Writing a Biography
December 21, 2017
In my previous article, "Bringing an Ancestor to Life," I explained the importance of putting your ancestor in the context of his time and place in history and not relegating him to a simple laundry list of vital statistics. Now that you have gathered all of this interesting background information what do you do next?
At the minimum you should have biographies for your direct line ancestor couples. You can then expand out from there. You are bound to run across a relation that is so interesting you can't help but want to write about him. The black sheep of the family are my favorites.
Admittedly, writing a narrative is much harder than simply recording facts but once you get into the habit of writing them it gets much easier. As you do the research you will get to “know” your ancestor better and you will want to tell others about him or her. Here are my favorite books on the subject. They will teach you how to write a biography that is interesting, informative, and historically accurate:
Carmack, Sharon DeBartolo. Tell it Short: A Guide to Writing Your Family History in Brief. Salt Lake City: Scattered Leaves Press, 2016.
Carmack, Sharon DeBartolo. You Can Write Your Family History. 2003. Reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2008.
Finley, Carmen J. Creating a Winning Family History. Revised edition. Arlington, Va.: National Genealogical Society, 2010.
If you ever get the chance to hear John Colletta lecture you won't want to miss that. John is a master storyteller and will give you many tips on how to find interesting background information. He is also quite funny. If you are a Legacy Webinar subscriber you can watch John's "The Germanic French - Researching Alsatian and Lorrainian Families" lecture.
When you are writing a narrative keep in mind that you are writing for others as much as you are writing for yourself. I will expand on that in just a bit. Here are a few tips.
Clear and concise writing is a must
More words does not mean better content and punctuation and grammar are important. Now is the time to dust off your old English handbooks. Here are my three favorite style guides:
Ross-Larson, Bruce. Edit Yourself: A Manual for Everyone Who Works With Words. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1996.
Strunk, William Jr. and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. Fourth edition. New York: Longman, 2000.
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Seventh edition. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.
And here are my favorite grammar/punctuation handbooks:
Chapman, James A. Handbook of Grammar and Composition. Third edition. Pensacola, Fla.: ABeka Book, 1996.
Rod and Staff English Handbook. Crockett, Ky.: Rod and Staff Publishers, 1983.
And here is my favorite thesaurus:
Urdang, Laurence, editor. The Synonym Finder. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 1978.
Break up your narrative with photos
Photos not only give interest but they allow your reader to pause during a long narrative. You may not have any actual photos of your ancestor but you can pull in photos that represent the time and place your ancestor lived. There are many copyright free photos available. In the previous article I mentioned my 3rd great-grandfather Mathew Patton who was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh. He later died at Buckner Hospital in Gainesville, Alabama. There is a cemetery where Buckner Hospital once stood and Mathew was most assuredly buried there though his grave is unmarked. There are dozens of Confederate markers in this cemetery that just say "Unknown." I included one of these photos (with permission from the photographer) .
The Alabama State Archives has an original flag of Mathew's company in their possession and they had a photograph of it. I asked the Archives for permission to use the photograph which they gave. While Mathew was away, his wife and children were in poverty. Blount County, Alabama did a special inventory of families who were left behind to make sure they had enough provisions. Seeing what provisions his family had and didn't have was sobering. I included an image of that section of the court minute book page. Shortly after Mathew and his wife Charlotta married, they migrated from Madison County, Georgia to Cherokee County, Alabama. I had background documentation showing that the most likely reason was for better farming land. I included a map that I created using Google Earth Pro showing where the two places were relative to each other as well as the actual distance. These are just a few ideas. The possibilities are limitless.
You can also break up the narrative by using section headings
There are many different ways you can go with this. You can break it up by time periods, seasons of a person's life, by places they lived if they migrated a lot, etc.
Write like you are talking to an audience
You want your writing to be engaging and have a good flow. Conversational style is good but avoid the first person. You don't want statements in your narrative such as, "I then went to the courthouse and found their marriage record." You want the narrative to be about your ancestors and not about you.
Don't forget to cite your sources
Even though you are writing a narrative that doesn't mean you don't have to cite your sources. The last one I did had 165 footnotes. But it really depends on how much information you've acquired about your ancestor.
Now that you have a beautifully written biography what do you do with it? You don't want your ancestors to be forgotten so you need to tell their stories to others. There are many ways you can "publish" your biographies. You can send them to relatives, start your own blog, or submit your writings to a local historical society journal. You might even think big and self-publish a book with the history of an entire family group. It is very easy to self-publish using on-demand printing. Two of the most popular companies are Lulu and Blurb.
I hope I have motivated you to dig a little deeper into the lives of your ancestors so that they aren't merely a list of names and dates in your genealogy file.
Michele Simmons Lewis, CG® is part of the Legacy Family Tree team at MyHeritage. She handles the enhancement suggestions that come in from our users as well as writing for Legacy News. You can usually find her hanging out on the Legacy User Group Facebook page answering questions and posting tips.