Lessons learned from writing a family history book in 10 days
You might think I have it together when it comes to writing my ancestor’s stories, but that hasn’t always been the case. I did bits here and there for years. It all seemed easy enough until I decided that my next project would be writing a family history book.
The idea was to produce a book covering three generations of the family tree, with Mum firmly in the spotlight. It would be a gift to celebrate her 70th birthday. Sounds great, right? At least, that’s what everyone said when I pitched the idea. Yes, they would love to contribute. Yes, they had lots of stories to share.
Fast forward to four weeks before I was due to hand the book over to Mum. No one had written a single word, not even me. Plus, I still needed to decide how to approach the layout and design. Oh, and get the book printed and bound. Red flags. So many red flags.
Days passed, filled with more false starts than I’ll ever admit. Finally, I realised I’d missed a vital step —planning. Instead, I went from having the idea to creating it without any other actions in between. The result? Nothing happened because it wasn’t clear to anyone what they had to do. Me included.
The good news is that the project worked out okay in the end, and we gave Mum a 188-page book about her family and her life as planned. And no one talks about the chaos and stress it took to get there.
From writing a family history book chaos to the printed product
Between all those false starts and handing the book to Mum, I learned three vital lessons. These became the foundation of the process I now use to convert research discoveries into stories.
It’s a process that allows me to put together the stories in layers — outline to draft to edit (and edit and edit). I’ve continued to use the same process, adapting and adjusting it until it was like baby bear’s porridge — just right.
If you’re struggling with getting your ancestor’s story on the page, keep reading to find out:
- Three mistakes you might be making
- The process I use to write my ancestral stories
- Why it works and if it can work for you.
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Mistakes I made writing a family history book.
If you’re like me, the greater the pressure you’re under, the more mistakes you’re likely to make. It seems unavoidable no matter what type of project you’re working on. While no one enjoys messing up, making mistakes is a part of the journey. While it’s stressful in the moment, it’s through mistakes that we find a better way to do things.
I was trying to free-write an entire book. Free writing a family history book, no less. No outline, no structure, and no order. It was the wild, wild west of writing. It was also never going to work. I’d get so far, then hit a patch of “I don’t know what I’m doing”. It’s more slippery than black ice and guaranteed to derail your progress. And it always leads to mistakes being made. The three big ones that impacted my project were:
- Not having an outline or structure.
- Trying to do everything at once.
- Critiquing my work as I created it.
Let’s break those down and dive into how I turned those into a process that completely changed how I write my ancestor’s stories.
Mistake #1: Not having an outline or structure
Story outlines are for fiction writers. That’s a belief I had before multiple failed attempts at writing a three-generation family history book. My limited experience with the writing process meant I didn’t see it for the tool that it is and how the benefits are far more significant than the time investment to create one.
The few pages I managed to write in those early sessions were the perfect example of how much I needed this tool. I kept jumping around the story and forgot to include relevant details, so I kept halting progress to backtrack and add them.
This didn’t break the story flow so much as kill it altogether. My family history book was reading like a shopping list. One that was put together while running out the door without checking what was in the cupboard. Some items were listed multiple times, and others didn’t belong there at all.
Having a story outline and structure is the same as having a detailed shopping list or using a map to get you from A to G. It helps you plot out the path to take and shows you where to stop along the way.
On a road trip, a map means not having to keep thinking about the next step. Instead, you can enjoy the journey. Likewise, when writing your ancestral stories, that outline means you can focus on creatively crafting the story instead of worrying about what comes next.
Lesson No. 1: Create a story outline and decide on the structure before you write a word.
Mistake #2: Trying to do everything at once
My self-imposed deadline was tight. Really tight. I gave myself two weeks to do three primary tasks—writing, designing and formatting a book. These things would have been hard if I had two weeks for each instead of four-ish days. But the timeline I did have? It was almost impossible. Not to mention that I wasted three days floundering around.
So, I had to take a shortcut. I decided to do everything at once to save myself time. I’d write the stories as I designed the layouts. Plus, I’d organise and format the content while I was at it. Brilliant! That way, every time I finished a page, it would be print-ready. Genius! Could this be the ultimate shortcut to writing a family history book?
Not even a little bit. Every page was a custom design which is draining and time-consuming. I was sourcing and scanning photos while trying to write stories. There was no consistency to anything. Plus, I was moving at a pace that would embarrass a snail. Not to mention that I often had to go back to the “finished” pages to add things I’d forgotten.
The actual shortcut for any project is planning and organisation. After all, you must be organised to successfully meet a tight deadline. For example, designing and formatting a book in four days is doable if all the content is ready. It’s also a lot easier to write the stories if you aren’t interrupting yourself constantly to scan photos or do other things.
Lesson No. 2: Break up the process and write your stories in stages.
Mistake #3: Critiquing my work as I created it.
My worst habit was trying to edit and write at the same time. Whenever I didn’t know what to do next, I’d start critiquing and rewriting all my work. The backspace and delete keys were the gleeful evil sidekicks helping me to trash all those carefully crafted words.
I couldn’t get any traction with the story because I kept reworking the same paragraphs. My progress was minuscule because I’d invest most of my time critiquing what I’d previously done. At most, I’d add half a dozen sentences per session. With that rate of progress, I wasn’t going to finish the book in my mother’s lifetime. Or maybe even my own.
I had a tight deadline and a lot of words to write. And I had to write fast. Stressful, yes, but also a great motivator to bash out your first draft. One that you can polish and refine in editing.
Your first draft will always be rough, and it’s meant to be, so please stop trying to edit your words while you’re creating them. Writing isn’t a once-and-done process. Instead, focus on creativity first and critique later, preferably in a separate session.
That means ending every writing session at the end of a section or chapter. So when you pick it up next, you have a new heading, and there is no need to re-read what you’ve done. Instead, you keep going and get that first draft finished.
Lesson No. 3: Don’t edit your stories as you’re writing them.
The Ancestral Stories process for writing a family history book
The lessons I learned from these three mistakes became the foundation of my Ancestral Stories process. The five-stage process makes writing easier and faster without forcing the end result to be something it’s not.
The process I follow is the same one I teach in Ancestral Stories. It’s designed to be straightforward so that you enjoy writing about your ancestors as much as you loved researching them.
Lay the foundation
Get clear on what you’re creating, who it’s for and how you’ll use it.
Build the framework
Decide the structure, identify the characters and your writing style.
Create the outline
This is where you’ll develop the roadmap you’ll use to tell the story from the beginning to the end.
Write the story
Craft the first draft by converting the outline into sentences and paragraphs.
Edit for readability
Read, review and revise the draft to bring your family history to life.
Why this process works
This process works because each stage builds on the last one, which means you’re making progress every step of the way. And it keeps each stage separate, so you don’t get distracted by what you’ve done or still have to do. Instead, you see the story taking shape as you work, so you’re motivated to keep going.
Even though it’s a step-by-step process, it’s versatile. No cookie-cutter stories here! Because it doesn’t force you to take the story in any specific direction. You decide where it will go when you determine the foundation, framework and outline. All of which are influenced by the research discoveries you’ve made about a specific ancestor.
Some of the other obvious benefits are:
- No forgotten information. As you create the outline in three steps, it’s unlikely that you’ll miss critical details that belong in the story. This level of organisation means you can feel confident that all necessary information is included. So you can focus your attention on creating, not remembering.
- Working smarter, not harder. Writing your stories in layers reduces the number of distractions like having to backtrack to add content or edit as you write. That means that every task you complete is one step closer to a first or finished draft.
- Reduced decision fatigue. Determining the foundation, framework and outline before you write a single word means you kick constant decision-making to the kerb. So instead of asking yourself, “what do I do next” at the end of every paragraph, you can focus on bringing your ancestor’s story to life.
Can this process for writing a family history book work for you?
Planning, organisation and processes don’t make you less creative. Instead, they have the opposite effect. When you avoid taking action to get organised, you’re constantly weighing yourself down with a mental to-do list full of things such as:
- what to do
- what to include
- the next steps you have to take.
Once you get a process and structure in place and working for you, all the brain power you used to manage that mental to-do list can be used for other pursuits, like writing your ancestor’s story.
Remember, it’s not a formula for the story but a process to create it. Which makes it faster and easier to produce each story. Plus, You can then focus on the elements that matter, which shows in the delivery of your work.
So can using a process to write your ancestor’s stories make it easier? 100%. Is every story guaranteed to have your relatives asking for more? That depends on their interests. If someone isn’t interested in history, then no matter how well you craft those paragraphs, they won’t want to read them. That doesn’t mean it will be every relative, and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write the stories.
The key to making a process work for you is to try it, review and revise it, and then rinse and repeat until you have a system that makes sense and is easy to use.
Would you love a detailed step-by-step guide to walk you through my process for writing a family history book? Then join me in Ancestral Stories — the non-writers writing program for family historians. You’ll learn to build your story outline in layers and then use that to start writing about your ancestors.
I’ve specifically designed this program for first-time family history authors. The focus is on converting research to a character-driven narrative, so it’s perfect for people without a lot of writing experience. You’ll build up confidence as a writer throughout the course as you go from outline to story in easy-to-follow steps.
Click the banner below to learn more and enrol in this self-paced training today.