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How Do You Tell A Family History Story?

How Do You Tell A Family History Story?

One of the questions I have been pondering is how do you tell your ancestors' stories? How do you tell their story, whether it's an individual ancestor, a family, or a specific family line?

When I started researching genealogy, I would read Everton's Genealogical Helper. In the Helper were advertisements for publishers who would print family history tomes. I remember thinking this was the research's ultimate goal: to publish a thick hardback book tracing one's family back generations. Then one of these publishers printed the books, and you would distribute them to all who wanted to pay $50 or so to get a copy.

But that was a long time ago, before the internet and the technological tools we have today. So is this the only way to tell a family's story?

It can be, but with self-publishing, online tools, and non-genealogists creatively telling family stories, it's time to rethink the family history tome.

How Do You Tell a Story?

Maybe you've been hesitant to print or publish your family history. I can understand how intimidating it can be with the proper numbering systems, proofreading, and the hundreds of pages it may take. But that's not the only way to tell a story. First, you need to decide who will be included. It can just be one ancestor. It can be a series of small narratives; it doesn't have to be 300 pages.

I'm always looking for exciting ways people tell their family stories. Here are a few examples I have found.


Autobiographical Comic/Graphic Memoir. Yes, I wrote "comic." Though I don't possess this talent, I've read two autobiographical comics with great stories and family history. Plus, what a great way to put your family's story in the younger generations' hands (and non-kids will also enjoy it). I recommend reading Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley and I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir by Malaka Gharib.

Grandma cookbook

Family Cookbook: You can put together a family cookbook in many ways. It might be one of the easier ways to tell your family's story. Don't stop at recipes. Include photos, relationships, and stories. You can use cookbook publisher templates to make it easy, or you can put tougher your cookbook and have it printed via your local copy store. I like this one I picked up at a book sale that is 8 ½ x 11 and includes over 1000 recipes (that's a lot! Don't worry about having much less). It contains photos and information about "Grandma Frank." A cookbook might be an easy way to dip your foot in the family history book water.

Mother charms

A Biography of Their Stuff: Have you considered writing something about your memories or the history of items your ancestors or family owned? My Mother's Charms by Kathleen Oldford looks at the author's inherited charm bracelets and the stories behind the charms. This is a creative way to tell a family story. You can research inherited or just items you remember and tell your family story through these.

How Will You Tell Their Story?

How have you told your family history story? What are your plans for future stories? We can all benefit from the experience of others, so please leave a comment below.


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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I publish a semi-annual family newsletter as a PDF, that tells at least one or two stories about my extended family, and store it in Dropbox. Then I email the Dropbox link to everyone on my family mailing list, so they can access the newsletter and read the stories. (There's over 270 folks on the list to date.) We have an annual family reunion, but most folks can't attend due to distance/other commitments, so I also include highlights from our reunion along with photos. It's been very popular with my clan!

I've been sending a family newsletter (2 sides of 8.5 x 11, 4 columns: one for each grandparent line) with my holiday cards to family members since 2006.

Since the COVID lockdown, I've started writing profiles of my great-grandparents and sending them as pdfs to those same family members. I just finished the last one, and now will start on my grandparents.
I start with an incident in each person's life that resonates the most with me to hook the reader. Then I write a straight chronological recounting of their lives based on the stories told, the documents and photographs found, and if applicable, the DNA that has led to long-lost family. Eventually I plan to self-publish the profiles together in book form.

I write a magazine article on my latest discovery concerning an ancestor. Historical and genealogical societies welcome articles to add to their own publication. It's a shorter time commitment to write a short article. Over time, I have a collection of articles on different ancestors which have reached an audience interested about this kind of work. Because my extended family is on the very active and too busy to sit down and read, I make an afternoon event where I can present my findings as a powerpoint presentation for those interested and we share a meal together. It creates new family memories!

Collecting recipes for a family cookbook, connecting and talking with relatives, is what got me into the family history/genealogy. While I have never finished the recipe book, I have done a long article about the accomplishments of a Great Grandmother (information which did NOT come down to my generation), and a Mixbook on a grandmother. Have more planned and someday I still hope to complete the recipe book - even though it would have a completely different slant now (in 2023 than it would have in about 1985-89.

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