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Creating a clear and meaningful family history

Creating a clear and meaningful family history
In fact, every author goes through essentially the same steps to write a book, whether it’s a novel or a family history. The first step is simply to imagine what you want. Dream big. Think of all the possibilities of what you might put in your book. Then in the second step, you have to narrow down and be practical and make a plan based on what you really have. And that matters for family histories because you can have a lot of research and there’s still more to be done. Work with what you’ve got in order to complete the book.
Then you create the book by writing a rough draft and gathering all the documents and photographs, et cetera, that you might want to include. The fourth step is to edit the book. So now you’re going to take that rough draft and refine and improve it until it’s perfect and just the way you want. Then you design the book, the interior and the cover. The last step, of course, is to publish. And what does that mean? That means that you need a printer, whether it be physical books or print-on-demand. And distribution to get the books out to your readers. And it’s important to realise that you don’t have to do all of these things yourself.
An editor can help you all the way through the process. Even with very rough drafts, we can do a manuscript evaluation and suggest ways in which you can improve the quality of the manuscript. When we content edit, we work with you in terms of book organisation and clarity. And when we copy edit, we work to make sure that everything is correct– punctuation, grammar, spelling, word choice, we want everything to be perfect.
Well, you know, you probably already have it. Because to write a book you just need a word processing programme– you know, Word for Windows, or Pages for Mac. And so the bulk of the author’s work is done right there. When you get to the point of designing a book, that’s where the software gets a little trickier. And publishers all over the world all pretty much use Adobe Creative Suite for book design and publishing. So you have Photoshop for improving those image scans. You use InDesign for page layouts. There’s Bridge. There’s Illustrator we use for artful covers. And Acrobat which is– prepares the PDFs for commercial printing presses. So everybody wants to know, can I do it myself?
And I think to know the answer to that you have to assess your skills. Do you own the software and are you good at using it? If so, go for it. But most people take a team approach. They do what they can, start out with word processing, write the book– that’s the writer’s job, and then get experts to help with the parts that they’re not so good at.
Your audience is generally your family, your friends, and libraries. You’re in a different situation from the person that has to write for strangers. You know your audience, they know you, and they care about your project. So one of the things that often helps is– think about one of your great-grandchildren as you’re writing to keep that audience in focus. Realise that, with a family history, you’re not writing a commercial book. You’re going to self- publish, rather than have a publisher telling you what you need to do. So all you need to do is print and have a plan for distribution of the book. And, in fact, we help a lot of our clients put their books up on Amazon.
So this makes it easy for you in choosing content to say that you’re going to focus on those things that you and your readers find most valuable. Preserving the family genealogy, favourite family stories, documents, and memorabilia.
I would begin by thinking about the scope of the book. And what I mean by that is, how much are you going to try to cover? How many generations do you want to include? Because if you try to do your entire family line, everyone in your family history, what you’ll find is that it is very broad but very shallow. You have, for many people, not a lot. If you narrow it down to, say, four or five generations, what you’ll find is that you concentrate more on story. You have more documents. You have room to put more photographs in. And it’s a richer but narrower scope. And then the most narrow scope is memoir.
If you’re just in the most recent generation or two, and if it’s recent in time, then you’ll find you have so much material in terms of stories and photographs. So, all of those are appropriate. There’s no right answer. It depends on what you want to write about. But the next thing to think about is the style. Because if you do have a lot of documents, if it’s a document based book, then it’s really a reference book. And the way people will read it is as a reference book. They’ll dip in and they’ll look up what they need and they’ll leave.
While if you write it more in a pro story-base, as a narrative, people will read it like a narrative, pretty much from front to back. So you want to engage your audience. What will make them happy? We recommend give them both. After you’ve settled on the scope of your book, take inventory of all of the things that you’ve gathered through your research. Use index cards or online software that will allow you to sort the ideas. Move them around. See how they fit together. When you get a fit that you like, develop an outline. And then, once you have that outline, save yourself a lot of time and trouble, wait until you have it, and then start writing.
New printing technology has really make it possible to use as many photos and documents and other images as you might want to. One thing to keep in mind, if you’re planning to use a lot of illustrations, and we certainly encourage you to do that– if you’re going to do your own scanning, make sure that you get good quality scans. Use at least 600 pixels per inch on all of your scans and you’ll be very safe. The second thing to remember in dealing with illustrations is to keep your prose separate from the images. You’ll see in the diagram on the screen that we recommend one folder to keep your text in and another for your photos or other illustrations.
Don’t think about designing your book as you’re writing. Don’t use Microsoft Word as you go through it. Wait and indicate only where you want to put the images for the design phase of the book. Yeah, I agree. Having a good plan for your images and thinking of them separately from the text results in a much better book. For instance, here’s a method you can use. A planning sheet. A chart. First, number your photos. That way you don’t have to deal with file names. Then, think about the photo in isolation. Should it be small, medium, or large? And that depends on how good it is, how important it is. Do you want people to really really look at it?
Make it big. And then write a caption. And I think people start by labelling, but you can write so much more with captions. The sky’s the limit. You’ve got the space do it. So, by preparing one master sheet for all your images, you’ll have a plan for the entire book. Book design is so important, and you don’t know that when you’re working on text in word processing software. But if you look at this example of an interior picture, what you’ll see is that it’s possible to juxtapose genealogical information, pictures of artefacts, and artfully put it on the page in a way that makes sense for what you’re trying to say.
And if you look at examples of cover designs, again, an artful presentation layers information and uses colour and other elements to communicate the important ideas, whether it be about the place, about the people, or about historical events.
Well, family historians have lots of choices about references and what they’re going to include and where they’re going to put it. One of the things that I think at first, and that most readers of your book will think of first after the table of contents, is an index. We really recommend that you have an index for your family history. A lot of people like to include pedigree charts and family group sheets and lots of family documents. And those often go in an appendix so that the genealogists in the group can go to them when they choose to.
In dealing with your references and your documentary sources, certainly you want to use your style book and be consistent throughout in what you do. But one piece of advice for purposes of book design, end notes are much more readable than footnotes. You have some choices in terms of how you’re going to handle references, in terms of what you will include and what you won’t, based on the style of your book. With a reference book you’ll have more. With a story-based book, you may have fewer. How much space do you have in the book? The more you include, the longer it will be. And that can be more costly.
The ultimate thing to do is to come back to your audience, and decide what your audience is really going to be looking for in the book. And those are the kinds of references that you want to include.
You know, I’d like to just conclude. We’ve given this very short survey of producing a family history to encourage people and, I just hope, to inspire them. Because, you know, research is infinite and infinitely entertaining. You’ll be doing it for the rest of your life. So why take time out to do a family history? And I think that the reason it’s so important to do is that you’re not only just giving them your research. You can give someone a link to your database. That’s not a big deal.
But what a family history book does, is it allows you to give all the things you know that aren’t on paper anywhere, including your interpretation of these events and all that you have learned. So you’re passing down your wisdom, as well as your knowledge. And that’s a very powerful legacy that will last for generations.

This step is an interview with Nancy and Biff Barnes, from Stories To Tell, a publishing company that specialises in family histories. They help authors with writing, editing, book design and the technical support needed to publish family history books.

Nancy Barnes, who founded the publishing company, was a writing teacher and is the author of Stories to tell: an easy guide to self-publishing family history books and memoirs.

Biff Barnes, the managing editor at Stories To Tell, was a Fellow in American History at Stanford University and offers his academic skills to authors who are documenting history.

In this interview, Nancy and Biff explain the various steps needed when writing a family history, the technology required, look at why considering your audience is important, how to get organised and how you should manage illustrations.

The ‘See Also’ links below give further reading on this topic.

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Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

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