Since becoming the editor of New England Ancestors (now American Ancestors) magazine in 2003, I’ve read many article submissions and thought a great deal about what makes a good story. In this column, I want to encourage you to write down some of your family history in article form, whether or not you are interested in publication.
Genealogical research is fun. Genealogical writing can seem like more of a chore, but I urge you to capture some of the stories you’ve uncovered for yourself, your family, and perhaps for a wider audience. Contemplating a publication that would cover all your ancestors can seem overwhelming and intimidating, but I think that writing up article-length summaries and case studies is more manageable — and it can be beneficial.
Some of the rewards of writing down the results of your research are obvious — having a clear summary that can be consulted and shared. But there can be some additional benefits. Assigning yourself a fairly limited topic motivates you to make sure you’ve done all the research you can do. Writing an article almost always increases your knowledge of the family in question. When writing, you are forced to be rigorous, to recheck sources, and make sure your claims can be verified. If your article is selected for publication, you also get input from editors and proofreaders who may question your assumptions or ask questions and draw conclusions that hadn’t occurred to you.
For American Ancestors, a successful article:
- Tells a good story that engages readers
- Is focused on a particular topic — and doesn’t attempt to include all known information on an individual or family
- Often includes an unexpected twist, the solution to a mystery, or some sort of “eureka moment”
- Provides reliable documentation.
If you are writing only for yourself or family members, you may be producing summaries of ancestral lives — useful and necessary material that would not be of sufficient interest for a genealogical publication. But that doesn’t mean you can’t write up particular ancestors or episodes as if you were writing for a broader audience — family members may well be receptive to a more lively presentation and you can practice a wider range of writing styles.
Sometimes I receive article submissions that simply provide a biographical sketch of an ancestor. The documentation may be exemplary but the story isn’t likely to catch the interest of a general audience. I often suggest that these writers go through their family lines and select a few people and incidents that have captured their imaginations. When the story is exciting to you, you can make the story exciting for others.
Here are some examples of article themes featured in American Ancestors:
Discovering the truth behind a long-standing family tradition
Solving a brick wall, especially by using an interesting method or source.
Using DNA to prove (or disprove) family stories
Examining the life of an ancestor through a diary or letters
Documenting a family migration
Sharing information about an unusual record or set of records
Relating unusual or unexpected information about ancestors; for instance, a previously unknown criminal background or a hidden marriage
Telling the story of an ancestor who participated in a significant historical event, like the California gold rush or the Civil War.
Next week I will discuss the specifics of writing for American Ancestors with some tips for would-be article writers.