Writing Family History

Reflections: Getting Started with Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett Writing Home

 “All I can say about biography, autobiography or indeed fiction is: don’t start at the beginning. Write about the period that interests you, then go back – gradually pick up the rest.”




These wise words come from someone who knows a thing or two about life writing: Alan Bennett – playwright, memoir writer and all round good egg.

Getting started with writing your family history can be a daunting prospect. If you set out  to write up all of your research, the chances are you’ll soon be inundated with relatives; each time you go back another generation there’s twice the number of direct ancestors to grapple with, and that’s before you take account of all those siblings. There’s potential for being overwhelmed with information. It can stifle, rather than stimulate your writing.

In tune with Alan Bennett’s advice, we suggest you start by writing about one period or person that particularly interests you. Set aside for the time being the idea of writing a full end-to-end family history. Don’t worry that you’re not starting at the beginning. Instead, just focus on one person and immerse yourself in the stories of their life. You might start by writing about one aspect – for example, a brief ‘glimpse’ based around a family photo or an heirloom. Keep it short and sweet, aim for a few paragraphs or about 200 words a piece. Then you might have a go at writing a slightly longer piece about their working life – an occupational history along the lines of our Trading Stories, Working Lives series.

Setting yourself mini projects such as these imposes boundaries – it restricts and focuses what you need to research and write about, and can result in richer, more creative work. It’s also less daunting – to write, and to read. So, when you next have a few spare hours, give it a go, and see where it takes you.