9 writing prompts for your family history stories
“I can’t write my family history stories because…”
How would you finish that statement? Would it be that you can’t write your family history stories because you:
- Aren’t creative or a writer
- Don’t know where to start
- Have research discoveries but no stories
- Are overwhelmed by what’s required.
Or maybe it’s all the above?
You aren’t alone. Each of those points is something that thousands of family historians think or say when they contemplate writing their family history stories. I get it. Writing about your ancestors is a lot. You have to leave your happy place of digging through the archives to learn new skills or sharpen up rusty old ones. It’s much more fun to keep researching, isn’t it?
Now for the good news. Crafting your family history stories is less writing and more compiling what you know in your own words. After all, the story already exists, so your job is to give it a voice. Using the information you know and have discovered as writing prompts will help you make it happen.
Writing prompts come in all shapes, sizes and types. They can be questions you answer, pictures you describe or theories you have. You collect them with every discovery, interview or question you ask yourself. And right now, you have several different types ready for use. That’s not a general statement, either. I’m talking to you when I say that you have multiple writing prompts at your fingertips.
Curious? Let’s unpack 9 prompts you can use to start writing your family history stories.
Writing prompts for your family history stories
1. Research discoveries
The first writing prompt on the list is one you’ll recognise immediately. After all, these are a cornerstone of your genealogy research. Yes, I’m talking about the historical records you discover on your journey.
You can capture the foundation of your ancestor’s story through vital records such as birth, death and marriage certificates. Then, use other documents to build on that base to show more life experiences such as education, employment, military service, property ownership, and places they lived or visited.
Each historical record prompts you to write what you know about it. You don’t want to simply transcribe the document but put the story it tells into your own words. For example, a birth certificate will tell you where, when and who was involved in the event. While a census record will tell you about their living situation, employment and household relationships.
2. Family photos
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” or so the saying goes. And when it comes to family history stories, that’s true. Photos are your window into the past. Not only can you see what your ancestors looked like but also the areas where they lived and travelled.
“Show, don’t tell” is popular advice from writing coaches to create vivid and engaging narratives that transport your reader into the story. Using photos, paintings or sketches as writing prompts helps you to achieve this goal.
If you aren’t lucky enough to have family photos, look for streetscapes or pictures that capture people from the era and area where your ancestors lived. You’ll then be able to describe what people wore, how they got around, plus what the towns and countryside were like.
3. Local newspapers
Until time travel is possible, the best way to step directly into your ancestor’s world is through the newspaper. Specifically, the same paper that your ancestors would have read or had access to during their life.
Newspapers aren’t only for the social column or birth, death and marriage notifications. They’ll give you a picture of your ancestor’s community, including:
- Local and global events
- Weather reports
- Store advertisements
- Government notifications
- Employment opportunities
- Property prices
- Accommodation options
- Letters to the editor.
And so much more.
Newspapers allow you to immerse yourself in a different era’s social and cultural framework. They’re a wealth of writing prompts enabling you to add depth to your ancestor’s story. Plus, there is the fantastic bonus that you may get lucky and come across a previously undiscovered clue about your family.
4. Family lore
Tales, legends, and rumours passed down through generations are the start of many a genealogy journey, including mine. These are the stories that spark imagination and can invoke curiosity to prove or disprove the tale.
While these legends may not always be entirely accurate, they are fantastic writing prompts for your family history stories. Recreate them in your own words or build a story around them. One way is to include all the versions you’ve heard of that story to show the multiple perspectives that filtered down through the generations.
Or dissect the rumour and dive into how it impacted your genealogy journey. Then, take your reader on the adventure through how you worked to prove or disprove the tale. Of course, don’t forget to let them know what you determined as a result of all that research!
5. Your speculation and insights
No matter how determinedly you research or how vast your treasure trove of family photos is, you’ll still be left with gaps. This space is an opportunity for creativity, intuition, and analytic thinking. As the author of a non-fiction piece, you can offer insight or speculate on what happened and why.
Using your insights as writing prompts is a way to give your readers clarity and reasoning instead of leaving them hanging with unanswered questions. Including your speculation offers emotional depth, dialogue reconstruction and cultural immersion to your written work.
Kick things off with the general notes and questions you’ve jotted down during your research journey. Why? Because including your questions in your narrative gives voice to what your reader might be pondering too. Next, let your analytical thinking take the lead as you speculate on what might have happened. Remember to make it crystal clear that these are your thoughts and hypotheses based on other events happening at the time.
Heirlooms are hidden gems waiting to be discovered by anyone passionate about history. Each of these items carries with it not just one story but potentially multiple tales. After all, they’re not just relics of a time long past; they’re a part of the family.
They’re helpful as writing prompts because you can approach their story from multiple perspectives, such as:
- Historical value
- Original purpose
- First owner
- Current caretaker.
And even the future of the item.
These tales will help your reader understand the emotional and financial value as well as the journey it’s been on with the family members who have cherished it over the years.
Always start with what you know to create a foundation for the story, whether proven or unproven. That can be a description of the item, stories your family shares about it or a recollection of your earliest encounter with it.
7. Family recipes
Kitchens are often the heart of the family home, especially in the past generations. So, it’s little wonder that food plays such an essential role in preserving memories and traditions no matter our nationality or location.
Family recipes make an incredible writing prompt because they are a treasure trove of memories and cultural heritage. They trigger vivid recollections of family gatherings and special occasions. Not to mention that they engage multiple senses, making for some descriptive storytelling.
Writing about family recipes or gatherings can be a creative outlet, a source of reflection and healing, and a means of preserving personal history. Start with your own memories of recipes and celebrations, then use these as interview questions to build out the story with your relatives’ recollections.
Any recurring and meaningful practice, custom, or ritual passed down within a family can be considered a tradition. They typically hold great sentimental value and can provide a sense of continuity and connection across generations.
Using traditions as writing prompts is a powerful approach to storytelling because they encapsulate the essence of family life, culture, and identity. They can be:
- Cultural traditions
- Based on a holiday or celebration
- Family rituals
- Skill-based education such as cooking, woodworking or mechanics.
Exploring the origins behind your family traditions is also a valuable creative outlet. Capture the emotion and memory of yourself and other relatives as you identify why and how these acts became such unifying moments. Another approach is to focus on who the tradition keepers in your family are and, where possible, share why they chose to continue the practice.
9. AI-generated prompts
For a modern twist on storytelling, try AI-generated writing prompts for your family history stories. So, you won’t have these at your fingertips ready to use, but you can in a matter of seconds. AI-generated prompts from apps such as ChatGPT allow you to explore your family history from new perspectives.
Using ChatGPT to generate prompts is a way to take a diverse and creative approach to your family history stories. It’s:
- An opportunity to see your information from different perspectives
- To explore fresh angles
- To engage readers in new ways.
It’s not a one-size-fits-all process, but it can be adapted to suit the way you work. For example, generate personalised prompts based on your knowledge and discoveries. Or get generic questions based on an era, occupation, or location. You’re limited only by your imagination and how you frame your requests.
Craft your family history stories
That wraps up the list of writing prompts you can use to craft your family history stories. You don’t have to spend hours determining an approach to take because you can use the knowledge and materials at your fingertips to start crafting stories. Are you feeling inspired by all the possibilities?
Family history is like a jigsaw puzzle. One where you don’t know how many pieces there are or what the final picture looks like. You research to discover the pieces, create a framework and write the story to see the picture.
Therefore, crafting your family history stories is less writing and more compiling what you know in your own words. After all, the story already exists, so your job is to give it a voice. Using the details you know and have discovered as writing prompts will help you make it happen.
Next steps in writing your family history stories
Are you looking for help to convert your writing prompts to stories? Check out my non-writers mini-class on Writing Family History Stories with ChatGPT. It’s a crash course in getting started with ChatGPT to generate writing prompts and stories.