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3 Easy Steps to Rescue Your Stalled Family History Narrative

Thanks to guest author, Lisa A. Alzo, for this terrific article!

Blank pages. Problematic text. Writer’s block. Does this sound familiar? You finally committed to writing your family's story, but instead of pages of flowing text chronicling the lives of your ancestors, all you have is an empty screen and blinking cursor. Maybe you have written a draft, but don't know where to go with it. You are feeling uninspired. You ask yourself, “Why would anyone care?” If you find yourself facing these issues, here are three steps to help you rescue your stalled family history narrative.

1. Think scenes, not words. When writing, it's natural to think about the words, but when trying to capture the lives of your ancestors, think cinematically – build your narrative scene by scene. You’ll make a more dramatic impact. One way to do this is through a Storyboard. Storyboarding is a process of planning out your writing in small scenes. The “old school” way is to get some index cards and write a synopsis on each one about what you are writing. Thanks to technology, you can now do this process virtually on your computer/laptop with project management tool such as Scrivener ($45 Mac; $40 Windows; free trial), or on your smartphone or tablet with apps such as Story Skeleton (iPhone/iPad, $8.99), or Cardboard Index Cards (Android). Once you have this visual outline prepared, you can get an overview of the project and easily move pieces of the story around until you find the perfect fit. See the sample storyboard (below) for a book about my father’s days as a basketball player. I created the storyboard with Scrivener’s “virtual corkboard” feature.


2. Stop sweating over the small stuff. Are you searching for the perfect descriptive word, or that first sentence that will draw your reader in? Not done with your research? Missing source citations? If you find yourself getting hung up over commas, or dashes, or other issues and this holds you back from writing, such issues may just be excuses in disguise. So, stop worrying, and start writing! You can always go back to attend to these matters during the revision process. Focus on the story itself first, and worry about polishing your prose later on.

3. Write a bad first draft. I realize this sounds a bit odd coming from someone who earns a living as a freelance writer, over the years I have learned that this approach works well. A first draft is just that: a draft. Don’t aim for perfection out of the gate. Simply just sit down and write something—anything. Sure, you may toss most of it out later on, but there may be a sentence, a paragraph, or a scene you can develop into a great narrative. When I have a working draft I feel a sense of accomplishment, no matter how small. Each scene is a building block and each draft means I am making progress on my project. Even if it isn’t my best work, it is much better than the alternative of having nothing written at all.


The thing about family histories is that they are personal, and no two people will produce the exact same narrative. So your goal should be to write your family history, your way. The first step to achieving that goal is to break out of your writing rut—right now!

Want more tips on how to put more power behind your family stories? Click here to register for my upcoming Legacy Family Tree Webinar on June 13th: “10 Ways to Jumpstart Your Family History Narrative.” In this webinar you will learn ten simple ways to get those creative juices flowing so you can stop procrastinating and start writing.

Lisa A. Alzo is a freelance writer, instructor, and lecturer, and has been tracking her ancestors for 25 years. She is a frequent presenter for the Legacy Family Tree Webinars series and can be contacted via


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My Family Tree is with the Legacy genealogy system and I find it very good. I began serious efforts to trace my family Tree after my Mother died, and as a way of dealing with my grief I felt the need to "place her in history." That meant not only showing details of her family, but her ancestry as well. Over the past 14 years that has meant that I can now show her ancestry back to the eleventh century! It's been a fascinating journey for me, it's put me in touch with distant relatives in many parts of the World, who I would never otherwise have known about, and it's given me an appreciation of 'history' that I didn't have before. A truly satisfying and rewarding journey.

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