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Writing Your Family History: One Ancestor at a Time

(This is a guest post by author Lisa A. Alzo, M.F.A)
Lisa A. Alzo is a freelance writer, instructor, and lecturer, and is the author of the award-winning Three Slovak Women.  Lisa shares more ancestor profiles on her blog, The Accidental Genealogist



For many genealogists, the most difficult part about writing a family history is getting started.  The thought of trying to turn the blank pages into a 100+ page book may overwhelm even the most diligent researcher.  Often, it is much easier to break your writing tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces.  One way of doing this is something I like to call the “One Ancestor at a Time” approach.

By writing brief, but concise mini-biographies or profiles you can hone your writing skills as well as highlight the best details of your family history research.


You can work on developing your “characters” in three small steps:


1. Pick an interesting character in your family.  This could be the hero, the black sheep, an influential female ancestor, or someone you learned a surprising fact about.  Consider sketching out a timeline of his or her life.  You can do this on paper, with your genealogical software program, or via a free online timeline tool such as OurTimelines, or TimeToast.

2.  Start by writing a few descriptive words about this person.  This could be a physical description (blonde hair, short, mole on left cheek, etc.), or details you discovered from a document (had three children under 10, worked as a watchmaker, etc.).  Next start turning these facts into a few sentences or even a paragraph or two about this person based from a year on your timeline.  Don’t worry about perfect order or grammar at this stage, just let the creative juices flow.  You can always go back and revise later.

3.  Add photographs, family tree charts, or documents to help illustrate, reference, or enhance your words. 

If you apply this simple approach ancestor by ancestor, you’ll be well on your way to writing a compelling family history.

Here is a small vignette I wrote about my grandfather.  It is just two sentences, but gives some telling details about him that I can expand upon for a longer narrative.

Sample Character Sketch:


During the war, J├ínos spent time in a Russian prison where his ability to repair carriages and make wheels saved his life.  Eventually he managed to escape and returned to his Rusyn village in 1920.













More about Lisa: 

Lisa Alzo, M.F.A. currently resides in Ithaca,  New York. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 1987 and Master of Fine Arts in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Pittsburgh in 1997.
Lisa began writing creatively in the fourth grade with an assignment entitled, “All About Me,” and went on to win several  English/Writing Awards throughout high school and college.  Lisa has published articles in Ancestry Magazine, Discovering Family History, Family Chroncile, Family Tree Magazine, Genealogical Computing, Reunions Magazine, NGSNews Magazine, Western Pennsylvania History Magazine, FEEFHS Journa and Rocenka: Journal of the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society Internation, The Associaton of Professional Genealogists Quarterly.
An avid genealogist for 22 years, Lisa currently teaches online genealogy course for Family Tree University and the National Institute for Genealogical Studies. She is the recipient of the 2002 Mary Zirin Prize given by the Association for Women in Slavic Studies to recognize the achievements  of independent scholars, and is a frequent speaker for national conferences, genealogical and historical societies.

You can find this busy writer at her website Lisa Alzo  and The Accidental Genealogist.




3 comments:

  1. Great advise! The small chunks or one foot in front of the other approach. It's gotta be a way to get a nice stack of family stories in just a few weeks or months.

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  2. Lisa, this is so helpful - I just finished a small history of my Ulster Gillespie families with two sidelines as well, and the small chunks idea will help me with the next group of ancestors! Thanks for your post.

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  3. Thank you for your focus on the actual character of the individual rather than just the events. This makes for much more interesting reading and make the writing more fun.

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