Thursday, September 6, 2012

Writing The Family History Memoir

What is a family history memoir?
There seems to be some discrepancy today of what genre our book might fall into: family history?  memoir? historical narrative? or some combination of the above....

Ahnentafel with modified register
 for Isaac Carter
For our purposes here we will agree that a family history is usually a narrative telling of one family, often including female collateral lines. It's scope often begins with the first immigrant in America and continues to the present; however, sometimes it may extend beyond the emigration story to life in the nation of origin. The narrative itself is a compilation of facts extracted from oral tradition and documentary sources, and may contain assumptions and conclusions drawn by the researcher/author. Many family histories conclude with the actual genealogy in an Ahnentafel chart. Here you'll see the first page of our Isaac Carter's ahnentafel with a modified register, which means that the report also includes an index for each child's lineage. An example of an exhaustive family history which I own is the NEWTON GENEALOGY: Being a record of the descendants of RICHARD NEWTON of Sudbury and Marlborough, Massachusetts, 1638, compiled by Ermina Newton Lenoard (1915).

Memoir is usually thought of in terms of a prominent person's reflections on their past, or perhaps of their child's reflection of their famous parent or grandparent's past leading up to their own self-discovery. An example of this genre is found in one of my favorite reads from last year, Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew, by Suzanne Berne (2010).

Family history memoir refers to a descendant researcher's shared discovery of their family history and includes insights and conclusions drawn along the way. It is a personal journey shared with the reader. Most books in this genre limit the scope to just a few generations of interest, usually the author's parents, grandparents and sometimes even great grandparents. Oh Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century, by John Paul Godges (2010), is a daring example of a family history memoir which I enjoyed reading this past year.

The historical narrative attempts to show the reader how they lived by placing our ancestors within the context of place, period and society. 1861: The Civil War Awakening, by Adam Goodheart (2011), is a wonderful analysis of the start of the Civil War which transports the reader to the scenes of events and to the thoughts and actions of their prominent players.

Where do I begin?
This book takes place in eastern North Carolina and extends from the antebellum period to the time of the great migration. I will be writing about three generations of my husband's paternal family, beginning with his great grandfather, Isaac Carter and ending with my husband's father. 

I hope you'll stop back in days to come as I share with you the journey of Writing The Family History Memoir.


  1. Great info! I'm also writing what I call a "family memoir," which includes me, my experiences growing up in the family. I thought about structuring it, like you, from my 2nd great grandparents' immigration to America and working down to my father and me, but I've ended up working backwards for some reason.

    Thanks for this post. Helping me out a lot.

    1. You're very welcome, Bettyann! I hope you'll follow some of the related posts to see where I'm headed. I am getting a lot of guidance from the blog, Live Write Thrive. C.S. Lakin has a Wednesday edition called The Heart of Your Story, which she is turning into a book, and it has helped me immensely!