I’m starting a new family history project about my great-grandparents, Helen and Loyd Wine of Panora, Iowa.  Since they are both deceased, their life stories will be told by others, and by any first-person documents I can dig up.

It’s exciting to start a new family history project.  One, it’s a good excuse to email and call relatives I have not seen in awhile.  Two, it’s fun to play detective and find long-forgotten documents and video recordings.  And three, it feels good to lean in to family roots this year.

Making Old Look Easy

Grandpa and Grandma Wine were friendly, recurring characters throughout my childhood.  In fact, they were both still alive when I was 29 and had our first son Mazy.  (They were in their 90s.)  For most of my life, they were always the oldest people I knew.  They made “old” seem like a very active, busy way of life.  They entertained our huge family at most major holidays, were avid gardeners, loved to read and talk politics, and were interesting, fun people.

As I recreate the story of their lives, it will be important to edit and prioritize their personality traits, values and most notable life events.  For instance, Grandma Wine was once featured in Wallace’s Farmer magazine as one of the first Iowa women to get electricity in her kitchen.

But it’s also important to capture the little stories that seem insignificant until you give them a bigger meaning.  Like the fact that Grandpa Wine mowed the lawns at my high school.  It seemed perfectly natural to me, a naive young person, that 80-year-old men worked actively in the hot sun without complaint.  His work ethic and attitude really painted a positive, vibrant picture of “old age.”  I eventually learned most of society doesn’t see it that way.  That’s an incredible gift to give to your great-grandchildren.

How to Write Your Family History

Since I am in the very early stages of this family history project, I thought I’d share my process.  You can follow these steps to help write a biography or life history book about a relative or friend who has passed away.

You can follow these steps to help write a biography or life history book about a relative or friend who has passed away.

1. Inform the family about your plan.

Like raising kids, it takes a village to create this family history project.  Start by emailing a few family members who represent the different branches of your family and get them interested and curious in the project.  You will need their help!

2. Ask family and friends for any first-person artifacts.

A first-person artifact is anything created by the subject of your family history book.  In my case, it’s anything Grandma or Grandpa Wine wrote, drew or spoke themselves.  It could be a letter to a grandchild, a videotaped interview, a journal or diary, baby books, even cookbooks with notes scrawled on the pages.  Collect as many first-person artifacts as possible.

3. Begin sorting and organizing your artifacts.

A word to the wise, do not ask for any original documents.  Make copies of everything and give the originals back to the owners as quickly as possible.  Then, grab a coffee or glass of wine and start reading.  Make an inventory of everything you have and take a few notes about what each artifact is. Begin to group them into similar categories and chronologically.  Remember, you’re recreating a family history so you’re trying to piece together information to cover childhood, young adult, adult, retirement, etc.

4. Transcribe everything!

This is a big job and could be a pain if you don’t like typing.  But you need to transcribe all your artifacts into one big word document.  Keep track of the dates of each artifact and who it came from.  If you have trouble deciphering handwriting, do your best and just guess.

5. Find your gaps.

If you’re an amazing detective and/or super lucky, you might have artifacts that cover the entire span of your subject’s life.  Most times, this will not be the case.  Determine what parts of their lives are missing.

6. Ask for family stories.

One way to fill in the gaps is to ask family members for stories.  Even if you have a complete chronological record of someone’s life, adding family stories make a much colorful and richer book!  Be inclusive.  Ask as many family members as possible to contribute stories and photos.

Email people with a good explanation of your family history project and a firm deadline for submitting their stories.  Explain what you expect from them.  Get specific.  Limit them to a couple of favorite stories and two or three photographs.  It would be amazing to include every single story your family has, but you are the editor and need to prioritize information.  Set expectations at the beginning so the finished book doesn’t surprise or hurt anyone’s feelings.

Need Help?

Now that you have all the information, you can turn it into an amazing family history book.  Need help putting together your story outline?  Check out our page on How to Write a Biography.  Or, send me an email.  I’d love to hear about your project and help work out any challenges.

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