Writing the Book on Your Family History

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By Kassie Ritman, Guest Contributor

Kassie Ritman

Kassie Ritman

When family gathers, the stories start flying. Storytelling and family history sharing is like glue bonding our families together. I’ll bet you’ve overheard the remark “maybe someone should write that down” more than once. So why not do it? Recording your family stories in written form and turning them into a high-quality published book has never been easier. Passing on family lore is also a loving gift to future generations.

Genealogy–dedicating the long hours required to verify lineage–is certainly an honorable pursuit. Unfortunately, sharing all those pages of hard work and deep-mined data will rarely evoke excitement. But, take that same research, write it up into story form–maybe throw in a photo or two when available–and suddenly you’ll have a big hit with the whole fam!

Don’t be shocked if others are interested in your stories too. In 1976 “Roots,” a book written by Alex Haley, took off like wildfire. He put the genealogical findings of his otherwise non-famous family into storytelling form and shared them with the whole world. To date, “Roots” has been translated into more than 30 languages and is still popular around the world. Mr. Haley simply told stories about the lifetimes of his own ancestors. The suffering, struggles, honor and triumphs struck a chord with millions of readers. It was then immediately snapped up, and the rights purchased for a highly successful television miniseries.

There’s a difference between genealogists (factual scholars) and the storytelling family historians who weave verbal histories like fabric filling in the spaces between a genealogist’s documented facts. Although both types of researchers document the history of family, they approach their source material differently. While a genealogist is trained to “look and diligently note,” family historians are known to “bait and listen.”

A genealogist’s careful scrutiny and documentation proves that a person existed. Stories of the same persons prove that, like us, they “lived.” Simply by announcing your plan to do a book on your family’s stories, you will open the floodgates to many more stories than you ever knew existed. You may easily garner enough material for multiple books.

Why does storytelling and writing make a difference? A book allows the history of a family to be transformed from census data into people who once lived and loved and spent time on earth. Strange faces on graying photos become people we can relate to and recall tales of. We can feel connected to them, and they become more real to us.

There is a fantastic old African saying that I will paraphrase:

“When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.”

So true! We are each multiple living volumes spanning a wide range of the human condition. We are experience and missteps, achievements, know-how and triumph. There are glories and shames for each of us during our youthful years on through our old age. We are all touched by tragedy and love, long-standing “feuds” and unbreakable bonds. If you cannot make a library of every ancestor’s life, at least make them into a chapter of your own family history.

Would you want your dear spinster Aunt Bessie to be remembered only as your Grandpa’s sister? Perhaps you remember her most vividly as the odd ol’ bird who pinched children’s cheeks and smooched their foreheads with her bristley, old-lady-whiskered lips? What if you found out she was also a four-year Varsity Rowing Team member at Vassar and a decorated WWII Army Nurse? Wouldn’t you want to tell all these stories about her too?

If this sounds fun, but you have no idea where to start, try these little tips and tricks to get some source material the next time you have an audience with the family–they work! Once the ball gets rolling, you’ll be able to fill up (a much appreciated and wildly anticipated) book in no time.

There’s also a payoff for all of the genealogical research you’ve spent years unearthing. When placed next to the attention-getting stories of how you are all related, who and where you hail from, and why it’s all worth knowing in the first place, your charts and research will come to life.

Three Tips for Obtaining Material for Your Family History

  1. Ask a question. Probably the dumber, the better. For example, you know your great-grandfather was the youngest of 15 children, and that his twin brother played for the Yankees. Your stupid question might be something like–Did Grandpa Joe have any siblings? Take it on the chin and let the stories start. As each sibling is mentioned–ask a little more. Don’t be surprised if heated debates break out over names or birth order.
  2. Bring out a box of old photos. These should be from across several decades. Mention how this little girl looks like that grown woman. Are they the same person? How are they related? Oh, not related? Where did she fit into the family? Ask this stuff even if you know the answer. Listen to the responses, and I guarantee you’ll learn something you never knew.
  3. Ask questions about the places the people lived…addresses, where a farmhouse in a photo was located. Is the place still standing? If not, why? Was there a fire, tornado, road improvement? My hubby’s off-the-boat Dutch forefathers rented their first home in the United States at an address that is now near the home team dugout at Slugger Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky. Is a photo of the homestead in my upcoming book? You bet! I don’t have a picture from 1832, but I snagged one of the neatly raked clay (where I imagined the outhouse used to be) from the modern stands in 2013.

Don’t forget to write all this down. And be sure to write and attribute each version (because there may be several of the same story) separately. You can make a notation, or a whole chapter, out of “The Day Uncle Les and his Prized Coonhound Went Missing”–as told by Marta Stitzer–as told by Jim Arnold–as told by The Indianapolis Star and News–as told by the Hendricks County Superior Court Record–as told by…

Now won’t that be more fun than an old chart?

Let’s move on to the good part–getting your book organized and ready to publish.

How to Edit Your Family History Into a Book

Once you’ve collected and written the stories, you will need to choose a focus subject for your book. Perhaps there is a much-talked-about ancestor you could fill an entire book with. Maybe the tales of three sisters run as a common thread in many stories. Another avenue to explore would be to find the most distant generation whose children you have lots to say about. If you have little to no day-to-day stories about their parents, then the book could be framed as “The Descendants of Hattie and Harold Jenkins.” This way, though there are no real stories about the pair who produced the children, their vital statistics can be at least introduced as a part of the family setting. Whatever route you choose, be sure that you are following a central theme when selecting content. Carefully selecting what goes in, and what gets saved for the next book, is an important step for a readable, cohesive end product.

After the subject matter and specific stories to be included are selected, make good use of an editor. You may hire a professional, consult a willing family member or friend who teaches language arts, or simply ask others to read through the manuscript for storytelling clarity, typographical errors or word usage and spelling errors. For best results, never edit your own writing. The writer’s brain already knows what the words should say–thus it will not catch simple errors on the page. Also, do not rely on spellcheckers to do the editing for you. Spellcheckers will not detect “nut” where the intended word is “not,” because there is no misspelled word. Neither will most programs catch an incorrect usage of “there-they’re-their.” Auto-programs are also incapable of picking up inconsistencies in a (story). Common examples are where numbers get transposed, causing a variation of important dates or house numbers etc. Also consider instances where a name is accidentally spelled in multiple ways: Catherine, Katherine–which is accurate?

How to Format Your Book

Once your stories are polished up and thoroughly edited, you’re ready for the easiest and most gratifying part–transferring your hard work into the Pressbooks template of your choice! Pressbooks offers a variety of typefaces and page configurations to complement your writing style and the personality of your book. Also, with their Johnny-on-the-spot human support you won’t find yourself searching through a long-winded manual to find answers to your live human questions.

Best of all, using Pressbooks is a “one and done” proposition. Once you’ve followed the easy instructions, you can try out different settings and fonts until you are happy with the result. Those who use WordPress to blog will find the “cousin” dashboard of Pressbooks especially familiar. Even a novice can easily upload a book for a POD (print-on-demand) service like Amazon’s CreateSpace or for e-readers like Kindle, Nook or iPads, etc. without suffering the misery of reformatting or retyping. There’s also no worrying about the appearance of your work. Pressbooks does the fancy-dancy technical-mystery stuff for you. For a nominal fee, you can offer your book to readers who use Nook, Kindle, iPad or other devices without changing a thing. The same Pressbooks file will produce a great-looking finished product for those who prefer a real book-in-hand experience. So with one low fee you have nearly endless formatting automatically at your (very professional-looking) fingertips!

What’s next? Your next book in the series of course!

Once you experience the ease of producing the first one, you and your readers will be eager for more. So go ahead and write the stories, tell all about the fascinating folk who are the unique threads in the tapestry we call family. Keep creating and collecting up the legends of all your own saints, sinners, average Joes and all those whose story is too good to be forgotten. Let Pressbooks worry about the technology updates. Many people (who you may never even know) will thank you in the future!

Kassie Ritman is a family historian and maintains the blog Maybe Someone Should Write That Down, where she provides writing advice and tools for family historians and storytellers.