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
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
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
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
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
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
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
'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
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
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.