When to Start Writing
Quick reminder: you are going to die.
I forget that fact myself sometimes, thinking I have all the time in the world to do what I want to do. But I don’t. That bleak reminder has a follow-up truth for every genealogist: if we don’t record our work in some presentable format that can be distributed to others, all of our research is moot, nothing more than a temporary pastime.
Some of us depend entirely on websites like Ancestry to record our family trees, sometimes accompanied by a few vital records and censuses. Posting online is surely a form of publication, but the data presented there is more abstract than meaningful family history.
NGS members are generally a bit more sophisticated. We recognize that family trees are a far cry from family history. We recognize the value of adding details, context, and color to give us a sense of who our ancestors actually were. We recognize the need to coalesce disjointed points of data into a cohesive narrative. We recognize the need to actually write.Only NGS members have access to full articles of NGS Monthly. Please log in or click here to learn more about joining the National Genealogical Society.
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Thank you, Aaron. I’m old enough to fret every day about dying soon … and how to find the time now for this work. Yours was a good and gentle nudge.
Your “quick reminder” made my day. I will bookmark and go back to this when I am slogging through the weeds of an elusive ancestor. What I have found helpful is keeping a formatted template in my word-processing program with headings, sections, etc. It avoids the dreaded “blank page” syndrome and gives me a starting point to begin writing. Jean Andrews
I retired a week after I turned 65, even though I enjoyed my work and was in good health. My goal was to write my family histories. In the 15 years since I have completed and self-published books on all four of my grandparents’ ancestral lines, including allied families. I’m now working on the second book on my wife’s ancestry. As the ad says, Just do it.
As my family’s “official” historian, I have been given all kinds of memorabilia and photos that my sisters and other relatives have never seen. I am currently creating a family story/history/scrapbook on my computer that can be either printed (probably color copier) or saved as a .pdf file. If you aren’t interested in a published book, maybe this is an option to consider.
Thank you, Aaron!
Dear Mr. Goodwin,
Isn’t it the truth? I have had relatives that I wanted to ask so many questions of pass away before I could do so. Plus, a lot of family tales have been proven incorrect by finally finding factual records. Even though I am considered the “family historian” for my husband’s family, nobody wants to give me vital information. Over the years I have discovered quite a few “skeletons,” which would make writing a book extremely difficult. How does one address family secrets?
It’s a good question, Patricia. I’ll think about addressing this in an upcoming article.
This is a very good article and reminder to Get It Done Now – we are not getting younger and time is slipping by. Two years ago I wrote a history of my maternal grandmother and her life in Chicago along with her aunts and uncles and notable friends in the family – I did it in word and made it into a printed copy for binder that I gave to my siblings. It now needs a rewrite as I have more information and I am trying out a new piece of software – Scrivens – writers use this. I am just learning it but it seems I can focus on sections or chapters and just work on a small portion at a time. This will be useful for my paternal family – it is much larger and lots of connections. I have struggled with this for a while. So now I try to work on family history in some form writing or research at least a little bit a day even if it is just sending emails or focusing on one family member. My goal is to make a printable copy, pdf copies for the book shelf or to send electronically. Also going to resurrect a family history website and start their again. I will post short stories that I find and have it posted to a FaceBook group page. Hopefully this will interest some of the younger crowd.
This article is a good reminder – also remember to archive your work. I put it on an external drive and keep a copy in my safety deposit box that I update every six months or so. Family members are instructed to keep these files forever and hand them down.
Ah, yes, this reminds me of my mother’s favorite sayings,”if not now, when?” and when pressed, later followed by, “tomorrow.” This means never. I’ve done your suggested exercise of writing about why I sometimes can’t write, a stream of consciousness, if you will, and it releases the angst of facing a blank page. I also remind myself that I will probably delete a good portion of the beginning because, as I write, the real beginning will reveal itself way down the page (or two). This also helps relieve the stalemate of staring at a blank page. Another way to start is to write in pieces, then later assemble the pieces together into a whole story. If I discovered a well documented event in an ancestors life, I would write about that event, then save it for the larger story. (I once heard a famous author of fictional works describe this technique; he wrote scenes on seperate pages, taped them across the wall, moved the pieces around until he liked the story order, then wrote the transition scenes to tie them together). Of course we write history, not fiction, but we can fill the inbetween genealogical scenes with historical facts that influenced our ancestors lives and decision making. I once wondered why several related families who lived and farmed near each other all moved away after a short time. Then I discovered the summer they moved away experienced a devestating drought and massive grasshopper invasion forcing everyone to abandon the area. However it works for you, just start! There’s no time better than today.