Writing a Family History Getting Started
Most writers are all too well aware of the dangers of procrastination. They know that the more they promise themselves they will ‘definitely get started tomorrow’, the more danger there is of never writing the first sentence, let alone getting published.
Writers of family histories generally don’t have the pressure of having to write to put food on the table, which means that it’s even more tempting to put the project off. They immerse themselves in collecting information about the various branches of the family (reasoning that they need all the information before they get started) then find themselves with so much information that they’re overwhelmed. They have no idea where to begin.
Other family historians don’t get started because they don’t have enough information about some branches of the family, and finding out what they don’t know is ‘too hard’. They eventually decide that since the story would be incomplete, there is no point doing it at all. They eventually give up on the idea.
The most important thing to understand is this: when it comes to recording the history of a family, there are no rules. The writer doesn’t have to write about every member of the family. Similarly, there is no requirement to start at a particular point and end somewhere else. Sometime in the future, descendants are going to be delighted to find any record of what happened in the past.
To get started on a family history, keep these guidelines in mind.
1. Set a Starting Date And a Deadline to Have the Family History Finished
This turns a vague idea of writing a family history into a fully-fledged project. The starting date is easy: it’s whenever the writer sits down to begin work. This includes the first planning session, when the writer will make a list of what is known or already available and what needs research. As for the finishing date: 12 months is a comfortable time frame, unless there is a set date such as a family reunion that will determine the time available.
2. Decide on the Scope of the Family History
Be practical about what can be achieved in the time frame. It is better to target one branch of the family tree, and to cover a limited number of years (fifty years rather than one hundred years, or three generations rather than six generations) than to research every branch exhaustively. Family historians who take on too much can end up resenting the project, and may even shelve it indefinitely because it’s taking too much time and energy. It can help to think of the family history as a series of modules: get started by working on a module about Branch X of the family, and plan to add further modules as time and interest allow. Each module can be published separately. (This is where the family history e-book option works well: each branch of the family can add their own chapter.)
3. Set Milestones From Month to Month
Milestones will show you that you are on target and working to your plan. A milestone can be a target related to the number of words or chapters, to research, or to people. (E.g. “Finish Chapter One: an introduction to the Smith family” or “Chapter Three: the Depression Years”). Try to predict the likely workload for each milestone, and spread them out evenly across the life of the family history project.
It gives writers a great sense of accomplishment to tick off each milestone.
4. Don’t Let Lack of Information Stall the Project
Most family historians find that there’s a hitch somewhere that will hold things up. This can range from a family member who is unwilling to cooperate with background detail, to information that is difficult to find. Don’t let this hold up the whole project. Just leave a gap with the notation “Further information to come” and move on. If that gap is never filled, simply make a note in the finished family history that no information was available on this topic. Nobody expects the family scribe to be a magician. Most of what is needed will be there.
5. To Write a Family History: Just Get Started
It’s possible for writers to get stuck for weeks (or months) because they can’t decide how to actually begin the family history. If this is the main stumbling block, come back to it later. Sometimes a writer can be several months into the project when a brilliant idea about how to introduce the story will come out of nowhere. Often it’s much easier to write the beginning once the whole history has been completed.
Once work on the project has begun, it’s a good idea to schedule regular sessions for working on the family history. This is the best antidote to procrastination: just do it! For many writers, scheduling these hours won’t be a problem: they will find the work so interesting that the time flies. In fact, they will eagerly be anticipating starting work on Module Two!