Writing a Family History

One of my projects during the COVID lockdown was writing a family history book for an elderly family member. She offered her DNA to further my genealogical research, and I wanted to thank her in kind. She was the youngest in her family, so she had not been privy to much of what happened before she was born, and most of her relatives were already deceased. I was able to complete this project in less than two months, because I had already done most of the research.

Step 1: Choose a focus.
Every story needs a perspective. In this case, it was my elderly family member’s point of view. She wanted me to include all the people that she remembered from her childhood: aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews. Every story also needs a compelling arc. I decided to include her paternal and maternal migration stories, so she would understand how her family came to live where they did.

Step 2: Make a list.
My book included 85 individuals, most of whom I have never met. The lack of name recognition made organization essential. I attempted to find a photo and an obituary for every deceased person, as well as the following facts: date and place of birth, date of marriage, spouse’s name, children’s names, military service, occupation, date and place of death, and cause of death. For living people I included minimal information and no recent photos to respect their privacy.

Step 3: Make a pedigree chart.
Most people have trouble conceptualizing their own family tree. I created a four-generation vertical pedigree chart using Family Tree Maker and superimposed it on a faded landscape photograph to make it visually appealing.

Step 4: Find photographs.
This step was by far the most time-consuming but also the most rewarding. My now-deceased grandmother gave me permission years ago to scan all of her photographs, so I already had many digital images at my disposal. However, I did not recognize most of the people. I used Facebook to share these photos with relatives and identify the subjects. I also used Facebook to solicit more photos. I received over a hundred which had to be categorized both by subject and by owner. I incorporated landscapes and cityscapes (with permission) from historical societies which I discovered on PastPerfect Online.

Step 5: Fix photographs (or not).
Many old photographs are in bad shape due to improper storage or natural decay, and virtually all old photographs are black and white or sepia. I believe color photos are more lifelike and engaging, while imperfections are distracting. Therefore I decided to alter and colorize all of the photographs. I enlisted my husband’s help in removing defects; he used Pixelmator. I colorized the photos using Colorize Images. In some cases the results were breathtaking, and in others they looked a little weird. The colorizer seemed to struggle with blue jeans for some reason, but this may have been my lack of proficiency with the settings. Even the imperfectly colorized images looked better than the originals.

Step 6: Respect the copyright.
Every image which was not created by you belongs to somebody else and may be subject to copyright restrictions. This includes photographs, maps, and obituaries. Most repositories indicate whether and how you can reproduce the images in their collections. I purchased the rights to one image, because I wanted to use it as cover art, and I credited the source of all the images which required me to do so.

Step 7: Write the narrative.
The only thing people love more than a good photo is a good story. This requires you to place the family in historical context. I used Wikipedia for demographics and broad historical data. I used historical newspaper articles and books for more specific facts. I then made a timeline of each family’s births, marriages, and deaths as well as the historical events which affected them. That was how I realized my great-great-grandmother was only sixteen when she married my great-great-grandfather and that he made her participate in the Oklahoma Land Run a year later right after their first child was born. I imagined myself traveling seven hundred miles with a newborn baby surrounded by my in-laws, sleeping in a tent in a muddy field while my father lay dying at home, and suddenly their divorce seventeen years later made a lot more sense. It’s important not to take sides or make value judgments, but it is okay to empathize.

My favorite part of this experience was watching my entire family get involved. They dredged their hard drives and their memories for photographs and stories, made an emergency visit to the records office, and edited the draft. We embarked on this epic quest together, and we produced a beautiful memorial to those who came before us. We even solved a couple of hundred-year-old mysteries along the way. The recipient was overjoyed. She loved seeing photos of all the people from her past, and she learned things about her family that she had never known before.

I used Blurb Bookwright to create and print the book. The 66-page hardcover with glossy pages cost $45.99, and I was able to customize the colors, fonts, and layouts. Because this book was chiefly for the enjoyment of the recipient, I did not include source citations or a numbered genealogy chart. I may create a more scholarly version of the book in the future.

This year of COVID misery has taught me to create joy where I can and to cherish my family while I still have them. I hope you will do the same.