Every year, countless would-be family historians make New Year’s resolutions to tackle epic projects that preserve the tales of their bloodline, and every December there are frustrated folks wondering where the year went.
But you can get your family history project done this year – it just takes a little know-how, some strategic thinking and a few simple tools. Here’s some tips for creating a family history – whether through a book, website, film, audio documentary or other means – in 2014 that you and your clan can treasure for years to come.
Make it a habit. Start thinking about how you can embed behaviors that lead to a completed family history – taking photos at get-togethers, finding out where old photo albums are stored, scanning old photos, scheduling time to talk with relatives about their memories, etc.
Give it a deadline. One of my early (volunteer) family history projects, a video of my parents’ golden anniversary, could have been finished far sooner if I had pushed myself to get it out by that first Christmas afterward (their anniversary was in June). You don’t want to have to cut out things like exercise, family time, or sensible meals to finish, but picking a milestone date and working backward to figure out how you’ll get it done can add just enough creative tension to keep you motivated.
Tell your own stories. Being able to tell your own stories will help you clarify why you’re interested in the history of the rest of the family, and it’s good practice for writing up memories into an entertaining narrative.
Use your smart phone. There are plenty of apps that can help you gather your stories and put them together. You can record your own stories – going from voice to text – with the Dragon Dictation app. You can interview relatives in far-flung locales (or who are too busy to drive across town!) by using the SkyRecorder app when you Skype people on your mobile phone. You can record videos and put together photo slideshows using the StoryCatcher app. Most of us are glued to our phones, anyway – at least you can use your tech “addiction” to accomplish this goal! (Disclosure – I have an iPhone and most of the links above are to the iPhone/Apple versions of these apps.)
Start asking questions. This relates to my first tip of making family-history tasks second nature. You may want to just start asking your parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, siblings or children what they remember from various stages of their lives as you make ordinary conversation with them. Or perhaps you can start things off by sharing some memories of your own, prompted by watching old home movies, looking at photo albums, or whatever. Once your family gets used to your questions and understands their context, they’ll probably be less self-conscious when you ask to interview them for your book/video/audio program.
Share memoir-based or family-history themed books and movies. If your brood needs a little inspiration to get into helping you with your project, perhaps you could offer to read and discuss a book like Roots or The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, watch a bio-pic like Coal Miner’s Daughter or Lincoln (or even Young Mr. Lincoln), or view a movie based on a memoir, such as The Motorcycle Diaries or October Sky. Or even a movie that discusses the roles of family tales in a more exaggerated way, as in Big Fish. At the very least, it will get you thinking about how to tell the story of your family.
Make a mindmap for your project. Making a mindmap, which is a sort of free-form outline of key points you want to cover, can help you in two ways:
- It’s a way to wake up your right brain and use it to help you see patterns and associations between random bits of information you want to work into your family history masterpiece;
- It can help you figure out the scope of the project, which will determine how long it’s going to take you and what sorts of resources (time, money, archival materials) you’ll need.
I like MindMaple for mindmapping but there are many other free or low-cost options.
Think snacks, not banquet. If you start writing the exhaustive history of your clan and get bogged down in too much information or too many photos, try writing up one story that your grandfather told you. Or interviewing your big brother about what he remembers thinking when your parents brought you home from the hospital after you were born. Chunking your project into manageable, thematically coherent units can make things less intimidating and also help you when it comes time to assemble your epic, since the building blocks of it will be so much stronger.
Document as you go. If your family hasn’t been the type to photograph and film every major holiday, you may not have very much source material to go on when you research your project, nor will you have handy memory-jogging aids to prime your relative’s mental pump. You can fix this going forward by committing to being the family member who interrupts all major occasions for photos or video clips. They might be aggravated at first, but trust me, they will thank you for doing it later.
Hire a professional.
You may get started on your family history project and, despite your best intentions, get bogged down because of time pressures, other obligations or simply because producing stories of people’s lives is not your strong suit. Luckily, it’s easier than ever to get help from a professional personal historian! Listen Closely Productions offers a range of personal history services, from memoir coaching and book editing to producing professional-quality audio programs and narrated home movies that feature you loved ones’ stories. If you live outside the Valley of the Sun (Phoenix, AZ) area and wish to work with a local person, you can visit the Association of Personal Historians website and find someone who can help you.
Great suggestions and tips. This article should help anyone who is really trying to improve their family history projects.
Excellent article with useable actions.
This is an excellent piece & is really going to help me in my historical fiction project! Thanks so much.
Glad to hear that the list has applications beyond family history nonfiction projects!