Want to write your family history? Here's how to get started

Posted at 11:15 AM, Feb 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-02 09:39:49-05

Valerie Elkins grew up hearing her father say that their only notable ancestors were horse thieves and moonshiners.

At age 10, she decided to prove him wrong.

She interviewed relatives and wrote a letter simply addressed to the Greenwades — relatives on her mother's side — in Mount Sterling, Ky. The postmaster managed to deliver the letter, and a distant cousin wrote back with some good information. Encouraged, Elkins continued on her quest, eventually discovering that she was related to David Rorer, a judge who played a key role in naming Iowa the Hawkeye State.

"For the record, there are no horse thieves" in the family, Elkins says. "But we do have a few moonshiners."

Every family history odyssey is different, but experts say there are some basic tips and guidelines for those who want to start researching and writing their family histories.

Today, many people start their research with a paid database like or a free database like, experts say. Both offer information about how to begin, or you can choose an online course (Family Tree University offers classes) or a book like Sharon DeBartolo Carmack's "You Can Write Your Family History" or Emily Anne Croom's "Unpuzzling Your Past" (both are published by Genealogical Publishing Co.).

Websites allow you to search census records, marriage and death records, even passenger lists for the ships that brought immigrants to America. Some sites specialize in particular immigrant groups like Scandinavians or Eastern Europeans, and offers military records.

You can get background information and details of daily life from books and newspapers, either at online archives or at the public library.

But don't forget to interview the living, says Carmack. Your aunt or grandfather may be a treasure trove of facts and anecdotes.

"That's what we need to get recorded, because that will be lost," Carmack says. "Those stories are not in the records. Those stories are not on Tape-record the interview and transcribe it, or take notes; whatever works for you. But get those family stories recorded."

When it's time to start writing, think "short and simple," says Lynn Palermo, a family historian who blogs at Armchair Genealogist.

Palermo suggests starting with a single short story before you tackle a larger project. You may want to focus on a single event, a single day or a 10-year span of time. Just be sure to pick a subject that will resonate with you and your family. There's detailed information about how to get started at Palermo's website, and an online template.

Elkins, a genealogist and blogger, often suggests that beginners start by writing down the top 10 stories they want to pass on to future generations.

"These are the stories that mean something to your heart," she says.

Maybe you have a grandfather who sold watermelon for 10 cents a slice to support his family during the Great Depression, or an aunt who overcame her childhood shyness to become a successful stage actress.

"It's so easy to get caught up in the grammar and the spelling and the semantics and the phrasing," Elkins says. "Just get the story down, and then you can work on polishing, adding and deleting."

Write the way you talk, Elkins says, and try not to airbrush your ancestors. Sensitive issues may not be suitable for all audiences, but you can always write two versions of a story — one for children and one for teenagers and older. Even if a family member made a bad decision and, say, landed in prison, there's plenty to be learned about actions and consequences as long as you present the truth in age-appropriate terms.

Palermo likes the idea of printing your first story and distributing it to family members; you'll get the satisfaction of completing a project and sharing what you've learned. Websites like offer attractive options for self-publishing, or you can come up with your own format.

Whatever you do, Palermo says, don't fall into the trap of waiting to write until you've finished all your research.

"That will never happen," Palermo says, laughing. "The research will never end."


  • Schedule writing time into your day. This makes it harder to forget or procrastinate.
  • Create a timeline. It's a good way to organize your research.
  • Keep your focus tight. A single event, even a single day in the life of an ancestor, can make a great starting point.
  • Keep writing time and research time separate. Research tends to be addictive _ and distracting.
  • Remember your audience. Pick stories that family members will want to read.

SOURCES: Sharon Carmack, Lynn Palermo, Valerie Elkins
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