Becoming Your Family Storyteller: Tips and Tricks

Attributed to Della M. Cummings Wright, my favorite description of a genealogist is this: “We are the storytellers of the tribe.” The responsibility to convert our genealogical research into a format to share with others covers a wide range of options.

Formats can be as simple as printing out a family tree with vital statistics from an on-line research company or software program or as complex as writing a narrative book printed by a publishing company. Genealogy magazines, blogs, websites, organizations, societies, and other media sources frequently report on or detail these options, especially the more complex ones.

My experience as an amateur genealogist and the author of nine family histories involves capturing my genealogy research in a form I call “chronicling.”

Chronicling Your Research

Chronicling falls into two categories: using on-line/software tools and using a word processor to craft a story before choosing a publication method. These are not mutually exclusive options. In fact, I’ve used both.

Critical to choosing either approach are the following factors:

  • Identifying your audience
  • Figuring out your timing
  • Determining your budget
  • Evaluating your own technology and technical skills

Software to Manage the Activity

Not everyone is comfortable writing stories or has the skills to draft a document using a word processor. But, on-line companies and software programs provide many tools that facilitate the organization of data in ways that help create a decent narrative. A software program offers more tools to facilitate chronicling than the on-line research companies, although I have noticed recently that these companies are offering options that rival the software program options. While I subscribe to or have accounts with several on-line research companies (Ancestry, MyHeritage, FindMyPast, and FamilySearch), I use only one software program to manage my research–Family Tree Maker, which was the premier software program when I got serious about genealogy about 13 years ago. There are other popular software programs, such as Family Tree Builder, Legacy 9, RootsMagic, and Family Historian.

Viewing Your Family Tree

Against this backdrop, the on-line research companies allow the genealogist to print out a family tree or a pedigree chart with pertinent dates, events, and places in various formats, such as horizontal, vertical, hourglass, or fan.

Because a tree or chart includes numerous entries, producing one entails laboriously taping the printed pages together. When I feel comfortable about a tree or chart, I save it on a flash drive and take it to my neighborhood print shop to produce on appropriately-sized paper. For example, I created a colorful fan chart from FamilySearch, where I maintain a shadow, or private, tree. The chart looked great, cost me only $2.00, and saved me a lot of time. I also have used the same service’s plotter to print out family trees for reunions, including one that was three feet high and 46 feet wide.

Fan chart from FamilySearch

Other Publication Options

The on-line research companies have more elaborate publication options, but these options are usually just a report, albeit in a chronological and somewhat narrative format, of the vital statistics that you have saved to a tree on that site.

Recently, I discovered that MyHeritage, where I also maintain a shadow tree of ancestors and collateral relatives, has a book option that organizes data in a variety of ways: paternal ancestry, maternal ancestry, descendants, direct relations, family trees, and indices of places, dates, and individuals. I should mention here that I maintain as non-public the primary tree of my family (ancestors, collateral relatives, and descendants) and the trees of others whose stories I have helped develop on Ancestry, which syncs with my software program.

My software program, as do the other available programs, also enables me to produce myriad charts and reports. In addition, it has a book option and a smart story option that provides a word-processing setup, which could be helpful if someone does not have access to one.

Besides being more user friendly, the major difference for me from the on-line research company publication options is that the software program allows customization of the fields in which I first enter the data. It lets me select from a list of individual and shared facts but also lets me create my own. 

I can ultimately organize the data for retelling however I choose. It also has a “note” feature where I can compose narratives about an individual, which eventually can be combined with a recitation of vital statistics. I used this approach to develop a friend’s family story, and it worked well as it created a collection of vignettes of his ancestors while including a chronology and information about collateral relatives and descendants.

My Heritage makes the publishing process easy. This image shows the three-steps to finding the publishing area.

Finding Your Publication Approach

The second category of chronicling is using a word processor to craft a story and then choosing a publication method. This is my preferred approach, but I must preface it with a lesson I learned many years ago.

Do not try doing it all.

In 2011, I reached a point in my research when I was ready to write. I planned to weave together all four branches of my family to create a magnum opus of my parents’ heritage. What was I thinking?! That was not practical and had me tied up in knots.

I eventually started by focusing on my four great-grandfathers and wrote their stories accordingly. That effort spawned more projects, such as an article about my 2nd degree great-grandmother and a history of a great-granduncle. Especially for the second category, consider picking one person, one event, one branch, or one branch with a focus on one person.

Crafting a Family Story

Crafting a family story is a multi-faceted project and can include as much or as little as the writer chooses. It can have different structures or can use various  literary styles and formats. It can focus on just ancestors or can include descendants. The possibilities are almost limitless. For this article, I will just describe the features of my family stories.

To start, I like the hourglass structure; I focus on an individual and then describe his ancestors, him, and a couple of generations of descendants. Unless I know they will only share the document with family members, I avoid writing about living generations to protect their privacy. I do include a list of surnames, however, that brings the story close to the present. Next, I put the story, especially regarding the ancestors, in an historical setting.

Then I include memorials collected from family members and sprinkle in some family lore (maybe a recipe or two), especially important documents, and as many photographs and other visual mementos. Along the way, I analyze the data, for example, family size, prominent occupations, education levels, longevity, causes of death, and burial sites. I look for themes in the data. Finally, I always recognize those family members who have contributed to or otherwise helped me compose the story.

The literary style of my family stories has changed over the years. Fast forwarding, in my last couple of stories, I used double columns and a 12-point Times New Roman font with left alignment. I found this style easier to read, as it is one frequently used in newspapers and books and was more receptive to the insertion of photographs. I also abandoned using footnotes for citations and references (critical to the credibility of the research underlying the story) and relegated them to endnotes as they took up too much space in the text and detracted from the narrative. I still use footnotes, however, but only sparingly and for parenthetical information that would be overlooked in an endnote.

Choosing a Publication Option

Choosing a publication option is the last step in the chronicling process. The option you pick will depend in part on how many copies you need and whether you intend to sell the book for profit, give copies as gifts, or make copies available for purchase only to relatives. Always keep your budget in mind as you consider the options of photo books, DIY, print-on-demand, publisher-for-hire, and eBooks.

Photo Books

Photo books are a fun way to capture your family’s story and are available from a variety of services, such as MyCanvas (featured on Ancestry), Shutterfly, Blurb, and Mixbook. They usually have five essential elements: photos (of course!), genealogical data, stories, documents, and maps. The services walk you through the process, and the finished products are usually very attractive. Photo books, however, can be expensive. 

Google search results for "photo books genealogy"

DIY Projects

Do It Yourself (DIY) projects can be as simple and inexpensive as printing out your story, putting a cover on it, and stapling it together. An alternative to this approach is using a binder and putting the pages of your story in plastic covers. This looks nice and helps to preserve the work product; however, having tried it for one of my stories as an experiment, I can attest that it is a time-consuming process. My preferred approach is using a copy center, like Kinkos or Staples.

I have used all three types of the most common forms of binding: saddle-stitching (like a magazine), spiral or coil binding, and perfect binding (glued spines). The most cost-effective and practical one is coil binding, and it works on documents of various sizes, including my longest story, which ran over 200 pages. Perfect binding works on small to medium-sized documents, but the glue eventually can give out if the document is frequently opened and closed. Saddle printing looks the most professional, but it can be expensive if you are making multiple copies. For the stories depicted here, I used coil binding for the Court and Schlosser stories, perfect binding for the Hiles story, and saddle stitching for the Volmer story.

Print-On-Demand Services

Print-on-demand (POD) refers to self-publishing sites like Lulu, Blurb, Bookemon, and StoriestoTell, which lets you create a book on your computer and upload it as a PDF file for printing. Closely related to the POD option are the Publishers for Hire to which you supply the file for your book, order a minimum number of copies, and the company prints them. The appeal of these types of books is that they have a professional appearance and may be considered a more suitable keepsake than the DIY products.

EBook Options

The eBook option involves on-line companies that are associated with reading devices such as iPad, Kindle, and Nook, and have requirements regarding proprietary file formats. There is, however, an easy, albeit not a professional-looking, eBook option. Simply turn your document into a PDF file, which usually can be opened on any electronic device, such as a computer or a tablet. You may need to tweak the layout to make sure page breaks and photographs fall in the right places. Sending PDF files to relatives, either in emails or on  thumb drives by regular mail, has the distinct advantage of being an inexpensive way to share a family story. 

While there are many other ways of telling your family’s story, such as articles, newsletters, websites, blogs, and even cookbooks of family recipes, the suggestions in this article reflect my experience of being the storyteller of my family. The medium you choose and the amount of information you convey are functions of your imagination, creativity, determination, skills, and resources.

Editor’s Notes

Prices for the various publication options described here depend on many factors such as size and number of copies as well as discounts or specials a particular company may be offering at the time. So we didn't add any costs.

About the Author

Susan Court was born in Covington, Kentucky and currently lives in Arlington, Virginia. She is a graduate of Thomas More University (B.A., History), University of Cincinnati (M.A., European History), and Northern Kentucky University Chase College of Law (J.D.). In the D.C. area since 1981, she was an attorney with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and a partner at Hogan Lovells, LLP, and currently works as a federal energy policy consultant. She is also a member of the National Society United States Daughters of 1812 and several historical and genealogy societies in the United States and Europe.

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