Ideas for Writing Your Family History

I talked about the importance of writing up your family history, awhile ago. Here are a few ideas for jump starting the writing of your family history and some topics to add meat to the bones of just boring old names and dates. My friend Andrea sent me a terrific quote a few weeks ago that is very appropriate:

“Better to write something now, than everything never.”

Here goes my list:

History of that city, or rural area
Example: The city of Tifton, GA (and the county) was named for Captain Henry Tift, who built large sawmills to harvest the lumber that would be central to this community. My great-great grandfather John Smith was born in Tifton. Many rural areas were named for large slaveowners.

Geography-what was the landscape like?
Example: Many of my ancestors from Hardin County lived along the Tennessee River, so that was a major influence on people’s lives. At the turn of the century, steamboat travel was frequent as were, according to the local paper, drownings of local citizens.

Migration patterns: where did most of the people that settled here come from? Where did many go to?
Examples: Most of the people in early Tennessee were a part of the westward migration from Virginia and North Carolina. This matches exactly the path of the slaveowner of my Tennessee ancestor, Malinda Holt. Also, I have mapped the migration of African-Americans from this county to Northern industries in the 1940s.

 Items from U.S. national history, State history, and/or county history
Example: My friend Marion’s family is from Caroline County, VA, and I think the fact that the Lovings story happened there is very interesting (the couple that won a Supreme Court ruling against laws forbidding interracial marriages). Hardin County, TN was the site of a large Civil War battle and in many ways that informed the experiences of many slaves who ran away and joined the war effort. Tennessee had more black volunteers than any other state.

Use slave narratives & autobiographies from that area to document the slave experience, even if its not your ancestor
Example: For my ancestors from Montgomery County, MD, I include excerpts from the autobiography of Josiah Henson who was enslaved there. For Hardin County, TN, I use the WPA slave narrative of Edward Bradley, who was enslaved there.

Laws relating to slaves and  freedmen
Example: After the Civil War, Maryland’s Eastern Shore utilized the apprenticing laws to basically re-enslave the children of their former slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau had to fight to get their children back.  I discuss this in my write-up of my ancestors from Somerset County, MD.

 Illnesses and deaths
Example: There was a smallpox epidemic in 1873 in Jacksonville, FL, where my dad’s family lived, which forced many people to temporarily flee the city. Also, the 1918 flu pandemic touched just about every community. Use mortality census records for this topic as well.

Prominent People (both black and white)
Example: Harry Hooks amassed a fortune as a freed black shoemaker in Hardin County, TN before the Civil War, even enabling him to purchase his wife & children. Also, many prominent whites in the county, like William Cherry, were Unionists during the Civil War, which created an interesting dynamic there versus other Southern cities.

Major African-American churches, schools & businesses
Example: My grandfather owned two successful pharmacies in the booming 1940s business district of Jacksonville, Florida, which in part explains why this family never migrated North along with so many others. I find this community he was a part of simply fascinating, and I have documented other black businesses that existed alongside his.

This is by no means complete, but perhaps its given you some ideas to get started. For those who have started, can you tell me other topics that you have added to your family histories?

Write Up Your Family History!

We love genealogy. We spend years and years researching in every direction. We go to conferences and lectures, we read books, and we develop a network of genealogy buddies to discuss every tidbit of information. We collect marriage licenses and deeds, wills and inventories, pictures and other data. So the question is—when you’re gone, what is going to happen to all that valuable research? Will anybody else know about it? Not if you don’t take some time out to focus on the importance of writing up your research and sharing it.

I know how hard it is to break out of the “research” addiction to spend time actually writing. Many people are intimidated, and feel that they can’t write, or simply don’t know where to start. I think the first step is to truly understand the monumental importance of doing it. I’m sure most of us are doing genealogy because we have deep-rooted beliefs about why families need to know from whence they came. However, your research will only be able to achieve that purpose if it survives outside of your mind and file cabinets. We want the fruits of our research to survive us, and the best way to accomplish that is to write up and submit your research.

The hard part is knowing just where to stop—we often feel like we don’t have enough information yet. We’re always looking for just a little bit more. But if we stick to that, we may never get started writing. As a general rule, I like to tell people after two years of research to stop and write up what you have. You can always publish addendums later.

What form should your write-up take? You can do an article. This is one of my favorite formats because then you can submit it for publication in the local genealogy newsletter, and it now has another chance of surviving you. Also, I have found family members really respond well to articles. You can add even pictures to the narrative, and they work well as hand-outs for family reunions. I have done a write-up for each of my family lines, and yes, some are more complete than others but I want what I have done to be known. You could also plan to do an entire book about all of your research. Many have taken this route, and in the age of the internet, it’s easier than ever. Websites such as and make it easy to submit your book for others to either simply download, or for a paperback or hardback to be published and sent.

How do you get started? Several good books have been published on how to write-up your family history and make it interesting and I include a few titles at the end of this article. There is also software available, such as Personal Historian, if you think you’ll need a bit more guidance. I like to study how others have written up their narratives, and take hints and clues from them. For example, the National Genealogical Society (NGS) holds a Family History Writing contest every year. I like to make copies of the winning articles and study them for ideas. Also, getting together on a regular basis with others with the goal of writing is a terrific way to stay motivated.

Whatever your method, the critical thing to do is just get started. You don’t need to be Toni Morrison or Richard Wright; you’re trying to convey and share all the hard work you’ve put into this research. Another huge benefit to writing up your research in this way is that it shows you clearly where you have gaps and missing information. Doing this has pointed me to new research avenues many times. Another point to remember is that you want to fully source cite all of your information. If you don’t include where you got the information in your write-up, it’s virtually useless. Elizabeth Shown Mill’s book “Evidence Explained” is the bible for genealogy source citations and should be right by your side as you write.

Once you have it written, be sure to get it out there to the public. I suggest submitting a copy to: the library system of your research county, the State Archives, the local historical society, and the Library of Congress’ Genealogy and Local History Division. All of these places take genealogies from the public. This will all lead to the greater likelihood that long after your time here has passed, your descendants will find your research and send up thanks to great-great grandmother/father so-and-so for caring enough to preserve and write the family history!

Note: If anyone wants an example of an article I did for one branch of my family, do email me at msualumni33 [at] verizon [dot] net.

Book Suggestions:

  1. “You Can Write Your Family History”, by Sharon Carmack
  2. “Writing Family History and Memoirs”, by Kirk Polking
  3. “Writing Your Family History: A Practical Guide”, by Deborah Cass
  4. “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Your Family History”, by Lynda Stephenson