Writing Stories: Writing Begins With a Title

If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.” Virginia Woolf

For many beginning writers or future writers the two hardest things are “what to write about” and “how to get started.Choosing a title helps me focus my writing and defines the parameters. Occasionally I may refine a title after I am finished writing, however, most of the time it is the first bit of writing I do, (including this piece). Especially when writing family stories (or blog posts) the title is designed to attract your audience, but it should also help you define what it is you are going to be writing about.

Let’s talk about how to kill your writing vs. killer titles. If you title your piece The life of Daniel Charles Coats you have already lost most of your audience and you have set yourself up for failure. First, most people, and most especially your family could care less about your genealogy of Daniel Charles Coats. Second, the story of someone’s life is huge in scope. Your goal in setting the title is to make Daniel interesting. A story is NOT a recitation of facts. It is NOT Dan was born here, married to so-n-so and died and is buried thus. There’s a lot of Genealogy writing that goes this way—and is destined to kill the subject because the audience will never read it.

My piece about Dan Coats is based on a newspaper article and a county history story. It is titled Ice Cream Melons & Foxes: It’s the Mouth Watering Details that Bring an Ancestor to Life. Remember your goal is to resurrect the dead and bring their lives into focus, NOT to bore your audience to death with a recitation of facts. So, what interesting things did you find when researching your ancestor? Did she live to be a hundred? What history would she have witnessed? Did he marry 6 times? Do you have a letter or heirloom that belonged to her? Do you know where he lived? Can you research the house or farm? Is there a newspaper clipping, or story about your ancestor? These can all be the subject of an interesting story. Remember your story can be short. You can tell a story in 17 syllables like Haiku poetry does.

For your first piece of writing make the focus very tight. Heirlooms are a great place to start. Tell the story of what it is and who had it. How you acquired it and what its significance is to you. I am going to suggest that you put yourself in the story. Why? Because it tends to make stories more personal and interesting. If you always keep your subject at arms length your stories will lack passion. Engage with your ancestors so when others read about them they will care too. Read the above quote by Virginia Woolf, again.

In my story: The Challenge: Tokyo Rose the story was about how my husband’s remark “Well you know your Dad was a bit of a storyteller” led to my investigation into my Dad’s claim that he had testified in the trial of Tokyo Rose. It is not a history of my father or of Iva Toguri D’ Aquino, although details of both are included. Setting the title can narrow your scope, engage the audience and make the objective easier to achieve. My goal is to get you writing stories about your ancestors. Do not just think about what you might write someday, what can you get started on today.

  • I write the title first!
  • Most of the time, I write electronically, that is I do not write on paper before typing out my story
  • I do use a pencil to take notes
  • I keep a list of ideas or titles
  • I often have 2-5 stories/blog posts started at the same time
  • I have no set time frame
  • I often take photos to supplement my stories
  • Long pieces can be broken into parts or converted to a full fledged story or page
  • If you have enough stories about an individual or family they can be put together as chapters in a book

Some ideas by topic to inspire you from my blog:


REFORMED GENEALOGISTS: Turning Trees into Stories. My most popular blog post

Genealogy and Greed Don’t Mix

Confessions of a Rabbit Hole Genealogist: The Defense of Inspired Genealogy

On What We Leave Behind: Writing


Organizing Your Genealogy: How I Do It

Things Aren’t Always What They Appear to Be: Context Matters and the Case of the Missing Record

Genealogical Research: Is there a Method to the Madness? YES

The Bluette Diner: What you may be Missing if you aren’t Colorizing your Black & White Photos

The Case of the Mysterious Birth Certificate


Knotted Strands: The Misattributed Heirloom

The Well loved Family Heirloom

Family Heirlooms: Dog tags

The Inherited Object Revisited


A Trip Down Memory Lane: One way to access the stories of our past

Cher Ami: A Pigeon and a Poet

Cause of Death: Before Antibiotics and Vaccines

The Places You Go, the People You Meet

A Tale of Two Soldiers: My Two Civil War Soldiers

LEGENDS, LIES & LIBERTIES: Family Stories in Perspective

EXPLORING A FAMILY LEGEND: The SHELDONS and the Underground Railroad in Michigan


Kelly Wheaton Copyright 2021. All RIghts Reserved.

1 Comments on “Writing Stories: Writing Begins With a Title”

  1. Pingback: Listen to Your Ancestors: What Story do they want you to Write? | Wheaton Wood

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