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Berkshire Family Historian
March 2001

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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, March 2001 Contents

A Bluffer's guide to converting your family tree into a family history

Barry Jerome

Most people who trace their family have an ambition one day to write it up as a story. But where to start? This article shows the approach I am taking to write up my own family history and hopefully it will help a few others to realise their own ambition.

Part 1 - Structuring the Book

When I first thought about writing my family history as a story I could not decide where to start. I knew I still had much research to do but I wanted to start writing. Conversely though, I did not want to rewrite the story each time I discovered more information. To resolve this dilemma I decided to use a structure for the book based on chapters, sections and volumes.

Chapters, sections and volumes

My family history book is made up of several chapters where each chapter contains the history of a different surname. These chapters are composed of sections and each section contains the details of an individual with that surname. The sections are grouped together sequentially by date.

A volume is part of the family history, bound separately, to make it more manageable for reading and distributing. If I only have limited information on a surname then a whole chapter may be bound as a separate volume. Where I have much more information a few sections of a particular surname may be bound together into a volume.

The purpose of this approach is so that I can work on any section simultaneously without affecting the other sections.

This may sound complicated but it is actually quite simple. I will use the structure of my family history book as an example to illustrate the approach. My family tree appears as in figure 1.

Using this approach gives the following structure to my own family history book:

Chapter 0 Introduction containing family tree diagrams, a key to the chapters and general references used

Jerome family tree

Chapter 1 Jerome

Chapter 2 Legg

Chapter 3 Lucas

Chapter 4 Parrott, etc.

To make the family history book easy to handle and distribute I have bound the chapters and sections as follows:

Chapter 0 is a separately bound volume

Chapter 1 is bound as 4 volumes. The first volume contains several sections which describe ancestors born before 1800. The other three volumes each contain the story of just one person

Chapters 2 and 4 are each bound as separate volumes.

Chapter 3 was bound as a single volume but one section has recently expanded to a size where I need to split the chapter and bind it as two volumes now.

The number of volumes you will need depends on how much information you have. The best starting point is to assume that each chapter will be a separate volume and this can be expanded as more is written in each chapter.

Part II - Writing the Story

In this and the following sections I will use my own experiences to describe a suggested approach for producing your own family history book. So how to start?

The important first step that I found was to decide whether to write up all of the names in my tree or just my main family name. I decided to write up all the names. If you decide to write up your main name or one selected name then you can skip the next paragraph on multi-chapter books and go to the heading about 'Writing a Chapter'.

Writing a multi-chapter book

I started by writing out my pedigree chart using the structure in figure 1. The numbers in brackets give the surnames which become the title of each chapter and the sequence in the book will be as indicated by the numbers (1),(2),(3), etc. I recommend not numbering the chapters. This way you can write, for example, chapters (1), (3) and (7) and assemble them as a book without it seeming to the reader that there are large gaps. Each chapter can then be written completely independently of each other.

Writing a Chapter

First decide which chapter to write. This may seem obvious but unless you are writing a single chapter book you need to choose a chapter that gives you the best chance of getting to a point where you can print it. You need some sort of incentive to get you through the difficult times. An ideal incentive is a relative or fellow researcher who is interested in this surname and whom you can think of as your audience.

The difficult stages I have found are:

- the first blank page - what do I put on it?

- the 'treacle thinking' stage - I seem to spend a lot of time trying to put my thoughts down but only end up with an additional paragraph

- the 'more research' stage - I delay writing because there is more information I could easily add if I just did a bit more research

- the 'worried' stage - my English is not very good, nobody will want to read it.

I will try to show the approach I have taken to overcome these problems.

Structuring the Chapter

My first step is to take a pad of lined paper and on the top of each page write the forename (Christian name) of each person in the pedigree chart together with some distinguishing note (for example: date range, job or wife's name). E.g. 'Jonathan (1792- 1864)', 'Jonathan the Baker' or 'Jonathan and An'

Then on each page I make a list of the information that I have about them (note this is a list not the actual information). Typical items included in the list are dates (baptism, marriage, death), places (baptism, marriage, death, census), census details (1841, 1851, 1861, ...), job details, photographs, children, military service, other documents (specified).

I then put each page into a plastic pocket and put each pocket in baptism date sequence into a spring binder for safe keeping. This is now my skeleton chapter and each page represents a section.

Writing a Section

The first step is to choose one person to write about first - again I find that thinking of an incentive helps. Is it someone I knew and would like to write about, or is it someone that I have enough information about to be able to write two or three pages without too much difficulty? This person will become a section of the book. For whichever reason you have chosen a person, take the relevant page out of your spring binder and get out all of the information that you have about that person.

Use the list that you wrote and tick each line as you locate the information. Add extra lines to your list if you find any additional information that you had forgotten to include. You now have your information assembled to start writing.

You can write it using a computer, a typewriter or by hand. The advantage of a computer is that it is much easier to correct mistakes and to print extra copies. People worry about needing to touch type but this is a fallacy. You only need to be able to type as fast as you can think. One finger on each hand is quite fast enough for me.

A blank page - what to write on it?

My suggestion is not to worry too much about what you write - just put something on paper to get you started. I frequently start a new person by writing a standard set of sentences. I rework these later so that they flow more as a story and to stop each person sounding the same. Let me illustrate this with one of my ancestors:

'George the Waterman and Fisherman

George was baptised in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey in 1831, the son of Jonathan and Arm Jerome. He was their fourth child, having an elder sister Matilda and elder brothers Edward and Thomas. Later additions to the family were two younger sisters Rachel and Arm and a brother Jonathan. George's father Jonathan was a baker. During his early years the family moved several times, firstly to Richmond then briefly back to Kingston before moving on to Shiplake in Berkshire, and finally settling in Henley-on-Thames on the Oxfordshire-Berkshire border.'

The information to write this first paragraph came from a baptism record and the 1841, 1851 and 1861 censuses. The last sentence could equally have been written as 'George was born and grew up in the village of ........' if the census records show that the family had not moved.

The next major event to write about is likely to be a marriage. Again I take the standard sentence approach to start. Illustrating again with George:

'George married Ruth Woodley at Henley-on-Thames in 1853. Ruth was the daughter of William and xxxx Woodley and was the fourth child in a large family with eight brothers and sisters. When they married George was a waterman and fisherman on the river Thames and this may well have been how they met as Ruth's father was also a waterman on the Thames. When first married they lived at North Street in Henley.'

The information to write this paragraph came from the marriage certificate, the 1861 and i871 censuses and the baptism of their first child, plus speculation on how they met.

This will be followed by a standard sentence about the family, job and where they lived.

'George and Ruth had fourteen children:

Charles bap xx nnn 1854 Henley-on-Thames
*Frederick bap xx Jun 1861 Henley-on-Thames

They continued to live in Henley throughout their life where George continued in his chosen occupation of waterman and fisherman. They moved several times within Henley, shown by the census records, living at Gravel Hill and North End.'

This information came from the baptism records and the census records. The'*' indicates a direct line of descent.

If you have any information about the children it can be added next. For example I like to write a sentence or two about each child that I have some information on.

'When Frederick grew up he owned boats on the Thames and it appeared as if he would be a confirmed bachelor. However, he met Rosina White and they married in 1900 when Frederick was 39 years old. They settled down in Dorking in Surrey where they had five children.'

The final standard paragraph is about their deaths. 'George died in Henley and was buried on ?????????. He was survived by Ruth who died xx years later on ?????????.'

I do not yet have this information about George and Ruth and have therefore not included it in the current version of my story. Once I have found the relevant information I will add the new paragraph to the story. The information will come from burial records and/or death certificate.

I now have the framework for my story for George Jerome. It does not read very well yet but that can be corrected once it is closer to finishing.

Try it yourself. Once you have your information laid out, write the same sentences substituting the names and events for the person you have chosen to write about. The exact words are not important at this stage, the important thing is to get a framework down on the paper that you can work with. You should now have the first stage of your family history.

In the June issue I will discuss the use of illustrations and publishing and printing.

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Berkshire Family History Society 2001

updated 20th August 2001