Your Family’s History is Valuable; Record It!

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The holidays can bring nostalgic feelings as we enjoy days spent with family and friends. But it can be the perfect opportunity to begin the process of creating a salute to your clan’s legacy by composing a family history book.

Virginia Brackett, PhD, recently published In the Company of Patriots, Sunbury Press, a study of patriotism and loss through a historical search for her father, Captain Edmund C. Roberts, who died when she was eight months old. As a WWII prisoner of war, later killed in the Korean Conflict, she discovered he inspired loyalty and devotion in those who helped her uncover the truth of family, love, life, war and death.

“If we collect information about our family members while they’re still alive, or at least while others who knew them are still alive to share information with us, we also collect personal stories,” revealed Virginia. “Those stories are so valuable to a family’s sense of who they are and distinguish us all from others, and it’s that gaining of self-identity that makes such a project so worthwhile.”
You don’t need a PhD to write a family history, but you must devise a strategy and determine the objective of your book. Do you want it to be in chronological order or would you consider writing short stories about your subjects? Contemplate the audience: family or the mass market. A thousand words or thousands of words? Think through the timeframe you want to cover. Does it begin when your parents met or when your ancestors arrived? Create an outline of what you’re writing, consider who you want to feature and build your project timeline.

“I used the internet to track down people my father served with for any information they could offer. I was amazed how easily I could find survivors to write and speak with, even from WWII,” commented Virginia. “I had to work harder to find the Korean Conflict veterans, as they have never been as willing to discuss their experiences, but in the end, I located men with amazing details to share.”

You’ll save considerable time by using a word processing program such as Word. It’s easy to change font, size, cut, move and paste paragraphs. Begin with Times New Roman or Arial in 12-point font because they’re easy to read and edit. If something comes to mind while you’re standing in the grocery line, type it in an email and send it to yourself. Take photos of things that spark ideas. Create folders for each chapter or each character to organize documents, photos and other scanned items.

While you’re talking with your interviewees, ask about paper documents they might share. Marriage licenses, deeds, military paperwork, diaries and family trees can be treasure troves of information. Photos are excellent sources of details, and you might think about adding them into your book. Don’t forget cutlines, or descriptions of the photos, for each one you publish. You might also burn thumb drives of all photos and give as gifts.

As you bring together this material, ensure you budget time to write. Perhaps it’s 30 minutes every morning or evening, but the important thing is to commit to a timeline. Set a timer or reminder on your phone. Consider having a spot set aside just for this project.

“On days when ideas just won’t come, use that time to re-read what you’ve already written and eliminate passages that don’t seem right but don’t obsess about correcting grammar and mechanical errors as you write,” revealed Virginia. “Get a draft on the page and edit and revise later. Be careful to save each draft; you may want to retrieve an idea or passage you edited out for use in another piece or you may decide you want to add it back to your story or article.”

Once you’re finished writing, it’s time for proofreading. Word’s Narrator feature reads your copy aloud, to help you hear problems with the way a sentence is written. Download the free app Grammarly for a review of your spelling and grammar. Once you’re sure the writing is solid, ask at least one friend or family member to edit it for you. Track Changes in Word is an excellent way to stay on top of suggested revisions.

If you’re ready for the presses, use a larger font to fill up a page or a smaller one to cut down on the number of pages. Lots of pictures? Think about creating a photo book with an online source. Some libraries offer printing services, although you’ll need to blend your electronic writing and photos with the required format. If you have enough copy for a printed book, consider self-publishing.

Then share and bask in the oohs and ahs your hard work will bring. Make sure you add your name as the author. You deserve to have your work go down in history. ■