The Non-Writers Writing Guide to Write Your Family History
I’ve heard from many of you that you don’t write your family history because you either don’t feel confident with your writing skills or aren’t sure how to start.
You aren’t alone. Many other family historians have felt the same way, including me.
Genealogy documentaries have set a bar high for storytelling. They explore rich, exciting histories and tell them in the perfect setting. How can you compete with that?
And that old saying about “everyone has a book inside them”? Pffft. You aren’t sure you have enough to fill a Christmas card.
A few years ago, I decided to put together a “This is your life” heritage book for my mother. Knowing that writing wasn’t my strong suit, I had multiple contributors lined up to share their stories. This book was going to practically write itself.
Four weeks before B-Day, most of the people who agreed to write something pulled out. I had no stories, and I’d never written anything longer than a multiple page letter. I wasn’t up for the task. However, I promised my siblings we’d have a book for Mum’s birthday, so we were going to have a book.
The next few weeks weren’t pretty, but we handed Mum a 188-page hardcover book in a custom slipcase on her birthday.
The hardest part is starting. I probably never would have if I hadn’t made a promise to deliver a book to Mum.
You can do it too. Even if you:
- think you’re not creative
- haven’t written more than a Christmas card in years
- don’t consider yourself a writer.
Techniques to use to write your family history
As a non-writer full of self-doubt, I tried every shortcut I read about it, even those AI writing sites. None worked. Why? Because the story comes from you.
It’s the knowledge you’ve gained from years of research, the theories you’ve developed and the insight you have after hours of analysis that creates the story. Unfortunately, there is no AI writing app or “fill-in-the-blanks” template that can do that for you.
However, there are different techniques you can use to share what you’ve discovered and create a book, a blog or a binder of stories for your descendants to enjoy.
The first step is to reframe what you tell yourself to take the pressure off. Don’t aim to be a writer, instead consider yourself a storyteller. As a storyteller, you don’t need to be a writer; you’re just documenting what you’ve discovered to share with others.
The next step is to experiment with these three options to write your family stories.
Commit to trying at least one but preferably all of them. You don’t have to show your work to anyone until you are ready. The best way to gain confidence in a skill is to practice.
1. Say it out loud
Skip the writing step and tell yourself the story while using a voice-to-text app to record it.
You want to feel comfortable while talking and for the story to come out naturally. So, if it feels a bit weird talking to yourself, then tell the account to a relative, pet or even your favourite plant. The critical part is that you use your computer or phone to record and convert each word to text as you say it.
Voice-to-text software isn’t perfect, so expect to see some errors in the draft that is created. Mistakes usually happen when the AI misinterprets what you’ve said, mainly when talking too fast, using slang or local colloquialisms. So rather than fixing the issues on the go, finish the draft and correct any errors in editing.
Be sure to speak slowly and clearly so that the microphone picks up your voice, and the AI can interpret and convert each word as you say it.
You don’t need any fancy apps or software to get started. Instead, try any note-taking app on your phone, hit the microphone icon near the space bar, and start talking.
Speak the punctuation that you want to include, such as:
- full stop
- question mark
- exclamation point.
To include quotation marks, you’ll say:
- open quote
- close quote.
For single quotes, you’ll say:
- open single quote
- close single quote.
To move to the following line, say either:
- new line
- new para
- new paragraph.
Depending on the app you use, saying “new line” or the alternatives may exit you from the voice-to-text functionality. If that happens, press the microphone icon again to keep “typing”.
Note-taking apps for writing from your smartphone
Look for an app that saves the document in the cloud (e.g. Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive etc.) so that you can easily access it from any device or computer. Such as:
- Google Doc
- Microsoft Word
2. Summarize each discovery as you make it
Don’t overthink the process and build your ancestor’s story by crafting a summary of each discovery you make.
Everything you uncover represents an event that happened in your ancestors’ life, from being born, getting married, moving house or enrolling in the military. So capturing your interpretation of that event builds their story one discovery at a time.
Your ancestor’s story isn’t only repeating the facts you discovered, such as date of birth, place of marriage or their final resting place. It’s also your interpretation of the discovery and how that event connects to the other things that you know about them. That includes your thoughts, theories and questions that come up as you’re reviewing each discovery.
If you already have an analysis process for your genealogy research, re-purpose the summary you’re already writing for each discovery.
Not summarising your discoveries? Start now. Review what you know about each ancestor and write a few paragraphs on it, using the questions below to prompt you.
- When did this event happen?
- Where did it take place?
- What happened?
- Which other ancestors were involved in the event?
- How does this discovery answer any of the questions you have about this ancestor?
- How does it connect to what you already know about them?
- What was your key learning?
- What new questions do you have after reading this discovery?
- Does this confirm any existing theories or inspire new ones?
- What new clues do you have to research?
Don’t overthink it; write your thoughts for each question. When you’re done, that’s a block of text towards the draft of your ancestor’s story.
Find out more about discovery analysis and crafting summaries.
3. Convert your ancestral timeline into story format
Your ancestral timelines are the story outline of your ancestor’s lives.
If you’re not already using timelines, this is a great time to start. Of course, your genealogy software will already be creating one as you log each discovery. But it’s also easy to create your own.
Create a timeline in Microsoft Word, Google Docs or your favourite app. Any note-taking app will work as long as you can create a hierarchy using headings, body text and bullet points.
Don’t overthink the process because that overwhelms you and stops you from writing your ancestor’s story. Keep it simple and try something like this process:
- Add each year of your ancestor’s life
- Underneath each year, including the date
- After the event date, add the event’s name (for example, death of father, left school etc.)
- Use bullet points to summarise what happened
Don’t have any events? Include general historical events such as war, major financial or weather events instead. You can also include this type of information even if it’s a year where you have events in your ancestor’s life.
Once you’ve finished with the outline, go back through each event, and convert the facts into paragraphs. Be sure to include any theories or questions this event raised for you so that your reader can go on the journey with you.
When you’re done converting each event into a few paragraphs, you’ll have a draft of your ancestor’s story.
You can write your family history even if you’re not a writer
You don’t need to be Stephen King, Nora Roberts or Agatha Christie to write your family stories. Your family history is your story to tell and should be done in your voice.
Keep the process simple, and don’t overthink it, as that’s when the doubts creep in. All you need to do is tell your reader
- what you’ve discovered
- your theories
- questions you have
- how it connects to other things.
“Inside each of us is a natural-born storyteller just waiting to be released.”Robin Moore, Awakening the Hidden Storyteller
Experiment with different ways of creating the first draft.
- Use voice-to-text functionality to convert the story to text as you talk.
- Analyse and summarise each discovery to build the draft one block at a time.
- Convert your ancestral timelines into paragraphs to capture your ancestor’s story.
The best advice I have is to start. You don’t have to ever show those first few paragraphs to anyone. You may surprise yourself, though. Once you see the sections adding up and the story coming together, then you’ll be keen to share it with your loved one.
After all, stories are written one sentence, one word at a time.
Ready for your next step?
Ready to dive deep into my non-writers writing formula and convert your research into engaging stories? Learn more about the Ancestral Stories course.
If you liked this article, be sure to check out:
- Three Ideas to Try When Writing a Family History with Multiple Authors
- 3 Tricks You Need to Get Your Next Writing Project Started
- Are Writing Prompts the Ultimate Hack to Tell Your Story?