Friday, June 27, 2008

A Plan For Writing My Family History

I've been trying to figure out where to start with my family history, not with the writing specifically but with the project in general. I'm trying to start with a "big picture" view of things and come up with a strategy that will break things down into smaller segments that I can tackle a week or so at a time. Here's what I've come up with so far.

July 7-11 - Library research (mostly looking up obits to get the names of 2nd and 3rd cousins I can write to for information/photos of their parents/grandparents)

July 14-18 - Family History Center research/photography (I have the films for my ancestors' vital records on indefinite loan at my local FHC). The Lipa family was the first I "found" when I started my genealogy research. I extracted what I thought was all the relavent information at the time but I didn't photograph all the records, just those from my main line of descent. I'm thinking that I really should go back and spend a week photographing more records. I'm not sure why I think I should do this... maybe it's the pack-rat in me that just wants to have posession of the records.)

July 21-15 - Gather what printed information I have for the Lipa and Laska families and organize it so I can find it when I need it. Enter any new information I've come across into my database.

July 28-31 - Internet research to fill in the gaps.

August 1-31 -Write the family history (still hoping to get this done in one month!)

September 1-30 - Edit, rewrite where necessary, and add photos, charts, etc.

Goal: Publish in October.

I have to make a decision about what to include in my family history and it's a difficult decision to make. Unlike the folks who have several generations of their family lines here in America, the bulk of my family's history is in Poland. And while the LDS has done a marvelous job of filming the birth, marriage, and death records of the parishes my family members belonged to I really have no other information about my individual ancestors who lived in Poland... no obituaries, no military records, no land records, no probate records or deeds, no censuses, no school records or yearbooks, and in all but a few recent instances not even gravestones or cemetery records. The best I can do is write about what was going on historically in Poland at the time a given ancestor lived and maybe mention what was going on in the U.S. at the time as a frame of reference. Obviously I can't do this for every ancestor. In addition to deciding how much "general history" to include I also have to decide which ancestors I might want to reference or speculate about. How do I decide?

Sometimes when I get to thinking about this project I think I just don't have enough information to write a family history yet. Then I ask myself, "but if not now, when?" I don't anticipate any more records becoming available if any even exist. Between the various wars and the occuping forces who destroyed records in Poland and the fact that not many records were kept on illiterate, poor, peasants to begin with, I don't hold out much hope of finding more information about my ancestors. It's possible, sure. But I don't know when or if that might happen. So I figure it's time to draw the line in the sand and get on with the writing.

If there's anyone out there who has written a family history similar to mine where you have virtually no personal information on any of your ancestors more than 2 generations back I'd really appreciate hearing how you handled it.


  1. Hi Jasia,

    I applaud you for wanting to go ahead with writing your family history, even though your details don't go back as many generations as you'd like. In the absence of family facts, the best you can do is consider the historical and social events of the time and give an overview of what life might have been like for those ancestors in their time and place.

    The Nearby History seminar I've been involved with stresses how social history creates a structural frame through which we can view our ancestor's lives, and give us a better idea of how they lived beyond facts and figures.

    I only had a few names and facts in regards to the Johnson family origins in Nord-Trondelag, Norway, but through studying other writings about early Norwegian farming life and the journals of others who emigrated to America, I was able to piece together a pretty good picture of what the family went through.

    This can be a time consuming process, because in order to write credible non-fiction, sources must be documented diligently, and that means footnotes or endnotes, and a bibliography.

    It is also becoming increasingly permissable to write "creative non-fiction," at least where family history is involved. I knew that my great grandparents lived through a major blizzard during the 1880s in Minnesota, but I hadn't heard anything about it through family lore. Soooo... I got details of the blizzard through books and news sources and "imagined" how my ancestors would have reacted, and what they went through. I don't think it's necessary to pepper your writing with words like "supposedly" and "probably," but it's a good idea to stress in an introduction or footnote that some of the stories are based on information from other sources, and not from family knowledge.

    If you like, I can send you an example or two from the history I just completed.

    Good luck!

  2. Jasia:

    Chery is right on the mark. Very few of us have more than names and a few facts. The creative nonfiction approach is being used by many scholars.

    "Creative nonfiction" is described this way. The use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction. Factually accurate prose about real people and events written in a compelling and vivid manner. Creative nonfiction writers don't make things up they make ideas that already exist more interesting and accessible.

    Newspaper accounts, diaries of others in similar situations to your ancestors and literature can help fill in the blanks.

    I will offer this to you. A new book I'm reading called "Keep It Real - Everything You Need To Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction." So far it looks like a great book.


  3. Hi Jasia - the other two ladies said it best. Also - have you been able to contact anyone that may be related to either of your lines who currently lives in the region your ancestors lived? Possibly a long distant "cousin" may know where some information can be located - gravestones, buildings that may still be standing, etc. Good luck & look forward to reading about your progress.

  4. You've already written many great background pieces on places and events in both Poland and Detroit. I would find a way to include them.

  5. Jasia,
    Two of my clients wrote novels based on their family history so they could "fill in the gaps." David Bowles probably has a lot more information about his ancestors than you do, but he is writing The Westward Sagas as fiction so he can be a little more creative than creative nonfiction in imagining what his ancestors' daily lives were like. James E. Williams couldn't find much information about his slave ancestors, so he wrote Uncle Big Bud as fiction. In both cases, though, they did meticulous research, included all the facts they could find, and made sure that anything they wrote from imagination rather than history did not conflict with known facts.

  6. Hi Jasia,
    I started to get my line ready to put in print oh so many years go. Each time I found something new, my advice would be get copies of all those distant cousins you never know were a clue is coming from. my mom died in 65, she helped me with the family history it wasn,t until you had the carnivel about mom's a few moths ago that I double checked some records and found she was married before she married my dad, and I have been doing this since the 40's so turn every leaf you can, better to take extra month or so, than to have to come out with a suppliment. good luck

  7. I'm just reading "You Can Write Your Family History" by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack. I would recommend this - for example, she talks about ways to use social history and gives ideas on describing appropriate places and time periods. (Genealogical Publishing Company: Baltimore, MD, 2003, 2008)

  8. One of the things that inspired me to get going and get my own family history "story" done was that most of the cousins who had contributed the information were getting on in years and were beginning to have reading problems with macular degeneration. My first attempt was rather lame, but it got the information "out there" and it took a huge weight off my shoulders to know that it wasn't just in my computer and files anymore.

  9. Bronwyn Klimach9:07 AM, June 30, 2008

    Hi Jasia,
    I can understand your wanting to collect every possible record pertaining to your extended family. I too have Polish films on indefinite loan - or at least I thought I did until the policy of the FHC I go to became one of keeping only UK and Jewish records due to space problems etc... I am still making copies!
    I also have little else by way of documents, and almost no photos, so will be pleased to hear how you decide to present your history. Most of the villages are also too small for me to do a convincing article about locations and their history such as you have treated us to already.
    Good luck tracking down more distanct cousins - I think I have exhausted that potential source of information.
    How much of the final result will we get to see? I'm sure it will be fascinating.
    Kind regards,