How To Get Started On a Family History Book
HOW TO GET STARTED ON A FAMILY HISTORY BOOK
If you’ve started researching your family’s history with the idea of turning your findings into a book, it may have dawned on you that this will be a large undertaking. Don’t be intimidated!
Remember what first sparked your interest. Maybe it was that newspaper article about the birth of your great-grandmother, your aunt’s diary, your uncle’s old school yearbook, or the faded photograph of your cousin’s first day of school.
Fan the spark of wonder and curiosity lit by those discoveries into a flame of determination. Create a book your family, future family, and perhaps a wider audience will treasure.
Speaking of audience, here’s a good motivational question:
Who will be reading your family history book?
As an aspiring family history writer, you have one or more audiences of readers in mind.
Writing for those readers is your goal, so it’s important to define your audience at the outset of the project.
“Writing a family history book takes a lot of time and a lot of work,” says Jennifer Rizzo, a writer, project manager, and genealogist with The Writers For Hire. “Without having a set purpose or goal, it's easy to get off track or get easily discouraged.”
Some possible goals for family history books include:
- Personal use. Most people who write a family history book do it for their own or their family’s use. Knowing both sides of a family’s story can be valuable to its living members’ understanding of their own identities. A family history book is a great tool for building closer connections with family members, and a wonderful gift that keeps on giving to future generations. If a family tree exists, a complete family history adds depth to it.
- Historical society/genealogical project. Your town or county historical society may be interested in what your family’s history can add to their resources. There are also historical (or preservation) societies in every state in the United States, and most countries have national or regional historical societies you can contact. Telling the stories of families from all walks of life contributes to the larger story of a community, state, or nation.
- Educational institutions. By offering copies of your book to a local elementary or high school, you can provide a teaching tool. Students can learn about the community through one family’s story and its impact.
- Veterans’ groups. Local or regional veterans’ organizations can benefit from your family history book. The letters, photos, and other military memorabilia may be useful to complete these organizations’ historical records.
Tips and Resources: Preparing To Write a Family History
Next, let’s look at some tried-and-true techniques for finding the information you’ll use to write your book.
Peruse other books. Take some time to look at other family history books. How are they structured? What types of information do they cover? What’s appealing about each, and what would you do differently?
Research ancestry sites, libraries, archives, museums, and churches. These organizations keep the kinds of records you need to build a family history that reaches farther into the past than living relatives can remember or document.
Create a family website. A digital hub for family members to upload their materials is an efficient collection method. Is there someone you know who might help with creating a website to host images and a family chat?
Get help. If the amount of research that’s necessary seems overwhelming, consider hiring a local historian or professional ghostwriter to do it for you. These writers are experts at ferreting out family records and memorabilia from multiple sources, interviewing living family members, and arranging the information in a way you’ll find simple to reference.
“Local historians and professional ghostwriters are both skilled at in-depth research,” Rizzo notes. “They can compile all of the information into an easy-to-follow format.”
Set a deadline. To help ensure your family history book will actually be finished, choose a deadline past which there will be no more additions or revisions.
What’s the best way to tell your family’s history?
The answer depends on how much material your research has uncovered. Consider these possibilities:
- A lot of material. If you have pages and pages of notes, diaries, images, records, travel manifests, and other research spanning hundreds of years, a chronological form of storytelling can put all the characters, dates, facts, and events together so your reader gets a good sense of your family’s progression over time.
- Gaps in timeline. If you have a significant amount of information, but with gaps, a narrative style may be best. Telling your story in a narrative form can allow you to explain missing information or skip over it and focus on what you do know.
- Not much material. When you don’t have a lot of material and your ability to find more is limited, a “reverse chronological” style may be helpful. Start from a more recent event like the birth of a child and then tell the story of the child’s parents, their grandparents, and great-grandparents.
- Lots of photos. Creating a book that is largely comprised of photos is another possibility, especially if you have lots of photos to work with. Add the most complete captions possible. Pictures are great storytellers.
Which publishing format is best for your family history book?
Technology has provided today’s authors with a variety of options for publishing.
The choice may involve two major factors, according to Rizzo. “Often, the best format depends on the amount of information you have, as well as what your reason is for wanting to create a family history book,” she says.
Publishing an e-book is generally less expensive than publishing a physical book. You’ll need to do your homework to find the right publisher—unless you have the help of a ghostwriter with connections to get the job done.
You can create an e-book from scratch with readily available software options such as Adobe Acrobat, Hubspot, and Amazon, Lulu, DiggyPOD, and others. Self-publishing allows you more creative control than traditional publishing and, because no approvals are necessary, you should have a finished book sooner.
With traditional publishing, there are many more hoops to jump through, beginning with pitching your book and getting it accepted by a publisher. The time from finishing the manuscript to actually seeing the book can be many months, if not years.
Unless your family is well-known or your story is of great interest to the public, this option is probably not the best choice for a family history book. But, if you’re using the services of a ghostwriter with publishing connections, your ghostwriter can ensure your manuscript is well organized, well-written, and expertly edited before presenting it to a publisher whose standards they know.
You can tell a family history book by its cover.
The colors, images, and font used for a book’s cover can do a lot to make initial connections with readers.
Canva offers a free book cover maker for “…the novice or not-so-tech-savvy writer,” with a library of examples to choose from. Canva covers can be used regardless of how you’re going to publish the book.
The cover catches the reader’s interest, but the internal layout must keep it. If the book will be image heavy, you may want to choose a landscape orientation.to create a photo album-type book. If you’re including lots of text, the standard portrait orientation may be more appropriate.
For digital versions, the layout design must consider the difference between computer monitor display and mobile displays. The design software you use should account for that and offer examples as you create your book.
Digital platforms give you the opportunity to be creative and test different layouts, color schemes, fonts, and more before publishing the book.
CAPTURE THEIR VOICES, TODAY
Preserve your family history
Your family history journey begins.
Each family’s history is unique. Whether yours is a small clan with a local origin story or a large international family with hundreds of members spread across the globe, this undertaking can be stressful, fulfilling, and overwhelming all at the same time!
Don’t hesitate to seek help from family members or from a professional historian, ghostwriter, or designer. Once you get started, you’ll be caught up in the stories, images, and anecdotes that, woven together, make up your family’s unique, colorful tapestry.
Good luck on your journey!
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