Family History Writing: The Intuitive Writer and Researcher

“It is through science that we prove, but through intuition that we discover.” Henri Poincare

Like so many of my blog posts this started with reading another blogger’s post. This is a particularly good one from Natalie Pithers on How to Go From Boring to Brilliant Family History Writing. I highly recommend it, with many great ideas. While reading it I was struck by how I am always wanting to be more systematic or organized in my approach to Genealogy or Family History Writing but seldom even come close to achieving this. Interestingly, I tend not to plan what I am going to write about. I start with an idea—a light bulb—I might write about this—but as I write the focus often changes. As I write and research the writing takes on a life of its own. It’s always been this way for me. I never have trouble getting started, as long as I put no constraints on my journey.

In fact when I was in college I never knew what a paper was going to be about. I tended to think about it before going to sleep and wake up and do what I call a “brain dump.” A brain dump is simply to start writing. I often would have several pages, and I would read them over and then the direction that I needed to go would come into sharper focus. Do you remember in school when the teacher wanted you to write via an outline? I could never do this—and I had to write my outlines after I was done writing! Not the way it is supposed to be done! Not much of the way I do Genealogy and Family History writing is by the rules. And so I want to make all of you who do not manage it any better than I, to have some hope and consolation.

If you happen to know your Myers Briggs Personality Type I am an INFJ. So Intuition is a big part of my personality and how I interact with the world. If you happen to fall into the “NF” category you probably are like me and put intuition and feelings, ahead of organization. I am here to tell you that is perfectly fine and it may just work as well for you, as it does for me. Remember we are the ones that enjoy rabbit holes and gazing into our crystal balls, even when we don’t have the slightest idea where they will lead. We tend to think these ventures into the unknown are educational, whether they lead anywhere important or not.

My Crystal Ball is a Japanese Glass Float found on the beach by my grandfather

Several Family History Blogger’s have remarked that the process of writing for a blog enhances their writing and research. I have found this to be very TRUE. Natalie’s recommends “setting a plan to avoid tangents” I just can’t be held to that. I will describe why in a moment. But, I do agree with Natalie’s first point which is to Decide Your Audience. My blog posts however, are actually aimed at two audiences. First, the broader genealogy community that may be looking for inspiration and ideas on how to research or write and the second audience is my family and kin. Since the first audience is broader I tend to focus on process while recounting my particular research. I try to keep my blog posts relatively short and they tend to have this two fold purpose. First to teach a particular aspect of writing or genealogical research and second to do so through my own ancestors or research dilemma. I find this dual approach really works at limiting my scope which is often a major issue with writing Family History Stories.

First point: write in bite size chunks. You can select an ancestor but you don’t have to write the story of their life. You can limit it to an interesting story or two. (see my Tale of two Soldiers though a long piece it has a tight focus) When you write about an ancestor—most people can’t be bothered to scroll through a very long blog post, unless the ancestor happens to be their own. It really has to be interesting for me to keep scrolling. So if I write with the broader audience in mind it’s going to be a sketch and not a oil painting. It does not have to be a masterpiece. This is helpful in two major ways. It take the pressure off and it can be accomplished in a few days or hours. Blog posts can be changed or amended as new information comes to light. It does not have to be finished—to be worthy of sharing.

Second point: write the way that works for you. If you write best having a very clear idea of what you are going to write, your audience and scope—then develop an outline and follow this to the letter, that’s great! But if you are a bit helter-skelter, down the rabbit hole, here, there and everywhere—that’s okay too. Just start writing and collecting your bits and pieces. What’s missing, what is your point? Keep coming back to the point! If you have gathered lots of bits and pieces but it doesn’t add to your story telling then edit it out. You can fill your genealogy binders with EVERYTHING you find—but what your audience craves is a decent story. If you have nothing interesting to write then you need to keep gathering information. If you must use creative license to make your story more interesting that’s good too—as long as you note what is conjecture and what is fact.

Third point: everyone reaches the writing point at different times in the genealogical journey. For me it came after 40 years of on and off research and 40 plus binders of information. Those binders are my journey. If you want others to learn what you have, a good story is the bait. If you find the task of writing impossible or overwhelming it could be that you are simply not ready to write. Lots of people attempt to write from a dispassionate place—I find the writer’s I enjoy most, include themselves in their stories. Tell me how you found your grandfather’s letters—in a trunk in an attic that you weren’t supposed to open. Set the stage with the things you know and how you feel connected to this ancestor or this search. Make me care about them like you do.

Fourth point: the more we write the easier it gets and the better we get. Like everything else in life we get better with practice. So if you are inspired start writing now.

  • Keep your scope small.
  • Make it personal.
  • Write about an event, not a lifetime.
  • Pick an ancestor or story that speaks to you.
  • Write with your audience in mind—are you speaking to your kids, grandkids, a room full of genealogists— who are you speaking to?
  • Find someone to share your story with who can give “constructive” feedback.
  • Edit, edit, edit. Can you say it in fewer word? Cut out the superfluous.
  • Add visuals to illustrate or to break up the writing. But don’t clutter your story with too many.

If you are an intuitive researcher or writer consider that a strength, not a weakness. If you find you will never be able to write the stories you want, hire someone to help you. Collaboration can be an excellent alternative to writing on your own.

Kelly Wheaton Copyright 2021 All RIghts Reserved

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