How to Start Writing: the Overall Plan

What to do? What to do?

Last month I wrote about the importance of writing for genealogists and family historians, particularly the importance of starting now rather than at some unspecified point in the future. I also wrote about some steps we can take to overcome whatever reasons we’ve given ourselves for postponing. In the intervening weeks, I’ve been asked more specifically about—and I’m synthesizing and paraphrasing here—how to organize one’s efforts to facilitate writing to completion.

I can’t reiterate strongly enough how subjective this topic is. If any of the following is helpful to you, terrific. If any of the following is not helpful to you, dismiss it. It’s that simple. Nothing about your writing projects will go wrong if you don’t adopt my methods. I share them only insofar as they may provide you with some tools to add to your toolbox, to be used when and if you need them.

In this article, I’ll briefly discuss how I’m organizing my overall approach to everything I intend to write about my ancestors. It’s something I only undertook recently after it finally occurred to me that my personal research and writing hasn’t been nearly as focused and directed as my client research and writing. And in next month’s issue, I’ll write a follow-up piece on a different aspect of how to start writing: how I organize my Microsoft Word file when I start writing about a particular family line.

In thinking about how I want to organize my overall efforts, I first considered how I want the final product to appear in general terms. Do I want to produce an ahnentafel, presenting all of my known direct ancestors in a single work? Or do I want to produce a series of descendancies, each one of which focuses on a particular line? I’ve written in both styles and formats for various clients and journals, so I have some experience to draw on in making that decision.

If your focus is on extending your pedigree as far as possible along all lines, but with relatively limited biographical detail, an ahnentafel might well serve your purposes. But I want something else. I want to conduct enough research that my ancestors and their families begin to breathe and amble about a bit on the page. That kind of research presented in a single ahnentafel can produce a narrative—or rather narratives—that are disjointed; moving forward, then jumping backward as the reader progresses through the book. It can also produce a large and unwieldy tome, one so large that it ultimately remains unfinished and never distributed, the worst possible outcome. So I’m planning a series of more manageable, smaller books that present various descendancies and allow for narratives that continually progress.

Next, I need to determine how to delineate those lines and where to focus. I’ve done some research on both my biological father’s and my adopted (step-) father’s ancestry, but I’ve never felt a part of either of them or their families, nor have I felt particularly engaged in that research. It’s my mother’s side of the family that I was raised among and that I feel deeply connected to. So I choose to work exclusively on my maternal lines. (Translation: How you determine the scope of your work is entirely up to you. You answer to no one else in this regard.)

From there, I’ve decided to break up the workload into reasonable pieces by focusing each booklet (or monograph) on one of my eight maternal great-great-grandparents. That would normally equal eight separate works, but two of my great-great-grandparents (Robert Moon and William Moon) were son and grandson of the same Jasper Moon, so it makes sense to combine them into a single monograph. Accordingly, I have seven working titles that currently make up my planned research monograph series:

The English Ancestry of Robert Moon and William Moon of Tennessee and Missouri
          Surnames: Atchley, Gentry, Haggard, Hazelrigg, Maple, Moon, Randolph, Richards, Wade, Williams

The North Carolina Ancestry of Elizabeth Hodges of Indiana and Missouri
          Surnames: Caudle, Goodrich, Hodges, Robinson, Seay, Willis, Wilson

The Virginia Ancestry of Martha Clay Hatfield of Kentucky and Missouri
          Surnames: Armstrong, Boone, Clay, Hatfield, Hicks, Stone, Thomas, Townsend

The Scotch-Irish and German Ancestry of Thomas Reason Gregory of Indiana and Missouri
          Surnames: Gregory, Myton, Schaiteler/Shideler, Sook/Zug

The Carolina Ancestry of Rachel Caroline Roberts of Kentucky and Missouri
          Surnames: Langford/Lankford, Robbards/Roberts

The German Ancestry of William Samuel Yoachum of Missouri, Colorado, and California
          Surnames: Adams, Gammill, Hopper, Rider, Wilks, Yoachum

The English, Scottish, and German Ancestry of Lovena Margaret Hall of Pennsylvania, Missouri, Colorado, and California
          Surnames: Arnold, Clister, Hall, Linderman, Matthews, McNair, Stoner

Each monograph will include separate descendancies for each of the subject’s ancestral lines to him or her. Each ancestral line is captured in the “surnames” list under the main title and will form its own section or chapter. That list of ancestral lines may expand (or shrink) as I undertake further research. How far back will each ancestral line go? My goal is to go back to each line’s European origins, but when I can’t do that, I’ll go back as far as I can in colonial America.

Finally, the last section in each monograph will present a descendancy from the subject down to his or her living descendants, including as many of my seven first cousins, their spouses and children, as I can.

Now that I have this plan synthesized into a one-page document, I can more easily make choices about where to focus my attention for the next couple of years. And if I should die or lose my mind before my master plan is complete, I may have finished one or two or five of these works. I will still have left something meaningful behind. The one guarantee I can make about these plans? They will change. Experience, both my own and that of others, will inform me and alter my approach as I go.

I don’t suggest you necessarily organize yourself and your efforts similarly, but I do recommend that you organize yourself and your efforts in some way. And remember that this kind of planning should be the fun part. It’s nothing more than thinking about what you want to do and how you want to do it. If some of my thinking in determining my plan helps you think about your plan, then I’ve done my job here.

Your turn. What are you planning? If you’ve already undertaken this kind of exercise, or if you do it now, leave a comment and summarize your plan for us. The results could be an excellent resource going forward for anyone thinking about how to start writing.

  1. November 1, 2018 1:02 pm
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    • November 28, 2018 9:27 am
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