Writing Family History

Getting started: to write or not to write?

You know that Eureka moment. You’ve spent the last hour or so carefully spooling through a microfilm, trying to spot your ancestor amidst the dense newsprint. Then your eye alights on a familiar surname, and your story suddenly comes to life.

Sitting in the Leicestershire Records Office a few years ago, I had such a moment. I’d tracked down a brief obituary for a relative, Frederick Major, who had long since faded from family memory. The grainy Leicester Mercury snippet of 23rd June 1924 revealed that:

 “He was a very active man and always endeavoured as far as possible to walk wherever he wanted to go. In particular he objected to riding in tramcars. He also had an excellent memory and could have written an extensive history of the city in the last century.”

A remarkable character, by the sound of it. And what a treasure chest his memories would have been – a personal walk through 19th century Leicester – if only he’d got round to writing them down.

Contrast that with my experience ten years earlier. This time I’m hunting for Edwin Crew. He and his wife Jane had been involved with the Wycliffe Society for the Blind. As I trawl through the Society archives, I uncover ‘City of the Blind at Leicester’, typed on 12 wafer-thin pages. It’s the voice of Edwin in 1932 or thereabouts, recalling the early days of the Society. Despite his apparent reservations – “An autobiography does not appeal to me. However, let us [move] on with the story” – his anecdotes give us a sense of the man and his mission. He’d bothered to write his story and thankfully it has been preserved. For me, these two episodes underline the opportunity – and in some senses, the duty – we have to write and share our family histories. It’s easy to find excuses not to do it: our research isn’t quite complete, our family isn’t interested, we can’t find the time, our ancestors weren’t exciting enough, we’re not ‘writers’. But the bare facts of a genealogical tree only tell part of our ancestral story.

“Family history”, to quote American humourist Jordan Auslander, “is about filling in that little dash between the dates of birth and death”. For me, much of the pleasure and interest in family history arises from picturing the personal life stories of my forbears, thinking about how they lived and worked, filling in that little dash.

So, how do you go about writing your family history? How can you turn a list of historical dates and names into an engaging narrative? The Auntie Mabel website is here to help you. As it evolves over the coming months and years, we hope to help you write, publish and share your own family history, so that you can preserve your research for future generations.