happened because you were doing multiple things at once. Such as picking apart your grammar or wondering if you can squeeze a new map onto a page you’ve already rearranged five times.

Instead of doing multiple tasks simultaneously to save time, make the full focus investment in each phase instead. Do the phases overlap? Absolutely. Will you have to go back to the previous step? Yes, it’s possible. As I mentioned already, you may find writing leads to more research, and design requires you to write more or adjust what you’ve previously written. Remember, perfection is not the goal; progress is.

So, that is a broad overview of the three phases of compiling your family history keepsakes. First, you research to discover your ancestors. Next, you write to tell the story, and finally, you use design to make it shareable. Each phase is standalone, but they work together to build the complete picture of your family history.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about compiling your family history. Do you struggle to make progress because you try to merge tasks together to save time? Let me know in the comments if that sounds like you or if you have a different process to share.

Do you have a question for me about family history organisation, writing or design? There is a submission form for that! So follow the link in the description box below and ask away. And if you include your email address with your request, I’ll let you know when the video will be live on this channel.

That’s it from me, so I’ll see you in the next video. Until then, happy storytelling!

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