Writing Family History

June 20, 2013

Yesterday, eight members of the writing genealogy special interest group of the Quebec Family History Society (http://www.qfhs.ca/) met for a picnic lunch. The activity was a celebration after eight monthly get-togethers in which we critiqued 500-word ancestor profiles from each of us.

The experience has been a great chance to chat regularly with people who really care about history, researching and storytelling. It also gave us all eight solid deadlines for stories that helped carry our genealogy research forward.

Here are the top ten things I’ve learned during our meetings over the last eight months:

1)    A good lede means everything. Everyone really enjoyed stories that began with an exciting moment in either the ancestor’s life or in the research journey of the writer.

2)    Dialogue really works. Stories about the past can be difficult to read if they’re simply a list of dates and documentary evidence. The best ones contain dialogue from letters, diaries, court cases or wherever dialogue can be found.

3)    Finding information about female ancestors is much harder than retracing the steps of male ancestors, but when you make an effort, everyone appreciates the results.

4)    Writing short narratives about ancestors opens up research gaps that otherwise might not be obvious.

5)    Genealogy software really helps clarify research. I use the Genealogical Research and Analysis Management Programming System, which can be found at http://gramps-project.org/.

6)    The best critics are writers waiting for reviews of their own work or those who have already been critiqued by the group. As one of my friends would say, “you have to have skin in the game.”

7)    Grammar really matters. Stories with few errors are easier and faster to read.

8)    Stories can be subjective, but weaknesses are universally recognized. Everyone in the group had great comments that helped all of us improve our writing.

9)    Strengths range from point of view, detail, voice, research and clarity, but all of them are a joy to comment on. It was great fun to both give and receive compliments.

10) Focussed group discussions about historical people really open up ideas for solutions to modern problems. I couldn’t believe how much insight I got about my own life by discussing the lives of people from previous generations.

Thanks to everyone in our writing group. It was a joy to work with you. Can’t wait until our meetings begin again in September.

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Tracey Arial

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Tracey Arial

Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.

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