As with all nearly all writing endeavors, your first step in writing your family history is selecting a topic. This takes a review of your family history documentation and artifacts as well as often told (or never told!) stories. Follow up by asking, “What’s here? What’s missing?”

I recommend you choose a family history topic that not only intrigues you, but one that also connects to your imagined readers in some way.

1. REVIEW YOUR RESOURCES

If you are like the people in my family, you have boxes and shelves, and maybe even entire closets, where you store your family resources. Your stash might include mementos, photograph albums, letters, birth, marriage, and death certificates, and binders of genealogical research. Review these resources and decide what you’d like to investigate further.

The following prompts will help you identify whether you would like to focus on a person, an artifact, or an event – or a blend of all three.

choose a family history topic

A Person

  • Consider the circumstances in which your family member or ancestor lived. Are you curious what life was like in that time?
  • Do you wonder what your ancestor was like as a person?
  • Do his or her accomplishments interest you?
  • Did this person overcome noteworthy obstacles?
  • Are you curious what his or her life might teach you and other family members?
  • Can you identify common traits between your ancestor and his or her descendants?

Did your answers convince you that you could breathe life into a dry biographical sketch?

An Artifact

  • Is there an artifact in your collection that “speaks” to you? Artifacts could include anything that’s been passed down. It might be an unusual cooking utensil, a trophy won, a medal awarded, or a diploma earned.
  • Might the artifact connect the ancestor who owned it to a descendant living today, one with shared interests?
  • Does the artifact connect your family to a larger story? Consider, for instance, a membership pin to an organization that has survived centuries.
  • Does the artifact seem to represent an idea or value?
family history artifact

Do your answers convince you the artifact deserves a story of its own?

family history story

A Story

  • Were there any news clippings, diaries, or letters in your resources? Were the stories ones that would interest readers today?
  • Your ancestors probably had hobbies. Are they unique or interesting hobbies?
  • Did one of your ancestors undergo an unusual or innovative medical treatment?
  • Can you credit an invention or discovery to one of your ancestors?
  • Did one of your ancestors do something wild in the name of love?
  • Did your ancestor survive (or perish) in a historical event of note?

Are you compelled to retell one of the stories you found in a way that will connect with readers today?

3. DEFINE YOUR AUDIENCE

Now that you know what you want to write about and why, talk to family members at different generational ages. Find out if they think you have an interesting idea. If necessary, refine your idea. You want it to appeal to your intended audience.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, before you determine your topic, a solid review of your genealogical information and family artifacts is in order. First and foremost, choose a family history topic that interests you. Then, with your intended audience in mind, explore it further through writing and research.

Now you’re ready to choose a writing genre to “frame” your topic. For help, read our next post in this series, Choosing a Genre to Frame Your Topic.

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Cynthia is a twenty-year plus teaching veteran with expertise in teaching writing, literature, and research to students of all ages. In addition to her passion for teaching, Dr. Kiefer is an American history buff, artifact aficionado, and historical fiction writer and researcher.

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