5 tips for writing a family history book

Featuring Minnie the dog

by Jon Waterman on 28-10-2021

Hello lovely people!

This is Sally from printmybook.com and in this post I want to share some tips with you about how to write a family history book. October is family history month and as the days are getting shorter and the evenings are drawing in we’re all going to be spending more time indoors which means you might have time to research your family history and even transform it into a book for generations to come to enjoy. We’ve printed a lot of these in the past  and so I have a few tips to give you about how best to do yours. If you prefer I made a video with the tips which you can watch below, otherwise read on!

Tip 1 - The look

You need to think about what you’d like your family history book to be like. Have you seen one whose style you’d like to replicate? Or is there one you came across and thought it could have been done better? Use this to guide you and think about all of the family stories, photos, and previous research family members might have done. What events, people, documents, and memorabilia do you want to include in your book? Luckily there are absolutely zero rules about what a family history book has to look like so you can let your creativity go wild.

Tip 2 - Plan

There’s two parts to planning your family history, the first is the scope. It’s so, so important to think the scope of your book. Scope essentially means the extent or range of what will you include and what will you leave out of your book. If you are going very far into the past (e.g. 4 or more generations) it’s likely you’ll have facts and documents about those ancestors, but few if any personal stories or images. What will really enhance those documents and facts is if you add period research to give those documents context. If your scope is closer to the present, e.g. only 2 generations back, you will more than likely have way more stories and images to use in your book. The point is you need to pick a realistic scope for your book as it will determine whether you need to do extra work to contextulise your ancestors. The second part of planning a family history book is the style. Your book may be a collection of documents, photos and a summary of your research, which is more of a reference book that the reader can search through and select parts to read at random. The other style is a story-based narrative, which reads like a novel in that it has a beginning to end. Often the best family history books actually combine these two styles so this is what I think you should aim for. When you have decided on the scope and style of your book, gather and sort your relevant research. Use index cards to write out each piece of information and lay them out in your proposed book outline. Move ideas around, take some out, add more in, and see how they fit together best. This part although time consuming will actually save you some time down the line as it will more than likely prevent rewrites of your book. I would only begin writing your book after your outline is complete.

Tip 3 - Think of your books audience

This is the hardest part and that’s sitting down to write a rough draft of your book. Your book’s audience is typically be your family, family friends, and future family researchers. What will be the most interesting and important for your readers? To help you get the juices flowing ask yourself this: what was the most interesting and important information for you when you set out to write your family history book? I recommend writing your manuscript in Microsoft Word or Pages and as you are writing decide on the photos and documents you want to illustrate the book. However it’s very important to keep your text separate from your images. We really don’t recommend trying to design your book in your word processing program as you write. Instead note in your manuscript where you want to place the images. I’ll explain more about why this is so important this later on in this post. If you can scan your images and documents at a high resolution yourself then do that and save them in a designated folder on your computer. Otherwise you can bring them to us and we’ll scan and organise them for you.

Tip 4 - Polishing your book

We would always at the very minimum having your manuscript proofread by a friend obsessed with detail or a professional proof reader. There is nothing worse than a finished printed book that you’ve laboured for months over only to have mistakes in it. A professional editor can also helpful in that they can do more than just editing; they can guide you with shaping a rough draft, or they suggest ways you can supplement and revise the content. So that’s something to consider when you’re working on your book and are struggling with writing.

Tip 5 - Make your book look pretty

Family histories are usually complex illustrated books, so they need design beyond what Microsoft Word and Pages can offer. For book design, practically all publishers use multiple software programs in Adobe Creative Suite like Photoshop, InDesign, etc. We would really recommend you work with a graphic designers to layout and design your book for you – unless you are one of course! And if you’re not one we have 4 graphic designers here who can help you do it.

Now onto the last step, good news! – to publish, you’ll just need printing services and/or a way to distribute the books. Luckily for you we do both. Printing has actually been in our family since 1901 so we’ve seen it all, been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. We have printers here who can print the book and make it, and if you need it we have a bookshop on our website where you can list your book for free and your family whether they live in Ireland or across the world can buy it all from the one place.

Ultimately the message I’m trying to get across here is that no author does all of this alone. You need to decide what your skills are, and get support from family, friends and experts when you need it. Good editing and professional design will help you create a bookstore-quality family history book that you will be proud to share with family.

Happy writing!