Writing Your Family History

Writing Your Family History

By Natalie Bright 

You might be drawn to write, but maybe the thought of  crafting a novel makes you cringe. Have you considered starting with something fun, like your family history? If that seems overwhelming, start small.  Write about one event that happened.

Is there a right way or a wrong way to write your family’s history?

A million different ways:

A letter found by one of my friends in her favorite Aunt’s Bible, led to a story that was contracted by an anthology. The project fell through before it made it to the printing presses. Many years later, she submitted a reworked version of the same story to a regional magazine, and it was featured as a web exclusive. It’s since appeared in newspapers and on website year after year.

As a writer and history fanatic, I scan used book stores for first-hand accounts of regional events and family bios. There’s nothing like reading about the details of life from long ago. It’s these kinds of tidbits that make your stories come alive. I’ve discovered history in many different formats. Here are a few of my favorites.

Examples of family memoirs turned into published works:

So Great a Heritage  by Kathie Jackson

Best example of chronological and organized narration. Taking letters written by her father, Sgt. Cecil Turner, she follows his journey from WWII training camps, North Africa, Italy, France, Germany. In between his letters she provides historical detail of the 1940’s – the places, people, the battles, descriptions of the land, and sprinkled with letters he received from his parents.

Tate Publishing, Mustang OK

Growing Up In the Bradford Oil Fields by Jim Messer

Not really a chronological order, but invaluable for writers. This man’s father worked as an oil well shooter and he wrote this book for his kids. He wanted them to know what it was like growing up in the oilfields of Pennsylvania, one of the oldest producing oil fields in the world. His father delivered the nitroglycerin to the location for well ‘fracing’, or fracturing of the pay zones, a completion procedure first begun at the turn of the century. He goes into great detail about delivery systems and how they stored the nitro, how a cable tool rig works. Xlibris Corporation – self-publishing internet site

I saw Jesus this Morning by Mike Bellah, Ph.D.

Took a personal, very private experience and turned it into an extremely inspirational Bible study type book.

The Wednesday Monster by Kellie R. Sanders

Her mother, as a little girl, survived a tornado in 1947 Woodward, OK. This is a very detailed, academic look at the events of that day. Newspaper articles provide information, and includes first hand accounts of survivors which are printed in italics word-per-word. Through her research for this book, a shorter article was written for the Panhandle-Plains Historical Review. (Think about using your research to generate articles for magazines, regional newsletters, etc.)

Christmas in Old Tascosa by Judy Wise

An 81-year-old mother looks out of the window at a snow storm over Pudget Sound in the Pacific Northwest and says, “I remember a snowstorm … in Texas … in Tascosa.  I was a little girl.” Her daughter said, “Tell us.”

After she told the story, the daughters planned a trip to the Texas Panhandle. The mother flew in from Florida, one daughter from Arizona, and one from Washington, and they drove through the Texas Panhandle visiting the places of their mother’s childhood and having her retell the story over and over, making note of every detail. They knew someone who knew Red Steagal, he loved the story and referred the manuscript to Texas Tech Press. You just never know where your story might lead you. Don’t hesitate. Just follow!

Oil People by Natalie Bright

Based in part on the work my husband does as a petroleum geologist, this is a self-published book meaning I paid the publisher. I did submit this to numerous university presses and received extremely encouraging rejection letters, which is why I decided to save my money and keep control of the content.

At A Snails Pace

Keep in mind, the time frame for publishing is slow, slow. If a university or small area press accepts your story, it could be up to 18 months or longer before you have a book in hand. A self-published project can take a few months, but typos and grammar are your responsibility.

The key, I think, is organization of info and a theme.

Follow Your Heart

Theme = place, the person, the dates, the event. Why are you writing this book? What is the main focus or idea that you wish to convey to a reader?

I’ve met so many people with amazing family stories. They’re more than willing to talk about it, but so afraid of messing up. Writing words on a blank page is a frightening process to some people. If there’s a story that’s pressing upon your mind and heart,  don’t stress. Just do it. Be open minded. Maybe you have a book in mind, so start with small articles on specific events. Be flexible so that you can move segments and paragraphs around, rearranging the information until it flows into something you’ll be proud of. The thing about writing is you keep learning as you’re doing.

It’s amazing sometimes, the journey your written words will take you

Okay people, get busy because I can hardly wait to read your family stories!


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