How to Write a Family or Personal History by Keeping It Real
Family Photos Provide Many Clues
How Honest Should Family History Be?
My mother enjoyed writing trip diaries, and an annual Christmas letter that she called her yearly history. When she was diagnosed with a disease that carried the prognosis of a year or less, she began writing her autobiography that she asked me to edit and to make copies for our family after she had 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 persisted in telling our family, and friends that she had "just allergies" instead of ALS, until the time 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 family history of my husband's family that included scoundrels, criminals who were jailed, those who divorced and included information that was honest history but many of their family had a fit!
So, before beginning to write 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."
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 year books? The popularity of genealogy and on-line 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 on line 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, which might become never without a rough time line.
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. On-line 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.
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