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Writing Ancestor Stories: How to Bring Your Family's Ancestry to Life

I'm carrying on my mother's research into our family history. I've self-published some family memoirs & learned a lot about different eras.

Writing Ancestor Stories: How to Bring Your Family's Ancestry to Life

Writing Ancestor Stories: How to Bring Your Family's Ancestry to Life

Writing Down the Lives of Your Ancestors

Genealogists seek out the names, dates, and locations of their ancestors, but there is much more to learn and to share. Writing about a person or a family is an important step forward for the family historian.

Learn why this is important and how to create a narrative of an ancestor. Here, you will get tips for turning the names and dates into compelling stories that you can share with your family.

Make sure your research lives on beyond just you and how to keep the memory of your ancestors alive.

Why Are Ancestor Stories Important?

Here are the reasons for turning those dates and names into a written form:

  • It forces you to review every source and examine the details.
  • It gets you to follow leads looking for solutions to any unanswered questions.
  • It assembles all the information on a person or a family into one place.
  • It makes it possible to distribute the information to more people.
  • It puts the information into an appealing format to stir up interest in the family history.
  • Once distributed, it can bring more information to you from those who read it.
writing-ancestor-stories

Not a Writer?

Don't tell yourself that you don't have writing ability and can't do this. Here are some tips for those hesitant to start writing.

  • Think of it as writing a letter to someone. Just start telling them what you know.
  • Don't worry about grammar and spelling. That can all be fancied up later. Just start writing.
  • Try using a conversational tone as though you are telling the story to someone.
  • After writing the ancestor's story, read aloud what you've written. You will spot some areas where you need to fill in a gap or rearrange the order for clarity. Make sure it is clear who is who.

Add Visuals to Your Story

Everyone loves pictures, so add any that you have of your ancestor, their home, and their children. As you go further back, the pictures run out in the mid-1800s. Here are options to supplement your narrative with visuals:

  • Clip a screenshot of the census showing the family. I use Awesome Screenshot for doing this. It lets me add arrows and captions.
  • Clip a screenshot of the family tree from Ancestry.
  • Show documents like a draft registration or a marriage certificate.
  • Include a historic map of the town or region where they lived.
  • Use free vintage graphics from sites like Pixabay.
  • Clip a screenshot of your ancestor's signature from a document you find on Ancestry.
This graphic has space to add a caption using something like Meme Maker or just use it without words to illustrate a story about a child or a teacher.

This graphic has space to add a caption using something like Meme Maker or just use it without words to illustrate a story about a child or a teacher.

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Use Details to Enhance Your Story

To breathe life into your description of your ancestor, search for details to fill it out. Here are examples:

  • You'll find a brief description on a draft registration card (eye color, height, build, any scars or handicaps, where they work).
  • Look for historical background for the era they lived in. Were there wars, the westward movement, the Great Depression, etc. that might have affected them?
  • Describe the town or the region to provide a setting for their lives.
  • Look for achievements, difficulties, losses, and hardships so you can write more fully about those.
  • Look in old newspapers online for events, advertisements, social activities, etc. to see if any would enhance the story.

Example of Setting the scene

There were 2,241 residents in 1894 (right after the land rush). For the next four years, the population kept dropping due to drought, harsh winters, and conflicts with the cattlemen.

The homesteader had to pay for the land in installments plus a filing fee of $15. Then he had to live on that quarter section of land for 5 years, grow crops, and make certain improvements to gain title to the land.

The Vining family bought their land from one of the homesteaders who gave up and left.

— An example of setting the scene (from my blog - Then and Now on wordpress.com)

Find Details on a Draft Registration to Enhance Your Story

Example of the information on the second page of a military draft registration.

Example of the information on the second page of a military draft registration.

Polish Your Family Story

Read over your story and add more vivid words in a few places. Instead of "they traveled west in a wagon," you could put "the trek west by wagon took six months of their lives." Look for action words and intense descriptors.

Avoid jumping to conclusions. If you are unsure of something, say "it was likely that" or "I'm guessing they. . . ". That lets you share the usual or likely happening, without stating it as a fact. For example, in one of my stories, I put "He remarried quite soon after his wife's death. Often at that time, it was urgent to have the children cared for." I don't really know his reasons for marrying right away so I put in a historical bit of social information but didn't state it as definite fact.

If you feel insecure in your spelling or grammar, I suggest using something like the free Grammarly browser extension. You can also get a friend to read your story, ask questions, and point out gaps.

Writing the Non-Boring Family History Story (Video)

Where to Put What You Write

After the narrative is written, you'll want to get it out where your family or other descendants can read it. The whole point of genealogy is finding and sharing information so we put together the puzzle pieces of the past.

Various Options for Distributing Your Family Stories

  • As you finish each story or profile, you can mail it in letters or email to your extended family.
  • Place it on genealogy sites like Ancestry, Family Search, My Heritage, etc. Put it on the one you use the most or on several.
  • Assemble the ancestor stories into a self-published book. This is fairly easy these days with print-on-demand companies like Blurb or Shutterfly. That makes them accessible for family members to buy or for you to have printed and distributed to the family.
  • You can also have a number of booklets printed up from your computer file and bound at a place like Staples.
  • Create a blog and put the stories there over a period of time. Google will bring readers looking for the names in your stories. Sometimes those readers have more family information and even photos to share with you.
  • Put the stories into loose-leaf binders.

Shutterfly Books I've Put My Genealogy In

A segment of my grandfather's life compiled into a book using Shutterfly.

A segment of my grandfather's life compiled into a book using Shutterfly.

Example of an ancestor story collected into a book using Shutterfly.

Example of an ancestor story collected into a book using Shutterfly.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Virginia Allain

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