5 planning tips for writing your family history

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Have you been toying with the idea of using your research to write a family history book? Or setting a finger on the keyboard and writing your own story? Or how about compiling a memory book in celebration of a milestone birthday or anniversary? It’s a great idea until you sit down to do it, right? You have all the information, but where do you start?

While I haven’t written a family history book, I did write a ‘this is your life’ style memory book for Mum when she turned 70. Aptly titled ‘The First Seventy Years,’ this quickly detoured from ‘just a few stories’ to over 180 pages. Who knows how long it would have become if I hadn’t run out of time? After a couple of false starts, it was incredibly easy to fill those pages. After all, Mum didn’t have any trouble filling those 70 years with her adventures.

Family History The First Seventy Years Internal Pages
Front cover of Mum’s story
Family History The First Seventy Years Internal Pages
Examples of internal layouts

I picked the project because I thought that being a graphic designer would give me an edge. After all, I knew how to put a book together. Right? Wrong! So very wrong. It’s easy to layout a book when someone else provides the copy and structure of how it all fits together.

I’m going to share my five essential planning tips to help you avoid falling into that particular rabbit hole. Writing a family history or memory book is stressful. You want to get the words right as you tell the story. After all, you are often giving voice to those who can no longer speak for themselves. I can’t help with that part. But try these five tips to help reduce stress so you can enjoy telling your family history.

Tip 1: Create a family history writing plan

Did you use a research plan for your investigations? If not, you probably noticed how easy it was to go down a research rabbit hole. You start out exploring the life of your Dad’s Aunt Dolly and then whoosh; it’s three hours later, and you are three generations deep in the ancestors of her nephew’s spouse. The same thing can happen when you are writing your family history.

What is the scope and span of the book?

Before you begin, be sure of what story you are telling. Put together a writing plan which you can refer back too to stay on track. It doesn’t need to include all the details, just the main points that will help you focus. It’s also a great checklist, so you don’t miss anything that you want to cover.

Things to include:

  • a summary of the overall of the story,
  • chapter breakdown – what you will cover and how many pages per chapter,
  • notes on which images (photos, certificates, etc.) to use.

I created a writing planner to help me plot out the scope of a book. Working out the number of chapters and total page count determines the volume of your book. Knowing the number of pages will help answer production planning questions such as size, format, and binding.

The planner has three parts – the writing planner, a chapter planner and a timeframe planner. The first two parts capture titles, summary, and notes on content of specific pages.

Fuzzy Ink Stationery Family History Writing Planner
Family History Writing Planner pages
Fuzzy Ink Stationery Family History Chapter Planner
Family History Chapter Planner pages

Grab your copy of the family history writing planner

You’ll find the writing planner in the resource library. Already a member? Check the newsletter for the link and password. Not a member? Add your details below and check your inbox.

Tip 2: Finalise production decisions

Now you know the story you are writing, you need to decide how it will look. How do you get it into the hands of your audience? There are several things to take into consideration such as budget, size, and format.

For Mum’s story, I wanted one copy of a bound, hardcover book for her birthday. So, I found a printer who could produce that quantity and style of book to discuss options, budget, and timeframe. Knowing when I had to send the file to the printer was a crucial date for my timeline.

Family history production planning

  • Quantity– how many books do you need? Consider your audience and format.
  • Budget– are you selling the books to relatives or paying for it yourself? Consider the quantity, page count, quality of stock and binding options when working out a per book cost.
  • The format– Are you printing hard copies or providing digital downloads? Or both?
    • Hard copy printing– When looking at printers, consider the quantity, the page count, your budget and choice of binding.
    • Digital format– consider the distribution method to select the most accessible option. I recommend a fixed-layout ebook format (e.g., PDF).
    • Physical size– The choices are many. Always check with your printer to see if they suggest particular dimensions for cost-effective printing.
    • Orientation– There are three options. Either landscape (horizontal), portrait (vertical), or square.
  • Binding– Bound, hardcover books are a favourite for genealogy books but can be expensive for short runs.
    • Casebound/Hardcover books
    • Perfect Binding
    • Saddle-Stitching
    • Side-Stitching
    • Wire-O Binding
    • Plastic Coil/Comb Binding
    • Tape Binding
    • Ring-Binders
  • Distribution– There are different options for digital versus print. For digital books, a download link or email is an option. A hard copy will require shipping or another delivery method.

Some binding examples from my bookshelf:

Family history binding example of a case bound, flat-lay material wrapped book with dustcover
Case bound, flat-lay book with dustcover
Family history binding example of a case bound, flat-lay image wrapped book
Case bound, flat-lay image wrapped book
Family history binding example of a perfect bound book
Perfect bound book
Family history binding example of saddle-stitched book
Saddle-stitched book
Family history binding example of plastic comb binding
Plastic comb binding
Family history binding example of a wire-o bound book
Wire-o bound book

Tip 3: Decide on a design and layout plan

Binding, size, and format are only a part of the planning. Design and layout of the internal pages are equally essential to create an aesthetically pleasing, easy to read book.

You can either:

  • Hire a graphic designer, or
  • Do-it-yourself
    • Download or purchase a template for software you are familiar with such as InDesign or Microsoft Publisher, PowerPoint or Word
    • Use software provided by photo book publishing companies (Blurb, Shutterfly, Snapfish)
    • Design and create a template in the software of your choice

Factors to take into consideration when reviewing your approach to design and layout are:

  • production goals,
  • software knowledge & skill level,
  • budget,
  • timeframe, and
  • writing style.

For design inspiration, I use Pinterest. Create a board of all the images that inspire you. Take a look my Pinterest board to get started. Try searching terms such as family history books, heritage layouts, magazine pages and even annual reports. Use your favourites to inspire a unique look for your family history.

family history layout inspiration scrapbook page the many stages of your journey
Feature page inspiration | A photo timeline of the creator’s father (thecountryteacher.wordpress.com)
family history layout inspiration letter scrapbook.com
Feature page inspiration | A creative use of a family letter (scrapbook.com)
family history layout example picturesandstories.com
Family tree layout inspiration | Family history book created by Pictures and Stories (picturesandstories.com)
family history layout design inspiration
General layout inspiration | iPhoto photo book created by Elizabeth Sawyer with art by Ali Edwards (aliedwards.com)

Grab your copy of the family history writing planner

You’ll find the writing planner in the resource library. Already a member? Check the newsletter for the link and password. Not a member? Add your details below and check your inbox.

Tip 4: Create a calendar of tasks

The most significant learning from writing Mum’s book was that it took more time than I thought it would. I had allowed myself two weeks to write and edit her story. That 188-page tale. All while juggling a very demanding, full-time job. I ended up having to print the file twice because the first version was full of typographical errors. The second version still had some, but luckily, I didn’t notice those until after we presented the book to Mum! So, a timeline is vital.

Add the end goal and start date on the calendar. Then, add in all the tasks you need to complete. So, what is your end goal? It is when the family history book is in the hands of your audience. Writing the story is the first part, and production is the second. Production covers printing, binding, and distribution. If you are writing for a birthday, anniversary or family reunion then the event date is your distribution date. Otherwise set a deadline three to six months out, depending on how much time you can dedicate to the project.

Fuzzy Ink Stationery Family History Timeframe Planner
Timeframe planner calendar and instructions
Family History Writing Planner suite
A timeframe planner calendar in action

Tip 5: Organise your content

Finally, my last suggestion is going to be a big time-saver and is excellent for tight deadlines. Organise all the content that you are thinking of including, such as:

  • Check that all the media (photos, certificates, maps, etc.) is an appropriate resolution.
    • For printed books, images should be 300dpi when displayed at 100%
    • For digital books, I recommend 96dpi when shown at 100%
  • Information
    • Get all of your notes in order.
    • Borrow any books you need from the library
    • Bookmark every website that you may need to refer back too.
    • Organise copies of your digital files in chapter specific folders, so everything is easy to find when writing.
  • Source details for all material
  • List of contributors to acknowledge the people who have contributed stories, quotes or images.
  • Check the copyright license of all public images you plan to include. When in doubt, leave it out.

Grab your copy of the family history writing planner

You’ll find the writing planner in the resource library. Already a member? Check the newsletter for the link and password. Not a member? Add your details below and check your inbox.

Leave a comment below

So, have you tried the writing planner? Or do you plan too? Maybe you have a tip to share from your own experience? I’d love to know!

Fuzzy Ink Stationery 5 planning tips for writing your family history

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