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29 March 2016

Should I write that?

Family History Writing Tips


If you are blessed with an avalanche of information for a particular ancestor, do you include every last detail in their life story complication?

When I worked on my mother's scrapbook, I had a pile of resources to work with sheets of her journal, a life history that she started but never finished, a personal history form, labeled photos, and other sources of information. At that time, she was also still living. So, I could keep building my source material.

Did you think a genealogist would ever have too much information to use?


heritage scrapbook cover page
Cover of Mom's "This Is Your Life" heritage scrapbook
As I was trying to mesh these sources into one story to be used in a family history book and a condensed story for her scrapbook, I kept asking this question: Should I include that?

  • Should I include all the minutia about her early years? Do I include when she first sat up, first rolled over, and first walked as a baby? Her lifespan was 60 years. Does this information really matter? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
  • During the mom's youth, she had playmates. Do I mention every friend she ever played with? Do I just list them briefly and summarize what games they played? Do I include a few brief examples of the mom and a specific game with a particular friend?
  • Humans go through a natural changing process during the teenage years. Should I include when the mom experienced those changes and her reactions?
  • Now, my mother had several boyfriends and crushes. Some folks only have one love of their life. With the individuals who have many love interests in their life, do I include all of these details? Or do I highlight one or two and sum up that mom "had many crushes and boyfriends"?
  • Mom was a baton twirler. She has a stack of photos of her participation in that activity Should I include all of mom's band trips, twirling outfits, and awards in her family story? What if your ancestor was an athlete or had other massive documentation producing activities? How do you summarize all the events or do you create a separate book just about that part of their life?

How do you handle too much information:

Make Charts: 

Perhaps some things can be put into a table (baby milestones) and included on a page with other details.

Pair Charts with Anecdotes:

In the case of baby milestones, if there is a story associated with an event, that should be included. For instance, my grandmother commented that although my mother 'officially' started talking when she was 2, Grannie felt Momma was born with the gift of gab. This quip suggests that mom was quite the talker.

I later learned that my mother got into trouble at school, work, church, etc. for talking too much. These infractions coincide well with my grandmother's belief that her daughter was born talking. That makes a great piece for a narrative. It's richer than, "started talking at 2."

Edit to the important details

What about the ancestor with the numerous associations with the opposite sex (aka boy crazy or girl crazy)? My guess is that when my kids read about their grandma their interest is not really in who and how many people she dated or had crushes on before marrying their grandpa. I could edit the 'official' history to the first boyfriend and possibly another one who impacted mom's future dating experiences. I'll leave the finer details in her journal.

Should you include that?

Learning about my mother was a great experience and was the stepping stone to writing the stories of additional ancestors like my fathermy Grannie, and my Grandpa. I'm now working on the distant ancestors such as my 3rd great-grandfather Joseph Geiszler.

Time and space don't allow for the inclusion of everything that has been documented about or by an individual in question. Decisions have to be made by a family historian. In making these decisions, I don't want to alter the history of the individual. At the same time, I don't wish to create a boring story that no one wants to read.

It's a tough balancing act. When done correctly, a compelling book about an ancestor does result.


Additional Reading:
Stop Research and Start Writing
I Don't Have Great Stories
Examples of Family History Narratives

8 comments:

  1. Having TOO much information might be a nice problem for a change. But seriously, I like your suggestions on how to isolate a few key details and how to pair a couple points to make a full story. Those are good ideas, period, even if you don't have too much information.

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    1. For a few ancestors I do have a lot of information because my mother was a very good letter writer. For others, I have nothing. Glad you liked my ideas regardless of the amount of content you have.

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  2. Like Wendy, I can't imagine having too much information, but can see how that could create a challenge. Whatever you decide to include, wading through it certainly is time consuming. For those wanting more than a written story provides, it is nice there is a diary with more detail.

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    1. Welcome Michele to my blog. Thanks for stopping by and for commenting.

      I like your idea that a diary had more detail for those who really are intrigued. Thanks for that contribution.

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  3. Those of us who have lived in the latter half of the 20th century and the opening decades of the 21st are probably the most well-documented people in history! I have two binders full of information on my husband and myself, and that is only part of what I have. Another aspect is that all our photos for the past decade or so are digital; we have no prints of most of them. If any descendants of mine will be interested in continuing the genealogy -- and I'm not sure they are or will be -- they are going to have an even more daunting challenge in selecting which photographs to use! Your tips on editing and being selective are excellent.

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    1. Thank you Karen for your wonderful comments. I hadn't thought about how much we'll need to be selective (or our descendants will) with having way too much information and documentation! Thanks for adding to the conversation.

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  4. Great suggestions, Devon. I often think that when to much information is given, the essence of the story is lost. I'm going to pass your blog on to a friend, who is just starting to write, it will help her. Thanks. Lilian.

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