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How to Choose Your Family Book's Focus

by Michael John Neill
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Deciding What to Write About
From deciding on a title to choosing a publisher, let an experienced researcher help you create your family book.

Seeing your genealogical research between two covers holds a great deal of appeal for many researchers. For some, wanting to write a genealogy or family history is what began their ancestral quest. For others, publishing a book seems like a way to spread and share information they have collected. Regardless of the reason, there are several things a genealogist should think about before beginning a book project.

Have a Focus

While you are not trying to prove a point, or cure any social ills, you book needs to have a focus. A focus is necessary if for no other reason than to keep you organized. Here are some examples of options I might consider when deciding to write a family history book:

The RAMPLEYs
There are two known branches of this family in the United States; one descends from James RAMPLEY (referred to as James I) who died in Harford County, Maryland, in 1817, the other descends from William RAMPLEY who died in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, in the 1790s. Their relationship is unknown.

There are several approaches I could take in writing a genealogy on the RAMPLEY family. The first would be to document as many descendants of James and William as possible and include them in one book. I may decide that this project is too large in scope, or that the cost of such a book is too prohibitive. Their descendants will easily number in the thousands and few members of either branch will probably want to buy a book that's only "half" full of their relatives.

I could choose to focus on the first 5 generations beginning from James I, including all lines of descent. I could also choose to focus on only the male descendants of James I. Or, I could include enough generations of James I's descendants so that the book stopped with the generation born in approximately 1900. In any of these books, I could include a short chapter on the William RAMPLEY of Spartanburg County, South Carolina, without providing a comprehensive listing of his descendants. There are other ways that I could choose to focus on James' descendants. It is possible to debate which approach is most effective or most desireable; however, this debate won't get the book published or written. I should choose the focus that seems most applicable in this instance and one that has a good likelihood of being completed.

It may be desireable to begin my book with a more recent member of the family. I could include the descendants of James RAMPLEY (1803-1884), grandson of James I. This would be a much smaller project (James (1803-1884) is only one of James I's approximately 25 grandchildren). I could include information on James' (1803-1884) parents, grandparents, etc., and include complete listing of children for each of these ancestral couples. I could include separate chapters for each of James' (1803-1884) known ancestors, or include the information in one appendix. A project of this size might be more manageable. Choosing too large a project will make completion of the book more difficult.

Samuel NEILL (1835-1912)
If there are families that either played an important role in your family's history (or married into your ancestral family several times), you might want to consider devoting chapters or sections of your work to these families.

Samuel NEILL died in West Point, Hancock County, Illinois in 1912. Of Samuel's children, three married grandchildren of James RAMPLEY (1803-1884). Even if I didn't descend from one of these NEILL - RAMPLEY marriages, I might choose to make a book that combines the descendants of Samuel NEILL (1835-1912) and James RAMPLEY (1803-1884), since there is a significant amount of overlap. However, since I do descend from both families, I might consider this option more strongly. I could include sections of the book devoted to the ancestors of Samuel NEILL and James RAMPLEY.

A Book of My Ancestry
This would have limited appeal. Since it will only list my ancestors, few people are going to buy the book because their name is in it (In my case, I have two parents and two grandparents living - a market of five!). There are some people who would be interested in a book of this type (especially if their great-grandparents are in it). However, it would be difficult for people to locate this book in a card catalog of some type and determine their ancestor is located in it. A book entitled, The ancestors of Michael John NEILL wouldn't indicate much about the surnames in the book, the locations involved, nor the fact that 5/8 of the ancestry is German! This does not mean that such a book would not have value, it's just that most people won't be related to many individuals in the book, or descend from many of them. Despite this, however, a book of this type might be a very worthwhile one to compile. After all, if my eight great-grandparents had done so, I wouldn't have as many dead ends as I do.

General Historical Information
There might be some historical background information that you wish to include in your family history. This would help the reader to put the family in a historical context. Be careful when making grand generalizations and keep in mind that historical events might not have had any impact on your ancestors' lives (chances are Thomas Jefferson's birth or William Henry Harrison's death had little impact on your ancestor — unless you are related to the Jefferson or Harrison family). If there were historical events that caused your family to emigrate from Europe (Prussia's annexation of Hanover), or that caused your family to head west (the Homestead Act), then you might want to mention these items. Keep in mind that the events should have logically impacted your family and that you aren't trying to write a history of migration patterns within the United States. Using historical events to place your family within the timeline of history may be a good idea to give your readers a frame of reference.

Having a focus is more important than what your focus actually is. Radically changing your focus may seriously delay your project and should not be done with out careful consideration. Think about the family you are researching, how it is structured, how it migrated, etc. These facts may provide you with some ideas for your book's focus.

Set a Deadline

Even after you have decided upon your focus, you will continue to locate new or corrected information (lucky, you!). This fortunate situtation presents a problem. When do you stop adding new material and prepare the material you already have? Setting yourself a deadline might be a good idea, and indicate that information received after a certain date will not be a part of the published work. Exceptions can be made, but too many and you won't have a deadline anymore and your manuscript will sitting "in progress" at your funeral.

Put it Together

There are two main ways you can put your published work together. Since you are viewing this article on the net, I am assuming you are going to use a computer. However, preparing a book using typewriter is better than not preparing one at all, and using a computer does not, in and of itself, make your book a better product. It just makes it look better. There are basically two ways you can use a computer to put together your manuscript.

From Scratch

By this, I mean preparing the book from "nothing" using some type of word processing software. This approach will require you to retype all your genealogical information, increasing the amount of proofreading. It will allow you flexibility, but will create formatting and organization difficulties (such as keeping the numbering system straight) that can be overcome by using a genealogical database that will create a "basic" genealogy book.

Using a Genealogical Database

There are numerous genealogical database software packages that can produce family histories from the data you have entered. In the simplest sense, these programs take your genealogical information and produce a "book" from it. Chances are there will be something about this automatic book you don't like or wish were slightly different. Determine whether or not the package will create the book on disk in a word proceessing format that you can then edit with your word processor. If it does, you can manually go in and make changes. A family history book should be created with an index, so pay close attention to how the program does that. Is it appended at the end of the document and if you change the page structure, do you mess up the entire index? Or does it have "indexing codes" that allow the word processor to create a new and accurate index, after you have made your changes (if you want to make changes in the text, this is what you want).

Personally, I am never happy with anything and prefer a program that creates a basic book, including the formatting, and then lets me go in and alter the text, add biographical information, additional documentation, etc., without messing up the index. If you don't want to edit the text yourself, then you need to see sample books the software has created (so you know what it will create before you create it). Find out:

  • How does it format text?
  • How does it handle abbreviations?
  • How does it handle counties, or countries without towns? (Do you not like "floating" commas?)
  • How does the software handle notes (Are all notes linked to the individual in one file, or are they linked to each event in that person's life?). This will effect how they are printed in any computer-generated reports.

You may wish to post queries regarding various "computer generated genealogical books" to newsgroups or listserves.

Choose a Publisher

You are going to work closely with this person or organization, and this relationship should begin before you have the finshed manuscript on your desk. Controlling costs may be extremely important, depending upon your financial situation (you aren't going to get rich writing your family history). There may be options available to you that you aren't aware of now, and that you should learn about before you begin formatting your manuscript. Do you want hardcover or softcover? What type of binding? Do you want a picture on the cover? The questions go on and on.

There are advantages with working with a printer in your area, such as having easier access to the person. You may also wish to work with a publisher that specializes in genealogical books. Publishers of this type frequently advertise in national genealogical magazines, such as Ancestry, Heritage Quest, and the Genealogical Helper. Many libraries have copies of these magazines on their shelves.

Printers that specialize in genealogical books have already dealt with genealogists and understand what the genealogical author is trying to do. Requesting more information or flyers from several of these publishers is a good idea before you get your project started. This allows you to compare costs and services before you begin the real work of putting your masterpiece together. Before you commit or sign any contracts, view samples of the printer's work. You need an idea of what you are getting yourself into. Seeing these sample works also might give you ideas for your own book. Getting references may also be a good idea.

Go to Your Library

Take a look at some already published genealogies. They don't have to be on your family. It's better if they aren't. This way you can look at the book for its structure, content, and general style (instead of trying to locate your family!). Critique several , making notes about things you like and things you don't. You can easily get ideas for your own book by taking a look at what others have done.

Give Credit Where Credit is Due

Genealogical research isn't done in a vacuum (unless it involves the Hoover family). Chances are you have obtained information from other relatives. That information may have been about the relatives' family or ancestors you share with the relative. Credit the people who have helped you along the way. People appreciate being thanked and seeing their name in print. And you never know when they might find something else you need or don't have! If they remember they sent you information and weren't acknowledged or thanked in some way, they might think twice about sending you more.

Come up with a Title

Cute is tempting, but avoid it. "Keeping Up with the Jones': William JONES' descendants," doesn't say much and can prevent future card catalog users from locating your work. "The descandants of William JONES (1814-1900) of Dawson County, Nebraska," is more precise and allows individuals who might need information in your book to more readily locate your book in a card catalog.

Have Fun

Preparing your own genealogy is a lot of work (I'm not going to lie, although a computer can make it much easier), but does offer great rewards. Otherwise, all your information sits in your filing cabinet!


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How-To Article: Creating a Family History Book
Expert tips: How to Share Your Family File — Understanding Copyright
Online Lesson: The Mechanics of Writing Your Family History

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