Writing Memoirs or Family Histories

The urge to write

More and more people follow an urge to record their lives on paper. Perhaps this stems from wanting to leave a footprint behind long after we have left this earth. Perhaps it’s to understand who we are and the turmoils we’ve undergone, and it takes on a form of therapy. Or perhaps we are inspired by the extraordinary feats of an ancestor and want to share the tale with others.

Family trees are researched and genealogies documented increasingly these days, and if it weren’t for this, how many of us would know the names of our great grandparents? These important people were the foundation of our immediate family today and yet they are lost in the passing of each generation. They’re more than a vague recollection; they too experienced love and laughter, tears and sadness. Their lives were full of drama and excitement. They deserve to be remembered.

Autobiography or biography?

If your goal is to write your own memoir or autobiography, you could start and finish at any point; it could focus on a difficult time in your life or be a more thorough account of your life from birth until present day including friends and family. Similarly, if you choose to write a biography on a specific ancestor, then it could be the full story from birth to death or limited to a particular point in that person’s life.

Autobiographies are easier because the writer knows all the details having lived it, but it can be emotionally draining and difficult to reveal personal details. It may cause you to question your decisions or motives. Biographies require far more research and hours spent trying to discover every hidden detail.

Do something about it before it’s lost!

It’s the colour and fabric of our lives that create the people we are, not the sequential order to which we are born. Without our stories, our relatives, names, and identities are forgotten.

Writing your memoir or family history can be a rewarding and meaningful experience. You never know what family secrets you may unearth with all your digging. But most importantly, it’s fun.

There are essentially two purposes for writing your memoir or family history: publishing it to a public forum or as a keepsake for the family. This is your choice. It’s possible that other people may not share the excitement and wonder that you feel about your own life story or a story on the lives of your family; however, what may have started out with the intention of being a bound book on the family’s bookshelf may actually hold powerful historic value with larger-than-life characters. Avid readers from all over may welcome it, but a second opinion is vital before you make plans to self-publish with a large print-run.

Just write it

Don’t worry excessively about the end product and what you’re going to do with it. Write to capture the story and relate it to those that might read it. Allow your memories, facts and thoughts to flow first then turn your thoughts to editing later. It’s recommended that you seek a professional editor to assist you in producing your work. You’ve put so much effort and time into it; don’t ruin it in the final stages.

Research, research, research

Research is crucial for family histories and you will need to wear your investigative hat. Interview family members, especially older ones. Look up genealogy trees, birth certificates, death certificates, school records, journals, yearbooks, military records, passports, and the list goes on. There are surprises in every family.

Quite often names were changed, middle names used instead or the spelling of surnames altered. There are family tales due to war, depression, sickness, etc. Memories can become slanted over time, so keep this in mind when interviewing people. Always ensure your facts are correct.

Important Points

Here are some additional important points to help guide you:

  • Don’t be afraid to write in the first person. The story is about your life and you are telling it. However, nothing is stopping you from writing in the third person if that’s your choice. Remember, it’s your book.
  • Use plain, simple language so everyone can understand. It’s about getting your story across to your readers.
  • Type names into search engines, such as Google, and see what you find.
  • Take notes. Lives are chronologically set. That doesn’t mean you have to begin at the beginning. Dive into the middle and work your way out. However, it helps to have index cards with the correct order of events on them for easy referencing. Alternatively, you can use software that can structure your thoughts and events, such as Writer’s Helper.
  • Add extras to make it unique. A book of memoirs filled with photos of schools, towns, people and places adds interest. Life is different now and people are interested in what life used to be like, especially if they are related to them.
  • Inject humour, anecdotes, quotes and sayings. Include family recipes and handy hints known to your family. These are the threads that sew your family’s patchwork quilt together.
  • Don’t use your story memoirs or family history as a means for retribution. Show meaning and depth. There should be a purpose that helps others achieve similar goals, such as making money, surviving against the odds or how to be a better person/parent/sibling.
  • Use websites with researchable databases, such as www.ancestry.com.au. These offer valuable information. You may even find a distant relative in another country where you can share information.
  • Allow other family members to know about it or give them the opportunity to get a copy for themselves. Email a copy to family members, so they can add to it, before finalising it. Valuable information can be gathered this way and help to complete your work before publishing.

Writing a memoir or family history is an heirloom for future generations – they contain captured moments in time, punctuated with facts and anecdotes that tell a story.

So, what does your story say?


Image by CharuTyagi from Pixabay

5 thoughts on “Writing Memoirs or Family Histories

    1. Thank you. I guess it’s just human nature to over think something, which hinders whatever we’re trying to achieve. It’s better to make a start and then we’re already on the path to completion.


  1. My memoirs have become a series of published novels, written in first person. It;s been an exciting adventure during the last four or five years; a massive learning curve in the art of self publishing and now promotion and selling. But, after each book has been completed the next one fills my mind. I can’t let it go until the stories discovered in family history documents and stories are told. I love being an author – its a great way to spend ones retirement.


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