The Secrets to Writing a Compelling Family History

March 14, 2021

Written by: Devon noel Lee

Search for family history writing tips on the internet and you’ll come across numerous articles that teach you how to write compelling stories. Unfortunately, the posts all suggest composing a personal or an ancestor’s story should begin with a three box diagram used to teach elementary school students creative writing.

When my children receive creative writing assignments, they are given a piece of paper with three large empty boxes. One box labeled ‘beginning’. Another is labeled ‘middle’. And the third is labeled ‘end’. Other story writing charts mark the boxes ‘setting,’ ‘conflict,’ and ‘resolution.’

No matter the terminology, the process is the same. Each story must have a problem to be solved. The problem should be solved. And there must be a little background to prepare you for the overall story.

But our memories do not work that way. Writing family stories, for ourselves or our ancestors, is more like making a batch of cookies.

The first thing you need is ingredients. Without ingredients, you are not going to be making anything. Additionally, the kind of ingredients you have will dictate the cookies that result in the end.

America’s Footprints has the right approach to preserving our life stories. Remember this is a journey. It’s not a sprint. It could be as if your candle in the wind is about to blow out.

But for many, the journey has a longer duration. So, set a steady pace and regularly record a memory. Soon, you’ll capture a marathon worth of stories without breaking a sweat or collapsing at the end of the run.

As you gather your memories, you’ll then see how they can combine to tell a great life lesson or explain a turning point in your life.

I began writing the memories associated with pictures from my teenage and early college years. My husband noticed I had a collection of photos and stories about the seven years I participated in pageants. He suggested that I compile these memories together and add more details to tie the memories together.

Soon, a scrapbook of photos and stories became an 11 chapter book.

As I wrote the memories in chronological order, my conflict came to light. I began pageants as a tomboy who wore holey jeans and black rock concert t-shirts. I lacked fashion sense and was a modern day ugly duckling.

No fairy godmother came and turned me into a princess, so I could go to the ball and meet my handsome prince. Instead, a lengthy transformation process resulted in me becoming a swan through the pageant world.

writing your life storyA proponent of beginning, middle, end story-telling might say that my story does fit this organizational strategy. I could write “I began pageants at 15” in the beginning box. A list of all the events I competed in could go in the “middle” box. Finally, I could write, “I competed in my last pageant in 1998” in the “end” box.

But, this approach would not lead to a compelling story.

I became a beauty queen twice, once as a teenager and once as a young adult. The journey toward my first crown has a very different tale to share than the journey to my second. Thus, my story needs to be divided into two projects.

In other words, once I saw what memories I had to work with, then I could recognize what the family history projects should look like. I had enough ingredients to make two different recipes.

As I assembled the memories from my teenage quest for the crown, I didn’t strictly tell the story in chronological order.

Starting in the middle of the journey and adding flashbacks helped parts of the overall project make sense. Plus, I needed to add references and commentary from after my pageant years for a reader to understand the setting better.

These skills are outside the scope of beginning, middle, and end writing theory, which again reminds me that this is an elementary school creative writing technique.

Once again, the cookie making analogy holds.

Sometimes you have a basic recipe. You may decide that you want to mix the wet ingredients before the dry ingredients when the recipe suggests otherwise.

Sometimes you want to add ingredient substitutions. And sometimes you may add additional ingredients not listed on the recipe card. But in the end, you should have a mouth watering baked good.

Sometimes, the cookies are inedible hockey pucks. Unlike baked goods, poorly combined written elements can be rearranged until the story is more enjoyable.

If you’re struggling to write a compelling family history, then change your perspective. Gather your ingredients until you have enough to know what kind story naturally comes to light.

Then combine these elements, eliminating some and adding others until you have the right mix.

Ultimately, your compelling family history will have a beginning, middle, and end but you will have arrived at completion using a more organic approach.

Devon Noel LeeDevon Noel Lee is a family historian, author, lecturer and mother of five home schooled children. She’s a crazed Texas A&M fan and loves BBQ and Lemonade. Capturing and preserving family stories so her ancestors come alive is her passion.