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Writing Your Family History: Keeping it Short


Have you been putting off writing your family history because you're just not up to the task of writing a long epic narrative? Is the thought too overwhelming, too large a project to even begin? Many family historians think there is only one-way to write a family history?  As one long narrative, that intertwines all their ancestor’s lives into one gigantic story. A collection of research structured into paragraph format that meanders from the beginning of their research to the end resulting in some pretty dry and dull narrative.

Some 8 years ago, it was certified genealogist and author Sharon DeBartolo Carmack that first turned You Can Write Your Family History.  I was trying to figure out how I wanted to write my family history stories.  I was excited to hear Sharon had written a new book, Tell It Short, A Guide to Writing Your Family History in Brief. 
me onto using creative nonfiction to write my stories with her book,

Tell It Short is a fantastic guide for getting acquainted with the idea of creative nonfiction and the short essay format as a form of family history writing. In Tell It Short, Sharon acquaints us with the three essay forms that our family history writing can take. 

The Literary Journalism Essay – telling a story that puts your reader into your ancestor’s experience.  This is the type I prefer and teach at The Family History Writing Studio.

The Memoir Essay – telling your own life experiences

The Personal Essay – taking your family history knowledge and experience and relating it to today and your own personal views on a topic or theme, relating the past to the present.

Sharon expands on all three of these, each with their own chapter, as well, she covers humour, travel, and food essays.

Sharon breaks down the genre of creative nonfiction in simple, uncomplicated terms and will help family historians to understand and embrace creative nonfiction in their family history writing. She covers the key elements of creative nonfiction and how to put your ancestors into historical context.  Easily digested in a few hours of reading, it won’t take you long to realize this is the approach to consider in writing your family history.

Tell It Short is divided into two parts. Part 1 introduces the family historian to writing the family history essay and Part 2 reading the family history essay. She also touches on ethical issues and overcoming writer’s block. As an editor, I knew Sharon wouldn’t leave out revision and editing.  She lends her expertise in revising, editing and proofreading.

However, the jewel of this book is Part 2, Reading Family History Essays, where she has gathered 10 examples of family history essays for you to read.  Of course, there is no better way to learn writing then reading the works of others.

If you’re tired of writing a boring family history narrative, if you are new to the idea of writing creative nonfiction and want to get a sense of what it’s all about. If you’re overwhelmed and want to learn to write in a short format than Sharon’s book Tell It Short, A Guide to Writing Your Family History in Brief is a great place to start.



 Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is a certified genealogist with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing and is the author of twenty-two books. Sharon can be reached through her website www.NonfictionHelp.com

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