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How to Write a Family or Personal History by Keeping It Real

I've lived in Arizona for 70 years (Tucson, Glendale, and Sedona). I love writing about Arizona history, antiques, books and travel.

Family photos provide incredible insight into your family's past

Family photos provide incredible insight into your family's past

How Honest Should Family History Be?

My mother was a writer. She enjoyed writing trip diaries, and always wrote an annual Christmas letter that she called her "yearly history." When she was diagnosed with a disease that came with a prognosis of a year or less, she began writing her autobiography. She asked me to edit and to make copies for our family after she passed. As she wrote, from time to time, she would ask me to look over what she had written and offer my suggestions.

My mother was a kind, loving, and Godly person, but because she was unwilling to admit anything bad, sad, or challenging in her Christmas letters or her autobiography, future family members who read her writing will never know many of the real events that shaped her life. For example, she insisted on telling our family and friends that she had "just allergies" rather than telling them the truth (that she had ALS). This went on until she needed full-time nursing toward the end of her life. Even when presented with concrete evidence of the misdeeds of family members, she would always maintain that she was certain that the event had not happened, or that she didn't remember anything about it. While I understand that she had every right to write about events the way she wanted, I maintain that family history should be as honest as possible.

One of our cousins wrote a history of my husband's family that included scoundrels, criminals who were jailed, those who divorced, and more. It was such an honest history that many of their family members had a fit!

Before beginning to write a family history, a writer needs to decide whether he or she wants to write an honest history or skip over the facts.

This is not to say that as a writer you would want to open anyone in your family to any danger or to open yourself to libel or slander lawsuits, or embellish family history like a tabloid "tell all."

Letters, cards, awards, and yearbooks are great sources of information

Letters, cards, awards, and yearbooks are great sources of information

Research or Oral-Based? Comprehensive or Small?

As with all writing, keep your reader in mind. Is the family history you wish to write meant to be private for family members and yourself only? Make a plan of how you might want to arrange the material. Consider yourself a history detective.

To begin writing a family history, start small to establish a technique that works best for your style of writing. If for example, you wish to start with your grandparents and they are living, prepare questions in advance for an oral interview or online, to get them "talking." Aim for specific memories. For example, instead of just asking, "Where did you attend high school?" you might ask, "Did you have a favorite teacher? Who and why? What did you and your friends do after school? Did you have a first crush? An after-school job? Who were your friends?" The better your "interview" the better your writing will be. Develop good listing skills, and make notes. Don't try to cover their whole life in one sitting, unless you are only writing about one aspect of their life, such as a military career or a certain time period in their life.

If the family member you want to write about is deceased, are there family members still living who knew them? If not, then search for any correspondence and photos that belonged to them for clues. Did anyone in your family keep a diary? Did any of your family save their high school or college yearbooks? The popularity of genealogy and online sources are great places to start your research. The archives of the historical societies in places where your family lived should be very helpful. Newspaper archives are a wealth of information, not only do they publish obituaries but in the days before online news became so popular, they published information about weddings, graduations, accomplishments, and other life events too.

Many families love telling stories that have been passed down. What if you suspect that the story isn't factual? If it's a good story, you can always write, (Name) always told a story about (subject) and include the story, but qualify the story by saying, I couldn't verify the "events" but (Name) always loved telling us. That way, it becomes part of the personality of the teller and his or her character and no one member of a family remembers an event in the same way.

Organize and Set Goals

If your family is honest about their lives, expect some surprises that you may or may not wish to include. Since ancestry companies are based on DNA results now, many families have had some surprises including my family. Information from one family member should prompt you to "revisit" an event as seen through the eyes of another family member. So, rather than trying to perfect or finish your earlier information, it's usually best to organize and then be open to corrections and additions.

It is inevitable that two family members will each remember an event differently, which you can either write about from both points of view, pick the most creditable account or check with another family member who will either validate or confuse the information further.

Research-based writing and personal interviews take time and patience but keep an arbitrary goal to finish in mind so that I'll finish someday.

Publish? Website? Copy?

A friend once told me that for a writer, a story never really ends, but you need to call an end to your writing at some point. Find a couple of readers who can offer suggestions or an editor. By all means, add photos and copy all relevant documents if possible. Online sites such as Amazon Create Space offer the opportunity to publish short-run editions, but there are many other small publishers offering a variety of services too. Or if the material you write is fairly short, consider a copy service with spiral binding, or create a family website to share information.

Try to imagine your future family members reading what you have written and keep writing.

© 2018 mactavers


mactavers (author) on April 04, 2018:

Thanks for your kind comment. Family stories form such powerful family connections. We were in New Zealand four years ago and loved every minute.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on April 04, 2018:


I think I'm so blessed in some ways, I'm starting to realise I'm from a family of storytellers!

Growing up the family would tell stories about family members as if they were 'yesterday' but through my own research I've found some of them go back hundreds of years.

Some of my own research has shown they're stories worth telling again, and I hope one day to write novels about them.

This was a great hub, some stories should not cease just because the people in them reached the end of their lives, they deserve to be passed down the generations.

Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on March 13, 2018:

Hi mactavers. If you can make it you must go to the north of England. The Lake District is unique. Just Google it, one of the most beautiful and tranquil places on earth.


mactavers (author) on March 13, 2018:

Thanks Graham. I see you are from England. We have been to London, but hope to get to see more of your beautiful country someday.

Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on March 13, 2018:

Hi mactavers. I enjoyed your hub and found it interesting and informative. Sharp and to the point. Tip Top.



mactavers (author) on March 06, 2018:

It's true that every family has their secrets, which is what makes each family unique. I also worry that with all the digital photos and on-line "everything" there won't be many family documents for future generations.

Natalie Frank from Chicago, IL on March 05, 2018:

I agree with you about keeping family history honest. My family kept everything secret so I don't even know where exactly my grandparents came from or anything much about either side. I so wish I knew more but my father and his siblings are all gone and my mother is the last left in her family.