How to write a Family History
Written by Luke Sprague, October 13, 2017
On April 10, 2017, I went to press with my first book, the Schultheis Family Odyssey: From Bavaria to the Pacific Northwest. Two years earlier, I met Harold and Michael Schultheis at the Colton, Washington, post office. I had little idea the journey that was in store for everyone.
As we rode in my pickup truck back to his home, Harold retold an incredible tale of hardship endured as his family crossed the northern plains in 1867. I have to be honest. I had my doubts when my friend Ed Garretson mentioned that he had a family that needed someone to write their family history.
But, my doubts evaporated in the light of Harold’s story that stretched across centuries and at least two continents. As I drove home that evening, I realized Harold Schultheis and his family had a story to tell, and I was going to retell it for them.
Writing a book is a little like what I imagine it is like to give birth to a child. It is a cathartic experience that leaves neither the writer nor the reader in the same condition.
Creating a book for me was an immersive experience that required me to dive straight into the narrative and stand beside the characters. And honestly, I think if one is going to write a contextual narrative such as this, the writer must completely own the fabric of the world they’ve created.
The book I wrote is a historical-contextual narrative where the family moves through the world that surrounds them, so it is not exactly a traditional family history. I literally take the reader from rural Germany in the eighteenth century to the rural state of Washington in the twentieth century without missing a step.
There are no quick solutions, no magic solutions to drafting a solid historical narrative, just simple hard work. Certainly, there are software programs and templates that can create family histories of respectable quality, but they are not the same as a continuous-historical narrative.
The successful launch of the Odyssey required a strong mix of the following elements. First, the person who commissions the book has to be willing to support it financially. Without financial support, the book will simply not happen. In my case, the Schultheis family supported the publication of the book.
If, if you are going to write a book that has a limited audience outside a specific group, do not plan on your residuals paying your bills at one to two dollars profit for each book purchased—it does not pencil out. In fact, for all intents and purposes, unless you wrote a national bestseller like Stephen King, it would be best simply to ignore the residuals as a form of compensation.
Narrative histories take time to write, plan on two to three years of full-time work. Therefore, your compensation should recognize the fact that you will be working for the people that commissioned the book for the next two-plus years. It is sheer poppycock to believe that you will write this book in your spare time, evenings, and weekends. You may complete the book, but it will be ten years too late for the reader.
While we are talking about finances, budget amounts for photographic rights, research expenses, and editors, these would be in addition to your base salary. Financial support is a must.
On the less tangible, but just as important side, you will need more than one person, in my case, it was an entire extended family to manage, oversee, and make decisions about the book project. Having just one contact make all the decisions can be an extremely risky proposition and put the entire project at risk.
Therefore, on my next book, I’d be looking for more than one person to act as a backplane for managing the project. Keep in mind that relationship will carry you through the difficult times and it is critical that those relationships with those in that core group are robust and healthy.
You will need friends and family who can support you, as well as researchers, editors, writers, photographers, and publishers. It takes a team to complete a book, not just an individual.
Scope of work and contract
Just as important as these first two elements is the requirement that you and your client sit down and clearly define the scope of work for the book. It must be clear prior to starting exactly what your goals are and what the content of the book will entail. Without clear boundaries, the project can quickly change form and get out of hand.
Along these same lines, the scope of work, along with responsibilities, copyright, resale rights, and restrictions the book contract must be detailed. It is a mistake not to structure the book and not have clear expectations with the client in terms of what the content will cover. Furthermore, if the client wants to add more content or change the format of the book, then those processes should be laid out in the contract. Do not agree to a contract without these structures clearly defined and adequately remunerated in the contract.
Once you’ve handled the administrative details, that include the scope of work, structure, formatting, expected length, front matter, back matter, and other details, you can then move into actually beginning the work on the book.
Remember, this article is about writing a contextual or family history, therefore, it is likely this advice may not apply to someone writing a sci-fi novel. First and foremost, you must be organized. I cannot stress the importance of organization when writing a book. Honestly, I thought I had this notched before I started the book, but I learned rather quickly I had to take my game up an entire level.
There is software designed specifically for structuring books like Scrivener and you may choose to use that. However, before you go out and spend a substantial sum of money on something that may or may not work for you, I’d look around and see what you have on hand and works for you.
Remember, the point here is that you produce a book, not that you become an expert in a particular piece of software. Sometimes people become enamored with the technical solution used to write a book instead of the actual book itself. You need to be focused on your end result, not the shiny toys at the beginning. In the end, you are going to (and will) come up with a system that works for you.
There is no perfect formula for the best software applications; you simply have to decide what works for you. It is very helpful if you already have a system down prior to starting the book, as I did. For me, my master’s in history trained me on how to write a history book.
The software suite that you use will be a balance of cost, flexibility, and ease of use that best fit your needs. This system of software has to support the workflow that you need to produce the book. In my case, I used a combination of Microsoft Office and proprietary documentation software. But, your solution may look totally different.
Remember, we are talking about months and years in terms of work, so you need to plan appropriately with the software.
Chapters and themes
The next step is to break the book into its chapters and start research on one of them. Notice, I did not say start research on two or three. Use the chronology that you’ve built for your contract as a framework upon that to put your research work for each chapter. You need to be able to focus on a chapter and be able to adequately flesh out that chapter out prior to moving on.
It is okay to be accumulating information on other chapters in the background, but you really need to be able to build up the research for one chapter prior to moving on.
The chapter breaks may not be readily apparent, even in your initial contract, but I’d encourage you to write them in as best you can initially. The chapter divisions may and will likely shift based upon what you find in your research.
You should see themes appear in each chapter as you conduct the research. Identify those themes as such. These themes may thread through the chapter and sometimes throughout the entire book. You have to know what those themes are and use them as a means to weave your narrative. Sometimes, you will research a chapter out of chronological order, and that is fine, as long as you understand and are aware of the implications when you stitch the narrative back together.
Remember, each chapter should have its own theme, it may be chronological, it may not be, but if you are creating a historical narrative, you will want each chapter to standalone while tying into the chapter before and after.
Chronology and threads
Now, for this book, I created a chronological narrative that is pretty straightforward in terms of plot line. This happened, and then this happened, so on, and so forth.
You will want to find the thread that ties these individual chapters, each with their own theme, together as one cohesive book. The reader has to be able to find that thematic thread from the front to the back of the book. Without this thread, the reader becomes lost and may get off track. With that said, identify the theme or thread for each item you put in your chronology.
You may also decide to use a combination of threads throughout the book that acts as a kind of spine for the story to attach. My book though a simple chronology did go through plot ups and downs and even choke points.
In this case, the plot was life as experienced by this family during its emigration from Bavaria to the Pacific Northwest over a century and a half. The patrilineal line of the family formed the spine of the book while the cultural construct of German-Catholic fellowship, Gemeinschaft, constituted the main theme.
You may find your story has a completely different spine and themes flowing through it. If you do not know what your theme is, do not fret, as you will likely find it in the process of your research. In the same vein, do not be surprised if you revise or change your theme as you work on the book.
A book such as chronological narrative or family history may simply be a retelling of events and as such not always appear to have a specific theme. Your narrative may not be linear, nor have a singular thread, and this is fine; just remember to bring the reader along with you.
For a chronological narrative, you are not necessarily making an argument or thesis as you would in a college term paper, where one says this is my argument and here are my facts to support it and so on. Instead, you are chronicling the chain of events in an engaging manner.
A good technique is to put details and quotes into your chronology.
Understanding historical context
When actually writing the history, you need to think about context, context, and context (no that is not a typo). So, in order to build context, you actually have to understand, grasp, and be able to speak cogently about the timeframes you are talking about.
A good place to start for an area that you have no idea about in the United States is to start with the city, county, or parish history. Depending on the person or family, you will see that at a certain level of resolution individuals begin to step out from the mists of history.
Read that county history and take notes on those people who may have been involved in the topic or person you are writing about. The county history will also point to topics you have not thought about that likely impacted your family member or person you are writing about. Be forewarned, county histories can be notoriously promotional and one-sided.
The idea here is to get you to think about context and what other historians wrote about the same place and timeframe. What does historian John Smith say? What does his peer say fifty years later about the same place and time? Do you agree or not and why?
The more aspects you can get in a historical context the better. It is kind of like triangulating a point in space, the more angles you have the better your chances to recreate what you think you are seeing.
The key is to have just enough sources to reach that point of accuracy without wasting too much time over researching angles that do not add substantially in any way to the historical context you are trying to paint.
Almost simultaneously with learning the context of the county, town, or state, you’ve got to get your primary source requests started.
Focus on the one chapter where you have reliable primary sources and complete the note taking for that chapter. Finish your research for each chapter prior to moving on to another chapter.
In terms of the time spent on the construction of the book, I’d roughly plan on sixty percent research, thirty percent analysis and synthesis of ideas, and ten percent on writing, formatting, and publication.
Note that writing is near the very end of the process. Though how you write the book literally determines if people will read your book and should not be lacking in effort. Often, historians underestimate the importance of sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation, much to their detriment.
Solid research, analysis, and synthesis form the foundation that underlies a well-written historical narrative.
File structure and notes
Research provides the foundation for any good history. It is critical to the success of your book that your note taking is detailed and organized. Without organized notes, you just have a pile of junk.
It is essential to build a file folder structure that works for you and adjust it as you see fit during the process. There is also software for organizing your notes, like Evernote, Scrivener, and others, but don’t fall in love with the software, instead focus on your sources and their content.
I used a simple home-brew solution that worked for me and has for years, no need to change something that already works. Again, what gets you to press with your best foot forward is what should interest you, not the shiny software in the box that nobody cares about.
Have a note-taking system that works for you.
I would suggest writing your full bibliographical, footnote/endnote, and abridged citations prior to delving into the source, that way no matter what you have the citation you need when you put the book together. Take the time to write correct citations, Chicago Manual of Style in combination with Mills, Evidence Explained should do nicely.
Writing citations can be a rewarding experience where you learn where the person was when they published the book, what year it was, and who they were. Though most don’t care about citations, they reveal a lot about the author and/or source—something you should be interested in.
Do your long pulls early in the research process, sometimes it takes months and months to get materials. Contrary to popular belief, not everything is found online and much of it is not.
You should plan on spending money for research pulls, research trips, hiring researchers, and rights to reprint photographs. Again, use your file structure to organize your notes. You might use a chapter for one folder that contains various subfolders within that hold your notes.
You should have your chronology, map, and database open while taking notes so you can make additions as you go. Sometimes, I find it easier to complete the notes on a particular source, and then go back, and update my chronology, map, and database.
Color-code your notes. Think about what is important and what is not. Bear in mind, your purpose in taking notes is not to read the book but instead to extract what you need while learning the relevant context. You are not there to be sentimental, regardless of how interesting the source is.
During your research, personalities emerge and themes develop, take note of these, and see how they tie into nearby elements. If you are doing a family history or biographical sketch, you will want to do an early and complete pull on all the available vital records for those key people.
A word on sources
Also, clearly understand the value of each source. Are you listening to a historian talking about what someone told him second hand? Or an account written by someone who was there within a reasonable amount of time after the event?
Primary, secondary, and tertiary sources, I am not so concerned about what we call them, as you learn the differing research values of each one.
Managing the project
It is a balancing act determining how much of a character sketch is possible versus the available time and budget and this will be the case throughout the book. There is no unlimited time and no unlimited budget for the work.
The reality is you have X amount of time and X amount of budget to produce X amount of content, and you cannot be sentimental about the issue. Scale your research budget to the actual budget of the book and make sure you are not paying for unnecessary research requests.
Also, stay away from research rabbit holes that take you nowhere, as tempting as it may be.
When writing a book, you are literally traveling from point A to point B; it is not a completely open-ended process contrary to popular belief.
You should know when you’ve completed the research for a particular chapter.
In the example I have been talking about, a simple chronological narrative. Your chronology should have enough context and events surrounding your primary characters to move them through the plot line.
I cannot tell you anything more than you will develop a sense of how complete a chapter is by looking at what you’ve filled in on your chronology. Remember, the chronology itself is just a framework upon that to add the fleshed out elements later.
Again, I am advocating a chapter at a time, nice bite-size chunks that appear to have clear boundaries (even though they don’t actually). Once you’ve completed a chapter, you want to build out in either direction, forward or backward in time as necessary until you’ve completed all the research for your book and framed out your chronology.
Whereas in a fictional book, a plot line would take the place of the chronology and characters would replace real people. Some people trip over this seam between fiction and non-fiction, though I think the distinction one of semantics.
You will need time to clean up your chronology, take the time and do it.
You want to use active verbs with your characters.
For example, “Susy jumped off the building,” not passive “Susy would have jumped off the building.” Use passive tense sparingly and only for emphasis and specific cases.
Keep your sentence structure simple, noun, verb, object; making your sentence overly complex loses your reader. Do not use big words, big academic words do not convey meaning to even educated-readers. They only point to the author trying to impress the reader with their intelligence.
Outlining each chapter
After you’ve completed cleaning up your chronology, you are going to do an outline for each chapter. You may not think you need to do an outline, but you do.
Take your chronology in hand and start laying out your paragraph structure. This will get you thinking about what you are going to put where within each chapter. And it may be an iterative process where you go back and forth between your chronology and outline.
You may decide to structure by plot, topic, chronology, a combination of both, or some other theme as you use your chronology along with your notes to begin to flesh out the narrative.
You will weave those themes you identified earlier with details in the chronology to create the outline. The outline will force you to think about why you are putting a particular element in a specific spot.
This will change and change again, and that is okay, that is part of the process. Not only will this help you identify gaps in your narrative, it makes one think about the transition between each chapter.
The chapters should lead the reader from one to the next with little confusion, and simultaneously be clear on why they are separate chapters. Eventually, you will get to a point where things should snap together for the most part.
Go back and revise the outline and chronology as necessary, you will get a sense of when you are done. The outlining process may also trigger deeper thoughts about synthesis and ideas that you did not see prior to them coming together in the outline. So, be prepared to go back to the research process as necessary.
Writing the rough draft
At this point, you are ready to begin writing your rough draft.
Take your completed chapter outline, chronology, and related notes in hand and start writing. Weave the themes you identified in the chronology within the structure you designed in the outline.
In your own words, use your notes to fill out the picture as necessary to provide flavor and texture to the sentences. Finish one chapter at a time and set it aside; this should help not being overwhelmed.
Right about now, you should be thinking about where you are going to insert those photographs you’ve been accumulating for months. Pull your photographs and their rights early in the process.
The photographs should be relevant to the surrounding text or nearby page.
I would recommend spending time on each photograph, getting the rights, doing the edits, writing the captions and footnotes, prior to trying to insert them into the chapter. In other words, take each photograph, complete the work on it, and then set it aside for later inclusion in the book. Do not do this work as you are writing the text.
Later, insert the photograph into the text where it is appropriate, and do not worry it may move around a little.
At this point, you will want to do any structural revisions. What I mean by this is does your rough draft content fit together in a way that makes sense?
If it does not, then move sections and paragraphs around as necessary to make it work. You should have most of these content issues ironed out at the outline stage.
Again, I would suggest taking one chapter at a time, taking on just a bite-size chunk.
Once it is clear that your content structure is sound, it is time to move on to other issues.
Start proofreading your text for clean sentence structure and verb tense issues. Clean up those sentences that even you cannot understand. Sometimes this requires splitting an overly complex sentence into two.
Remember in the back of your head, your voice in each sentence determines how the reader thinks about the themes in the book. So be careful to make sure your voice as the author matches the intended theme of the book.
Edit for spelling and grammatical errors; this may take multiple passes.
Now, some people at this point would have already employed an editor. But, the choice as to when to bring in feedback from others is up to you.
You may want your editor to comment on your content structure, and there is truly no clear standard regarding this, you have to use your judgment. If the editor determines if you are published then you want to implement their changes as well as you can.
However, you may or may not choose to use your editor’s feedback. The same applies to any readers or proofreaders, some of what they say may be applicable and some may not, you have to use your judgment.
At some point, after going through multiple revisions and iterations of your text you will know that it is time to wrap up with the body text and move onto the front and back matter.
Okay, so up until this point we’ve talked about just the body text of the book, but in order to have a complete book, you will need front and back matter.
So, to that 100 percent of the work that you’ve done on your book, plan to add another 10 to 15 percent more work. The front and back matter is crucial to the success of your book.
You will want to spend time designing a front and back cover or hiring someone else to do it for you. If your book is a hardcover, you will need to write your front and back flaps. Take the time to do these well, as some readers never get beyond them.
In terms of front matter, you will want a title page, dedication, table of contents, foreword, acknowledgments, and an introduction or prologue. You may want someone else to write your foreword and the dedication, be sure to give them plenty of time to write.
One of the more tricky elements for the author is writing an introduction to talk about a book you just completed. The acknowledgments are similarly awkward because you have to think about your experience as the author and write about it. So, give yourself time with both.
In terms of back matter for a family history, you will likely have additional appendices you’d like to add, endnotes, a bibliography, and of course, an index.
With regards to the appendices, be careful to ensure that this does not become a dumping ground for materials you could not fit into your text. For notes, the choice is truly yours, Chicago Manual of Style of course, but I chose endnotes after initially writing with footnotes. Endnotes lend themselves to a smoother read for a public audience.
A bibliography is self-explanatory; group your sources as is helpful to the reader and in alphabetical order of course. If you are going to create an index, set aside an additional 10 percent more work to index your book.
In the End
The specifics regarding paper size, book layout, text size, and line spacing, entail enough to need their own article. These choices, fonts, font size, line spacing, usually fall to a commercial publisher, but in today’s self-publishing environment you can create just about anything you like.
While remembering your audience, you want to write a book with your voice that reflects your book design in print. In short, you are giving birth to a special object (a book), not just text content.
Luke Sprague is a family historian at HistoryMint and recently went to press with his 310-page hardcover the Schultheis Odyssey: From Bavaria to the Pacific Northwest. Click here to find out more about what services he offers.