Writing Family History

Another valuable chapter in Professional Genealogy: Preparation, Practice & Standards, edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills, illustrates the different ways in which genealogists have structured their published work over the years. Chapter 22, “Crafting Family Histories,” which was written by Michael Leclerc, itemizes seven different formats for family history writing that have appeared over many decades. Since writing a family history is one of the best ways to share the results of our labors, Leclerc is careful to point out the benefits and shortcomings of each format, as well as the universal standards that must apply to all of them. The following excerpt from Mr. Leclerc’s chapter is taken from pp. 521-522 of Progen PPS.

“Crafting Family Histories,” by Michael J. Leclerc, CG

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“Much of the work of a twenty-first-century genealogist involves writing.  We write emails, manuscript critiques, and book and product reviews; we write research reports, proof arguments , and case studies. Beyond this, writing family histories is one of the most meaningful ways we can communicate the results of our research to our  clients, family  members,  and even ourselves . Our projects can be large or small. We can present family history as blog posts, books, journal articles, or privately shared biographies and family sketches . Across this variety, there do exist certain formats, standards, and practices that  are hallmarks of quality products, and organization makes  all of them easier to achieve. ·

Type’s of Family Histories

Throughout the centuries since they first began to appear, “family histories” have followed a variety of forms:

All-my-ancestors books that start with the progenitor* of each surname and trace the line of descent down to either the author or a place where a female ancestor married into another line in the book. These are often multivolume sets, with one volume for the ancestor of each grandparent or great-grandparent.

Ascending genealogies that begin with a modern person and move backward, covering all direct ancestors while grouping together the individuals in each generation.

Biographies of individuals (usually prominent, wealthy men) that include a generation or two backward or forward.

Descending genealogies that follow all male descendants of a progenitor  or (less common) all descendants for a limited number of generations.

Hour-glass genealogies that track all ancestors and all descendants of a specific person–typically a well-known historic personage or a beloved grandpar ent.

Lineages that track a direct line or two-often a surname line-either forward from a specific progenitor or backward from a living person.

Thematic family histories, more often published by academic presses with a focus on politically prominent families, emphasize the public contributions of certain family members who represent the th eme. Limited genealogical details are presented free-form .

We also see family histories that are a combination of types, such as when an all-my-ancestors book includes a numbered list of ancestors (aka an ahnentafel; see “Numbering systems”) at the beginning or as an appendix.

Most works prior to the twentieth century were unsourced and offered little or no historical insight. Focusing on the begats, they were not so much an authored work as a compilation of names, dates, and places. Many were compiled by consulting with living descendants either in person or by correspondence. Limited access to original records often meant that actual records may not even have been consulted.  As a genre,  because of their limitations they were identified as compiled genealogies-encyclopedic tomes in which someone could look up their place in a family, but rarely a history that family members read.

Today’s research opportunities and reader expectations encourage more meaningful genealogical histories or narrative genealogies- i.e. , accounts that place each family unit in the context of its time and place. Based on extensive research, these family histories attempt to recreate the lives of individuals and tell their stories from a variety of records: business, legal, military, occupational , religious, and social.

Any and all of these are acceptable forms-so long as they are thoroughly documented . Each approach has advantages and drawbacks. Narrative genealogies allow us to go into great biographical detail on the lives of individuals, but limit the number of ancestors who can be covered in an article or a volume. Ahnentafels can be created quickly, but offer limited information. Compiled descents and all-my-ancestors books strike a balance between these two in terms of the amount of detail. They also require a great deal of research and effort; the years needed to create them can be quite significant. Whether working for a client or yourself, it is important to assess the positives and negatives of each type to determine the best format-or the best combination-for that specific family.

What all types have in common, today, are these six basics:

1. a need to apply sound research standards in gathering information;

2. a need for evidence analysis to reach valid conclusion s;

3. a need for solid documentation of every assertion that is not “common knowledge”;

4. a need for an easily understood arrangement of family units;

5. a need for cleanly written narrative, presented professionally; and

6. an understanding of the variances that families represent and how various types are best handled.”

* A progenitor in family histories is the common ancestor from whom everyone in the account descends. In the Americas, the chosen progenitor often has been the first family member to arrive in the New World–or, if the  immigrant cannot be identified after years of research , the earliest identifiable ancestor.

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