Finding the Focus of Your Family History Narrative

eyeglasses in the hand over blurred tree background


To write a good quality family history story, one must be able to take a lot of information, research and reduce it into a focused narrative.

William Zinsser reminds us to think small.

He writes, “Decide what corner of your subject you’re going to bite off, and be content to cover it well and stop.”

This is an especially important lesson for family history writers. We often want to include it all, every morsel of research we have uncovered in our travels. We want to write about every ancestor, every event. One of the most difficult tasks we face comes in reducing the wealth of information we have uncovered down to what is essential.

Ask yourself,

What do I want my family to remember most about their family history?” and

What point do I really want to make?”

How do we focus our story?

Ask questions

Asking questions helps us concentrate on the big picture topic. If you’ve chosen to write about your grandfather, ask yourself, what do I want my readers to know about my grandfather? What legacy did he leave to his family, what lesson can we find in his life?

Ask what really interests you about your grandfather? What do you find fascinating about him?

It’s one thing to write about family history because it is your passion, but consider which ancestors you are most passionate about? What about their lives will readers find most interesting. We all have ancestors that intrigue us.  Ask yourself why? The focus of your story may be in the answer.

Understanding Your Audience

Finding The Story 3 UPDATE

What is the purpose of your story? Who is your reader? Are you are writing for your family, a larger audience or yourself? The purpose can directly affect your story.

Identify a Specific Event or Time Frame

There may be many aspects of your ancestor’s life that may not make it to the page because it has no bearing on the story you are writing. A difficult thing for family historians to grasp. For instance, perhaps your writing about your grandfather’s life as a railroad conductor. While his family life may garner some small part of the story, the story may not focus on his married life, and children, etc. Perhaps that was a part of his life before his family. If they don’t support the focus of your story, don’t include them.

Family history stories do not have to be entire birth to death history of an ancestor. A story may span one day,  2-years or 10 years. It could even cover a single event in a life. Regardless, narrow the scope of the story. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself pulled in any number of directions.

Sift through the abundance of information you have on any given ancestor. Find those gems that will be the focus.  When you find the focus, hold on to all the supporting facts and let the rest go. If we treat all the research equally, we give every fact and detail the same importance then our story will  feel diffused and unfocused.

This exercise will help you in sharping the focus of your family history story.

Exercise – A Six-Word Family History  

(This exercise is an adaption from Six-Word Memoirs,  a project founded by an online storytelling magazine Smith Magazine.

  • Choose an ancestor from your family history and attempt to convey their life, the meaning of their life or the point you wish to make about their life in 6 words.
  • Ask yourself what do you want to say about this ancestor’s life?
  • Think about a hidden part of your ancestor’s life – something that no one else may know
  • Think about a feeling you have about your ancestor, a character trait.

By completing this exercise, you drill down and get to the heart of the story.

Here are a few examples choose one ancestor, a family line or family unit. This is a creative exercise, so the only rule 6 words.

Anna Prieur –  mother to many, mystery to me.

Adam Kowalsky – He chose to be a Canadian

Phelan Family – unwavering in politics, family and faith

Now try it with your ancestors.

Feel free to share this exercise in the Forum under the thread 6-Word Family History

Or tweet your 6-word family history using hashtag, #fhwc2015