Turning Genealogy Data into an Interesting Story: First Steps

by Memoir Mentor on December 2, 2008

How do you take the names, dates, and places on your pedigree charts and turn them into an interesting story that breathes life into people and re-creates the times in which they lived? It’s not easy, particularly if your subjects have passed on. However, it can be done, and with great success, and your family will find it far more interesting than those old genealogy charts that only fascinate you. My next few blog posts will introduce you to some ways to begin transforming names and dates into an engaging story.

Put your genealogy data into sentences. Take the information on your pedigree chart or family group sheet and shape it into sentences and paragraphs. This exercise will help you create a kind of family summary that will serve as a rough first draft for the expanded family history you want to write. Your summary may run from one to three pages, depending on the amount of information you have at your disposal. You will be surprised to find that this rudimentary first step will help you begin to look at your subject’s lives as an actual STORY rather than merely a collection of names and dates.

Put dates in month-day-year format. Genealogists typically write dates in the day-month-year format, which eliminates confusion on pedigree charts but makes reading more difficult for the non-genealogists you’re hoping will read family history. You want your history to feel like a STORY, so write Melinda Davis was born on May 14, 1873, not on 14 May 1873.

Eliminate stilted-sounding place locations. Genealogists, focused on clarity, typically write something like “Melinda Davis was born in Boston, Sussex County, Massachusetts.” This format begins to quickly feel overly formal, less story-like, when used repetitively in family histories. Drop the county name or use it in a more interesting way to make your writing more reader-friendly. Consider writing something like this: “John and Mary moved to Sussex County in 1872 and settled in Boston. A year later, their first child, a daughter they named Melinda, was born on May 14, 1873.”

Create a “To-Do List.” It’s one thing to find the kind of information required to fill out a family group sheet; it’s quite another to fill in all the details that tell a life story. After you’ve written your family summary, read through it and make a list of information you need to find or clarify or prove. Where are the holes? What’s strictly hearsay? Why did your subjects do certain things? Do you know people who have answers to any of these questions? This “To-Do List” will form the basis for further research.

My next post will focus on one of the best things you can do to begin shaping the “facts” of your subject’s life into an interesting story.

 –Memoir Mentor

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Mary Moss January 3, 2009 at 7:53 am

This is such helpful information! I am going to approach my mom about writing down many of her childhood memories. I hope she’ll be willing to do it — it will be a great gift to me, my sisters and her granddaughters.

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