[Podcast] How to Begin to Write Your Family Story

Do you want to write your family story? But don’t know where to start?

A family story is one of the best ways to preserve your history for future generations. It bonds your family together. And it can establish your legacy. Like all forms of writing, though, writing a family story can be daunting. You may not know where to start, which stories to include, or how to remain objective without offending your family.

To begin to write your family story, it’s important to first be clear on what a family story is and isn’t.

A family story is a historical, generally chronological story that covers your family’s story. Now you might be thinking, Isn’t that a memoir? Great question! Let’s compare the two.

A successful memoir needs a meta narrative—a theme that ties all your stories together. It’s written in the first-person; you, as the writer, interpret the events in your life. Some of those stories might involve family members, but the stories aren’t so much about your family as they are about how those moments informed you.

A memoir focuses on specific events in your life. It’s not a junk drawer for all your memories, and the memories used are relative to the theme/s you’re exploring.

A family story doesn’t require a meta narrative. (In general, these books are shared only amongst family members. If you were wanting to sell your family story, it would need a meta narrative to engage a larger audience.) A family story also likely will cover a longer period of time and touch on multiple themes. It’s written in third person, which allows you to act as the historian. You’re sharingstories rather than interpreting them.

Why Do You Want to Write Your Family’s History?

Like all writing projects, a family story demands you identify your “why.” A purpose energizes you when you reach inevitable low points where you want to give up; it encourages you to keep writing.

A family history is most often written to celebrate the perseverance, determination, and drive of your family throughout history. This can be energizing, and perhaps the purpose that drives you: remembering the qualities that have defined your family from generation to generation.

Defining your purpose will help you shape your story in a way that accurately portrays your family and their survival.

To help you determine the “why” of your story, start by asking yourself, What happens if I don’t tell my family’s story? Why is it important for me to tell this story?

As you begin to write your family’s story, be cautious of telling stories that denigrate your family. You can talk about the hard stuff—alcoholism, illnesses, and affairs, for instance—but try to frame those stories in a way that shows how your family triumphed. In family stories, your ancestors are typicallythe heroes. Those heroic stories are what will unify your family around deeper principles—and even motivate future generations.

Conduct Actual Family History Research

All writing demands research, including a family story. Research establishes credibility; it also demonstrates a passion for your project and pushes your thinking. 

There are multiple ways to conduct research for your family story. Here are a few ideas.

Narrative Research. Before you even begin to write your family story, you need a firsthand account of historical events. Which means you need to interview people. This is called narrative research.

Reach out to family members who experienced, firsthand, the events you’re writing about. Come prepared with a set of questions. Pay attention to your interviewee’s responses. What makes them excited? Are there pauses that signify they want to expand but don’t know if they should or can? And as the conversation starts to flow, allow your curiosity to guide you. Be prepared to ask deeper questions.

Secondary Research. Writing your family’s story also requires research into historical records. This is secondary research.

Take a look at your family records—letters, family trees, immigration records, diaries, etc.—and learn about your family’s struggles, celebrations, and important events. If you’re struggling to find information on your family, consider Ancestry.com. It has resources to help you understand your genealogy.

Once you have a deeper understanding of your family’s story, it’s important to understand the historical context of the time. Research the political and cultural climate of your ancestors. The research will help you frame your family’s story in a larger history. And it will help you—and family members—understand why certain choices were made, like the decision to immigrate, or to fight in a war.

Say your family played a role in the Civil War. Obviously, you don’t have any living relatives who can provide a firsthand account of the Civil War era, but you can research the political, economic, and cultural climate of the time. This research will provide some context for what your family endured and the hard decisions they made. It will help you connect more with your personal history, while also helping you write a more accurate story.

To write your family story requires sensitivity, time, and effort. Make the time to properly research the different people and events. Put in the effort to understand the historical context, and to have as many accounts as possible—firsthand and secondary. And remember, this is your family’s story. Be considerate of the hardships, sensitive of the dark patches, and respectful of the stories you’re telling.