All the Write Stuff: Write Your History

Since October is national family history month, this month’s post will focus on how to write your family history. You may be interested in recording your family history in a traditional chronological format; alternatively, you might be looking to write a more varied family history, or to craft a novel or poems based on your family history. Regardless of the direction you wish to take, I’ve compiled a variety of materials to help you along.

You do not need to have researched your extended family history to begin writing; however, if you are interested in this line of research, I encourage you to access MeL’s MyHeritage Library Edition. This resource is free for library cardholders and can be a great starting point as you embark on your research. I also encourage those interested in research to register to hear Dr. De Witt S. Dykes, Jr., an Oakland University professor focusing in family history research, speak at our library on November 8th.

If you haven’t started writing your family history yet, start small. Try recording as much of your family tree as you know. Then, try creating a rough timeline for your family’s history. Can you recall when your family moved? When family members got married and had children? When family members served in wars and graduated schools? This can be as detailed or as broad as you would like.

Once you feel like you’re swimming in family memories, try to record a story. This can be the story of a family member’s life, tracing their oft-told memories from childhood through adulthood. It could be the story of an important event in your family history, such as a loss or a marriage. Or you could write a story of a common thread shared among family members, such as how each member affected the family business, or how family passed their love of—say, horseback riding—on to the next generation.

This little exercise takes me into my next point: when planning your family history organization, consider what values, traditions, and activities your family holds close. If your family loves to cook, for example, you might opt to create a cookbook that combines family recipes with stories about the creators or consumers, like Rick Bragg’s new book, The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma's Table.

If you’re like me and have a hard time writing long pieces, try writing your family stories in a journal. I’m keeping a journal where I try to record family stories unlikely to surface in research, such as how certain couples met, how marriages fell apart, how family members respond to national events, how we celebrate each holiday, etc. Each piece may be relatively short, but all together a journal can be an illuminating peek into family relationships.

Fiction writers and poets, I haven’t forgotten about you, either. Many writers have used their family history to inspire their writing—Nicholas Sparks, Ilya Kaminsky, Michael Chabon, and Amy Tan come to mind. Thinking about your family history and participating in some of the above writing exercises may help spark ideas for your next big piece.

Remember that when you’re writing something intended to last through generations, you’ll want to ensure the longevity of the work. If you handwrite your story, look for acid-free paper and acid-free waterproof pens. Avoid papers that are attached by metal. If you write your story digitally, ensure that you have the final copy saved in multiple formats—including a hard copy—since technology can become obsolete quickly.

For more information on writing your family history, check out:

Writing Family Histories and Memoirs by Kirk Polking Writing Family History Made Very Easy by Noeline Kyle The Story of You by John Bond


For books inspired by or about the author’s family history, check out:

How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather Maus by Art Spiegelman She Left Me the Gun by Emma Brockes
Dancing in Odesa by Ilya Kaminsky Moonglow by Michael Chabon The Best Cook in the World by Rick Bragg
And the Band Played On by Christopher Ward Annies Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg Registers of Illuminated Villages by  Tarfia Faizullah
A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley Five Finger Discount by Helene Stapinski Family by Ian Frazier