What are your memoir or family history goals for 2021?
Is it actually making a start on researching or writing your family history?
Perhaps it’s interviewing an elderly relative before it’s too late?
Or finding a way through the dead ends and brick walls of your research so far?
Maybe it’s finally starting to turn all that researching into something others will actually want to read.
The following questions and possibilities are only aiming to start you thinking about your current goals. And they don’t have to be huge, lofty goals either. Thinking about writing a huge inter-generational family history can be overwhelming, so writing a short piece about one ancestor who intrigues you or one event from your own childhood may be a much more realistic goal.
Even if you are nowhere near ready to start writing because you’re at the start of your research journey, thinking about why you are researching and who you hope will eventually read your work will help you work out where to expend your energy right now, especially if you have limited time available to you.
Why do you want to research or write your family history?
There are no right or wrong answers, but some possibilities might include:
- something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t got around to it
- you’re conscious that family stories and/or local history is dying along with older relatives
- you want to share your life stories with your family and leave it for future generations
- a family member has asked you to write down your stories, or the stories you remember about long-dead relatives
- you enjoy research
- you’ve discovered writing your own story down is carthartic
- you’ve inherited all the ‘bits and pieces’ of information, photos and letters and it’s time to do something about them
- you’ve been dobbed in to be the family historian
- a significant birthday, anniversary or reunion is coming up?
- a local history competition has been announced
Spend some time thinking about or journaling your reasons for exploring your family history (which can and should include your own story). How do you feel about your ‘why’ and the task at hand? Excited? Overwhelmed? Resentful that it’s been dumped on you? Regretful that some stories are already lost?
Who are you writing for? Your primary target readership will inform not only the structure and form of your story but also the length and selection of detail. If your main audience is your immediate family, for example, there may be stories of interest to them that may not engage a more general audience.
- a commercial readership (i.e. mainstream publishing)
- the local history centre?
- a local history competition?
- visitors to your local area?
3. What: Format
It is likely that your why and who will influence the form your family history will take.
Will it take a traditional book form? If so, what sort of images and diagrams might you use?
Or will it be a shorter piece, such as a personal essay, you could submit to a competition or journal?
Other suggestions include:
- photo book/photo essay
- powerpoint presentation
- a blog
- art collage
- a ‘This is Your Life’ style presentation to a specific family member
- something else entirely
4. What: Structure
Have you thought about how you might structure the actual narrative of your family history? A few suggestions (which are certainly not exhaustive) to get you thinking:
- chronological—write in the order in which the events took place.
- thematic—divide the story up into topics or themes that emerge as you research.
- a quest—according to Hazel Edwards in her book Writing a Non-Boring Family History, ‘Histories can take the shape of a journey or a quest to find a truth or goal’ (p. 36).
- historical detective—tell the story in the order you discover the information, revelations and secrets of your family’s history.
- character—focusing on a particular person in a section or chapter – telling events from their perspective (which can still be written in third person).
- location—chapters/sections of the book could be divided up according to location. This would work particularly well if your family moved, traveled or migrated at various points in time.
If you would like more information on these, I highly recommend you check out Hazel Edward’s Writing a Non-Boring Family History. Out of all the family history books I’ve come across, this is one of the most practical and useful.
5. Where is your energy right now?
When I am feeling overwhelmed with too many research and writing tasks to focus on, I have a friend who asks me, ‘What do you have energy for right now?’
Although that could be referring to physical energy (to which I’d be tempted to say, ‘Nothing. Can’t I just watch Netflix instead?’), I usually interpret it as, ‘Which project or character or research question am I currently being drawn to or feel energised by?’
For you, it may be an urgency because you have elderly relatives and you may lose the opportunity to record what they remember if you don’t make that a priority. Perhaps it’s a place you have the chance to visit, a black sheep of the family who particularly intrigues you, or an ancestor who shares a talent or interest with you.
Over to You
Spend some time contemplating and perhaps journaling your responses to the above questions—I’d love to hear what emerged for you and where you might start on your 2021 family history journey.