Writing Your Family History Book

Last weekend I delivered my dad’s side family history book to the relatives. All that work was so worthwhile to feel the glow of my dad and his brother’s awe and gratitude. Worth the trip to Chicago where I got to shovel a lot of snow!


How did I write this book? Actually, I didn’t have to write much. The book was more of an editorial gathering and sifting of information. Amazingly, my dad back in the 1970s thought to interview some of his Dutch immigrant relatives and his first-generation mother, and wow did they have stories of growing up the late 1800s in Dutch villages and making a living in early 1900s Chicago. I also had two years of my grandmother’s diaries. The time-consuming part was researching genealogy, but I was shocked to find a lot of Dutch genealogies online, and with a little help from Google Translate was able to figure out meanings of text outside of the names. We have a lot of distant relatives in The Netherlands!

So how did I put all this together?


I put this at the front of the book. Using only the major ancestor names, I created simple charts using MS Publishing, a free program with my laptop, but using PowerPoint is another option. I also typed out detailed genealogies to go along with the charts, and these included whatever I discovered about the ancestor, their parents and siblings, their children. For the recent ancestors, I included their Chicago area residences. The free FamilySearch.org was a big help, along with FindaGrave.com and census records, the latter two being not always accurate though.



I kept the interviews intact, because all the stories were incredible and historic, but I did move parts around to keep with a timeline (because people ramble) and I added bits of historical information using brackets for bigger understanding. At the end of each interview is a photo of the person and brief bio explaining some details of that person’s life—birth, death, siblings, spouse, any other interesting tidbits. I did remove my dad’s questions and comments, so the interviews became each person alone telling the story of his or her life. Their voices come through loud and clear so we get a sense of their personalities, and it’s as though they are talking directly to us from the past. I also had a video of my dad and his brother talking about their childhood, and I transcribed it and used almost all of it as is, to enjoy the back and forth banter between them. I used brackets to add in historical commentary for better understanding.


Old diaries mention the weather a lot and can be tedious to read since most days are not interesting. They also tend to be written factually, with not that much introspective thinking included. I do not recommend including a diary in its entirety. They are valuable sources for historical and cultural details, though.

I wrote a couple paragraphs of introduction to mention how we found these diaries, how old my grandmother was and what her situation was during those years (young mother, age of kids, where they lived, what they did for a living, what was going on historically—Great Depression). Then I wrote brief summaries of basic things I learned from the diary and followed with bits of entries to back up those summaries. For example, I wrote how the winter was severe, but the relatives still went visiting, followed by clips from four diary entries. Diary entries are in italics to set them apart. I used ellipses (…) to indicate where I had left out parts unrelated to my summary statements. Here’s a bit from how work could be difficult to get:

Tuesday, March 26:  … Pete is around the house every day yet, no work.


I had a lot of old black and white glossy photos where the lighting and focus was not always so good. My printer could only scan them onto a full-size page and then I would have to crop them out, resulting in low resolution photos that would not print so clearly. I ended up taking photos of the photos with my cell phone or nice Nikon, resulting in high resolution .jpg files that could be altered using simple (and free) photo editing programs. I used Picasa (now unavailable) to easily fix lighting and crop for better asthetics, but my new laptop has Paint 3D, which crops and will somewhat fix lighting using the Effects option. With regular Windows Paint you can delete white or discolored spots on your photo and fill in with background color. My Windows Paint is found under Windows Accessories.

Photos are important to add life to the stories. I sprinkled them throughout the book but included a section at the end that is just photos with captions to identify the people and mention anything interesting about what the photo captures.

Other Items:

Two of my cousins contributed. One wrote her memories of our grandmother and the other wrote about his trip to the homeland where he discovered the church our ancestors attended. My nephew brought back a postcard from his recent visit to Amsterdam and it made an impressive book cover. My aunt, who married into the family, was a big help in remembering stories she had heard and adding context, so she is on the Acknowledgements page. I loved having family members add to this book as that made it feel like a family creation, not just my private project. After all, these are the stories of OUR heritage.


This time I used a local printing company known for doing family history books, and so I had a representative on call, avoided shipping costs, and was able to drop by to see the cover mockup and the proof copy – and then go home and fix it! I have used Lulu.com before and they are inexpensive, considering, but this book was to be hard cover, and I did not like how thin the paper was for Lulu’s hardcover books, especially for books with photos. I ordered 30 copies of the b&w, 100-page hardcover book, 8.5×11 on 60# white paper, at a cost of near $20 each plus the cover design from this printing company, which starts at $50. They have templates they use or you can work with them to design your own. Of course, I had everyone pay for their own book copy, except for my dad and uncle.

Most printing companies will not take a pdf file made from MSWord, but Lulu.com and the St. Louis, Missouri, company I used, No Waste Publishing/Access Solutions, will. You can pay Lulu to format your Word doc properly, but otherwise they and many of your local printing companies will just print what you give them, so I had to know how to format nicely and how to format so the Word doc would convert correctly to pdf. No Waste Publishing, however, did convert my b&w jpg photograph images to true b&w (at no extra cost) so they would print out nicer, and I was impressed by how well even the bad ones turned out.

This was a wonderful experience for me to produce this family treasure with input and help from family members. My dad just loves, loves, loves his book and is so proud of it. Brings tears to my eyes to see how appreciative he is. My uncle marveled at how wonderful it was. I hope you are able to give such a gift to your family.


See my Resource page and these previous blog posts about family memoirs:

What to do with old diaries (and letters)
Editing old photos with beloved Picasa (check out the comments, too)
Using LuLu.com for Family Memoirs

Also, When and How to Use Journals and Letters by Amber Lea Starfire, recent guest post on Kathy Pooler’s Memoir Writer’s Journey website.

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Poetry as Memoir

Since February is Black History Month, I chose from my stack of waiting books Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson to read on our trip to visit family four hours away. This is a NYT bestseller and multi-award-winning book of free-verse poems that tell stories of a brown girl’s childhood in both the North and the South during the 1960s and 1970s, when the civil rights movement was churning. Poetry as memoir is something I have embraced since writing Poems That Come to Mind, documenting in haiku and other short poems life with my mother and others at her care home who suffered from Alzheimers. I was curious to see how this worked out with Ms. Woodson’s book.

UntitledI can see why this book has won awards. Brown Girl Dreaming, with the lovely title and pretty cover, beautifully captures the innocence of a girl discovering the sweetness and complexity of life. I felt the loving care of grandparents, heard the cricket lullaby and felt the child’s yearning to stay in the slow embrace of their South Carolina home, then the hardness of their first apartment in New York City and the grey sidewalk rain versus wet grass. A sick brother, bullies, why they will never go into Woolworths, visiting an uncle in jail, Angela Davis and raised fists. There are the worries, the losing, the questioning why, all the thoughts and feelings that elevate any memoir past just what happened and lift it into the heart and mind.

Yes, poetry can definitely be memoir! Read this book and see.

“Down south already feels like a long time ago
but the stories in my head
take me back there, set me down in Daddy’s garden
where the sun is always shining.”


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Selling memoir: Isn’t your family alone worth it?

Recently I disappointed a couple people by telling them their stories would not sell to the public.  Many (probably most) people do not realize what a harsh world publishing for commercial sales is. Everyone has interesting stories, but most of us are not skilled writers with stories that will capture the attention of strangers who will pay money for them. Then there is the marketing part, where authors have to get out there and make their books known to the world through social media (without spamming), by getting news media interested (really difficult), or by public speaking (OMG!). Many authors fail at marketing, and their books then drown in the Amazon.com river, taking the money spent to produce them down the river, too.

How much does publishing cost? If you can find a publisher, it will cost nothing. But publishers want already edited (you pay for that) manuscripts with a reason lots of people would buy the story. They want a sure thing, and they expect the author to be a salesperson. The self-publishing route has a big learning curve, and you must spend your own money for editing and for manuscript text layout and cover design. This is not cheap, and few of us are talented enough to do this very well ourselves. Not doing it well risks getting no sales beyond your friends—or worse, bad reviews. If you have some writing talent, a fascinating story and a passion to share it, and some sales skills, then learn all you can about writing and publishing and go for it. Have a spare $1000+ if you need to publish it yourself. Maybe try the e-book route first. Beware of companies that call themselves publishers but are in reality selling you their publishing services (editing, design, printing). Being “accepted” by them does not mean they think your manuscript is great, that just means they will accept your money.

I have published two historical and cultural memoirs that have made a net profit, but I know my own memoir would not sell to anyone outside my family. I am not disappointed. My family would like to have my stories, and their appreciation is what is most important. Family-only stories will not need to be perfectly written or published in an expensive, professional way. If money is an issue, an MS Word document with simple cover page can be taken to the local copy shop and inexpensively bound. If you have some money to spend, work with a publishing services company to pay for a cover design and standard book binding, maybe even a simple edit, and only order the number of copies you need for your family (with some to spare for future generations).

Isn’t your family worth the time and effort to write your stories? Someday a grandchild or great-grandchild may think they are the most interesting stories they have ever read—priceless.


Me teaching about the hard world of publishing for sales

Posted in lifewriting, memoir writing, publishing | Tagged , | 4 Comments