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Family Biography - A Lesson in Writing

Part 1- Preparing to Write a Family Biography

This week I have been crazy busy writing family biographies. Three years ago, I began researching and writing the Kowalsky Family History Book. (I may have mentioned it once or twice before) From this process, I have learned a great deal about writing a family biography.

A biography is a life story written by someone other than the subject. A family biography is a bit different. It features more people, all related in some way. It will tell about events that happened to the family. It will share details about the individuals in a family and about family life.

Sometime ago we had the brilliant idea that each one of my aunts and uncles would receive a couple of pages with various photos depicting their life along with a biography of their life to date. Since it has been 30 years since our last family book, we thought we should take each one of my cousins, who now have children and grandchildren of their own and give them each a page with a small biography.

By taking this approach, we felt we would create a family biography, linking the individuals that make up a family together, through their shared experiences, inherited traits, and details of their family life.

This was no small feat; I have nine aunts and uncles on this side of the family and 45 cousins. I was faced with the daunting task of writing 54 biographies. Of course, you do not need to take as large a project as I did. These simple steps can be applied to any size family biography. This is how we got it done.

The easiest method of communication with everyone was email. We started with a mass email letting everyone know of our intentions and asking for their cooperation. We acquired the information and prepared to write the biographies in three stages.

Step One
We sent out a family group sheet to each family, listing the family members names, birth dates, marriages, death etc. All the vital statistics we would require to update our information. We asked them to make any corrections, or additions to this sheet; this was our jumping off point, insuring what information we did or didn’t have was accurate. When this information was returned to us, we recorded it in our pedigree charts.

Step 2
We put out a request for photographs. We stipulated the kind of photographs we were looking for, from toddler years to a recent headshot and everything in between. We wanted to be sure we had plenty to choose from, not all the pictures would make it in but we wanted to have a choice. It was important to send this out early, because just this week, nearly one and half years later after the initial request was made the last family member has submitted her pictures. We used to joke that it was easier getting pictures and information from the deceased then from our living relatives. Pictures may not seem like an obvious request for writing a biography, they initially were intended to accompany the bio, but they did serve a purpose in  learning about our relatives and to connecting with family members.

Step 3
We sent each aunt or uncle (my Dad’s brother and sisters) and each one of their children (my cousins) a questionnaire. Since, there were so many cousins we did a standard questionnaire of approximately 25 questions. For my aunts and uncles, who we affectionately refer to as the elders, I wrote more individual questionnaires with specific questions to their life. The questions were directed towards major events in their lives: education, relationships and jobs, for example. We probe into the effects the world had on them and their impact on the world and their reflections of family life and their role in the family, here's a list of family history interview questions to help you with this part.

Once we had their family group sheets in hand, their pictures and their questionnaires, I sat down to the task of writing a biography for each one of them. At the time of this post, I have written over 40 family biographies and I would like to share with you what I learned in Part 2 of Writing a Family Biography on Monday Feb 1st.