Art of Family History | Episode 28
When is the Best Time to Write Your Ancestor’s Epic Life Story?
PRUDENCE: Hey, when is the best time to start writing your ancestor’s story?
It’s a popular question that regularly lands in my inbox. You’re actively researching an ancestor and making some fantastic discoveries. Exciting details that you absolutely can’t wait to start sharing with all your cousins. But on the other hand, you know there is more to discover, and you’re hot on the trail of more incredible stories.
So, do you wait until you have discovered everything you expect to find? Or do you start immediately and keep adding to the bigger picture one discovery at a time?
Today, on the Art of Family History, episode 28, I’m sharing my thoughts on:
- the no.1 rule when writing a family history
- story snippets – what are they and why you should create them
- sharing your genealogy journey inside an ancestral story
- the best formats for sharing research discoveries.
INTRODUCTION: If this is your first time watching one of my videos, hello, I’m Prudence, The Creative Family Historian. I’m a graphic designer who helps genealogists — like you — bring their family history to life by converting research into 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.
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PRUDENCE: Now, are your writing fingers ready? Let’s dive in.
One thing I hear a lot from family historians is that they can’t document their ancestral stories until they’ve discovered all they can about that person. After all, what if you find out more things that change the story you wrote about your ancestor?
Or perhaps you’re actively researching someone and making discoveries on the regular. Sure, you’d love to start sharing what you have discovered, but it’s too soon, right?
No, not at all. It’s never too soon to begin writing your ancestor’s stories. In fact, you can draft your family history one research discovery at a time, starting with the very first one.
You’ll be doing your research a favour. Because when you write out each discovery in your own words, you’re taking two critical steps in your family history journey.
- You’re developing the first draft of your ancestor’s story.
- You’re also clarifying your interpretation of the information.
And that first draft? It’s for your eyes only. It doesn’t need to be perfect or even make sense yet. It’s something you can edit and add to over time until it’s in a shareable state.
That seems too easy, right? Pinky promise, it is that simple.
Now to be clear, when I say, “write out each discovery”, I’m not talking about when you transcribe a document or certificate word for word. That’s a transcription. Yes, it’s helpful for your process of understanding the discovery, but it doesn’t have that one-two punch I mentioned earlier. Instead, you write out the facts as you interpret them.
It’s a simple yet powerful exercise for your research and storytelling.
I’ve had some big ‘aha’ moments when doing this step. It happens because you’re taking the time to absorb what the records tell you.
Okay, that sounds great, but you’re really looking for something shareable. Something that you can post on social media or email to your relatives.
I have a two-word solution for you. Story snippets.
I was five or six when I saw my first episode of This Is Your Life. It was a life-altering event. Hearing people share their memories about moments in time resonated with me in a way that the chapters of Dot and the Kangaroo never had.
I saw the magic happening every time the host opened that giant book. Those stories of shared experiences brought people together. These weren’t complete stories of the person’s life from the beginning to the end. They were moments in time, snippets of the bigger story.
Story snippets are simply a snapshot of a moment in time. And it’s a fabulous way to share information, especially when you may not have any other details. That’s why they work for memoirs and family history books because often, we only have access to a small part of someone’s life story.
And the snapshot aspect makes them social media-friendly because they are short and won’t take long to read. Exactly what you need in an environment where people have hundreds of distractions and no interest in reading pages of details.
I started creating story snippets almost as soon as I began tracing my family tree. It was a way to tell myself the stories, find the gaps and make sure that what I discovered made sense with what I already knew.
Story snippets are my favourite way to share ancestral stories. I’ve created a few templates to help with the process — Ancestor Trading Cards, Snapshots, Profiles, Bookmarks—all items where you can add more over time or make multiple versions to create a series. For example, create a trading card for significant milestones or a bookmark for every event until you have a complete collection. If you’re interested in checking out those templates, I’ll leave a link to the template store below.
And if you are worried about information changing, you can always add a disclaimer that your research is a work in progress, but this is what you’ve discovered to date. It can be a great way to start the conversation to find out what insight your relatives can provide on the topic.
Is inspiration starting to spark?
Are you having ideas about how to start sharing some of your ancestral discoveries?
Hold that thought for a little longer, and don’t turn this video off just yet because we haven’t talked about how to include details of your genealogy journey into your storytelling.
Sometimes the best stories to share include how you found that person or a specific detail. For example, my cousin Sue has a remarkable story about how she tracked down our 2x great-grandmother’s name. Sure the discovery is terrific to know, but the story of how she got there is the most intriguing part. Sue’s account of her wrong turns, her theories and questions make the overall story more powerful. And it is the intro to what is a heartbreaking story about addiction and poverty.
And you can use this technique the same way to document some of the mysteries you’ve discovered in your genealogy research. It can be a great way to introduce the story.
Adding snippets of your journey, especially questions and theories, is a powerful way to build out the story when you don’t have a lot of details. As family history detectives, we often have a good idea of what might have happened based on social history, but we can’t prove it. So including those insights adds value and invites your reader to talk to you to learn more.
Once you’ve created the draft story snippet, edited and refined it, you’re ready to share it with all your relatives.
So what’s the best way to do that?
I’d encourage you to unleash your creativity here and see what ideas come to you. If you’re looking for a starting point, though, then consider:
- trading cards
- ancestor snapshots or profiles
- slides (think Instagram carousel, not a PowerPoint presentation)
Or take the simple approach of sharing a photo plus caption to social media.
I encourage you to write your ancestor’s story with every discovery you make so that you’re developing that first draft as you go.
Writing isn’t a “once and done” process, and it’s not a fast one either. I encourage you to treat it as building blocks that you later edit together to create a seamless story.
Author Cheryl Strayed says:
“I write to find what I have to say. I edit to figure out how to say it right.”
Pick an ancestor and start capturing your thoughts and what you know about them. Keep in mind that all you have to do to create that first draft is capture what you know. It’s about getting the gist of what you’ve discovered on the page—digital or physical.
It doesn’t need to be perfect. It doesn’t need to flow. And it doesn’t need to make sense to anyone else other than you.
That’s why we edit.
Remember, you’re not writing on a stone tablet, so you can add to it later if you discover more details. Or make that a part of the story. For example, you can include a paragraph about your ongoing research and what you hope to find.
Writing is a process and something to be completed over many drafts. You don’t need to wait until you have all the facts. Use what you have. The longer you wait, the bigger the task, and you may run out of time to tell the stories. Then, the information that you’ve worked so hard to discover will be lost. No one else can share your theories and journey. Nor will they interpret all those discoveries the same way.
Now I’d love it if you tried this technique for yourself. Take one discovery you’ve recently made and write a story from the raw facts. There is no specific word count you need to hit. Start writing and keep going until you’ve captured everything you want a reader to know. That will probably be a paragraph or two, but it depends on what you’ve discovered. Once you’ve completed the exercise, I want to know if you found it straightforward or a bit of a challenge.
And let me know if you have a question about a different genealogy organisation, writing or design problem that you’d like me to answer. Look for the link to the Ask the Creative Family Historian submission form in the description below. I can’t wait to hear from you.
That’s it from me, so I’ll see you in the next video. Until then, happy storytelling!
WATCH THE EPISODE
When is the Best Time to Write Your Ancestor’s Epic Life Story?