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Guidelines for Writing Great Ancestor Stories

You’ve done the research, collated the result, and now you’re ready to write up your family history. What next?

Preparation and planning. It sounds dull but it’s vital. Look at your evidence and plan what you’ll do with it. Most lives can be told chronologically: forebears; birth and childhood; young adulthood (preparing for the future); settling down (choosing a career, marriage and children); middle age; if they were lucky, old age and death.  With convicts it’s even more straightforward: forebears, birth and childhood, then the crime, the trial, the trip out, serving the sentence, and life afterwards. 

Work out what material you have for each section and for each plan a narrative that takes all your information into account. It’s striking to start with a telling anecdote. For example: ‘As a convict, Tom Smith faced [unfair punishment, humorous situation, whatever]. What got him into this situation?’ And then back to the beginning, his birth and so on.

Remember, no one’s a saint. We all have our good and bad points. Just because someone’s your ancestor doesn’t mean they didn’t have their foibles. Don’t be afraid to admit it. Don’t feel you have to excuse anything that wasn’t successful in the story.

Milk your information. Look at it and see what it can tell you. For example a death notice might have ‘Mary Jones, daughter’ as the informant. So your subject had children, and they were close enough when she died that they informed the authorities. Not everyone did. Edward White, giving evidence, might say he and his wife were playing cards at home one night when they heard a noise … – which sounds like a happy domestic situation. Think around your pieces of evidence, here and there in your subject’s life, and see the whole they depict. If something doesn’t fit in – why doesn’t it? Does it show another, unexpected aspect? Could it be wrong? For example, was it written by someone who didn’t like someone else?

You’ve spent hours researching and you want to include all the information that’s cost you so much time and trouble – DON’T! Work out what’s relevant and what is going to make the reader’s eyes glaze over. As a rule of thumb, don’t include any name that’s only mentioned once. With every detail, think: is this vital to the story? If it’s not, omit it.

Think about your subject. You’re writing about a person who was once a living, breathing being. What sort of person was he? What was her character like? Happy, sad? Careful, reckless? Liking domesticity or a loner? Think about what the evidence you’ve gained tells you and use it to build up a picture of a life.

We only include facts of course, but what about the spaces in your subject’s life? It’s fine to speculate about them as long as you show it’s speculation. ‘Perhaps’, possibly’, she could have’ – don’t overdo it, but you need to show you’re thinking about the person’s life as a whole.

Formal referencing is not required for the TFHS Inc. My Stories project but it is still important because it puts your work in context, demonstrates the breadth and depth of your research, and acknowledges other people's work. You should reference whenever you use someone else's idea and it should enable the reader to locate the sources referred to in your story.  A formal academic reference for a death might be TAHO RGD35/1/63 Launceston No. 176  A major reference might be simply  Records for Ellen Stewart in Tasmanian Archives.

These guidelines were generously contributed by Alison Alexander who is not only the Patron of our Society but an accomplished historian and author of some 35 books.  You can read more about Alison, all the books she has written and the awards she has won, here.

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Site last updated December 2022