Have you uncovered a story that’s aching to be told but you’re not sure how to get started? This blog is for you.
How to blog a genealogy story
My speciality is telling stories about my family. I wasn’t born with this skill – it’s something I’ve been learning, developing, and practising. Blogs have a touch of the confessional about them, and I find the ones that are the most effective are the those with a strong sense of truth and vulnerability. For this post, I thought I would share some pointers on blogging a successful genealogical story. It’s creative non-fiction, sitting between anecdotes and research reporting, but defiintely drawing from both. I’m going to use my story The James Bonds of Chinatown as an example.
1. What are the must-have elements of a genealogy story?
- Facts about the people whose story you are telling:
- Their full names and nicknames
- Where they were born
- Their key personality traits – who they really were as people
- How old they were at the time of your story
- Enough background details to set the stage, such as major news events of the day, dominant societal norms, politics, relevant laws, interpersonal relationship quirks, and the list is endless
- An event or a problem
- An explanation of why they did what they did
- A beginning, middle, and end (but by no means do you need to tell the story in this order)
2. Last comes first
The first lines of the story answer the question what is this story about? They allow a reader to decide whether or not to invest the time in reading the rest, and are therefore the most important lines in the entire piece. I write the intro lines last.
3. From personal to historical and back again
This story moves from the personal point of view to the historical and back to the personal. I start off by describing my own thoughts, then shift into talking about my father and uncle, then delve into history, and end with my uncle. When you’re talking about families, the relationships are important to note. How are these people related to you, and to each other? I think history is generally more accessible if you can bring the reader along with you in your evolving story. How much did you know in the beginning? How did you learn the rest? What questions did you ask?
4. Don’t forget the photos
When I read blogs describing a photo, I immediately want to see the photo. People are fascinated by images, and genealogy is a look into the past. A blog post is immeasurably better with words and pictures, or even video if you’ve got it.
5. Use headlines
Ah, the internet. It’s a source of endless amusement and distraction, and a good blog post has plenty of headlines so a reader can quickly skim to see if they want to invest the time to read further. For this reason, I don’t feel at all guilty about including a lengthy historical research piece in my stories because the headlines clearly signal the opportunity to skip to the next part.
6. Postscripts and afterwords
I love postscripts and I think others do, too. I’m constantly amazed by the fact that people are as interested in the random thoughts that come to me after I’ve finished a blog as the blog itself, so don’t be shy – feel free put random thoughts out there.
7. Don’t forget to share your sources
Providing my sources keeps me honest, and if my readers are keenly interested in history, they might want to know how I know what I know. It’s also totally okay to say as told to me as well.
8. Go lightly on the harsher elements of history
I am most strongly drawn to the stories of winning against formidable odds, which often pits my central character against overwhelmingly harsh conditions. One of my struggles in these kinds of stories is to be sympathetic but not overly depressing. Our ancestors often lived rough lives, fraught with hardship, racism, poverty, alcoholism and premature death, so all of my stories contain at least one bright element to celebrate. If I can’t find a bright spark, I can always acknowledge that my life is immeasurably better today.
9. Write for yourself but talk to your readers
It’s taken me quite a while to absorb, but blogging eliminates the wall between author and reader, and the internet is impatient. I’m not as timely on responding to comments as I should be, but I always respond.
10. Share your blog
If you’re shy about sharing your story on social media, don’t be. If you’ve written a good story, social media is the most powerful way to reach the widest possible audience and after all that work, your story deserves to be read.
It’s not lost on me that in order to share my first-ever TV spot, I used social media. (How times have changed for that once-almightly platform.)
11. Join the Geneabloggers Tribe
Wouldn’t it be great to be able to join a group of other people who also love genealogy blogging? As of this writing, there are over over 3300 members of the Geneabloggers Tribe, and aside from being a great place to learn and share (via the Facebook Group), it’s also a place for others to find you. (And just in case you’re wondering, I’m enthusiastic because writing is so often a lonely pursuit that having a supportive community is a godsend, not because I’m paid to say it.)
If you missed it, here’s my interview on Lit Happens, where Danica and I talk about blogging, genealogy, writing, and all things creative.
7 thoughts on “11 tips for blogging your own genealogy story”
I would agree with all of your tips except for #2 – for my own writing. I always write the intro first. It may get re-written by the time I finish the story but I need the intro to get me started.
I’m fascinated by how others writers write. Thank you for commenting!
I could only hope to be that organized. My writing process is generally to wait for inspiration to strike, and then get it all out while it’s still in my head. I really don’t know where the story is going to go until it’s done, and I’m quite often surprised by how it ends – that’s why I have to write the intro last.
This is a nice set of ideas, mainly to do with structure and voice.
Do you think it helps bloggers if they write other sorts of genres too? I do. If people have never written in public, I think they need to find some harmless way of practicing first. This could be under an alias on newspaper below the line comments, trying out different styles and voices.
But I guess it’s even more important that people read stuff in the styles they want to use, and which they admire.
That’s something I tell my weaker students, in feedback… that they need to read more (and then think about what they read).
Finally, editing – something nitty-gritty. I edit a lot, cutting out things. I also know my flaws, and for work writing (academic research etc) I need to edit hard. Blogging is quite nice for me… I know my flaws and indulge them a bit… probably loses me repeat readers who learn that I tend to “go off on one” or ramble or include irrelevant trivial comments about phonetics.
Hi Jim, you bring up some good points, and you’ve really made me think!
To me, blogging is a paradoxically personal, intimate, and yet public space. I edit my blogs lightly, checking only for spelling, grammar, punctuation and veracity. I find it’s quite different from editing for all other types of writing.
About voice… there is so much to say about refining and developing an original voice across genres and media. Stephen King said it takes years of daily practice: writing and reading, and he focussed on short stories and novels.
One of my mentors, a brilliant lawyer, said he always wrote with clarity uppermost in mind – that he could easily write to obfuscate, in Latin if he chose, but he deliberately chose simpler language to be understood. That made a big impression on me.
I think it helps all writers to write across the genres. I practice storytelling (telling lengthier stories in public without benefit of written notes). How do you stretch your creative wings?
I enjoyed your post very much with its helpful tips, which think I try to do. I am a firm advocate of sub headings (and using font and colour) to break up text and give pointers to topics. But like Cathy, I write my introduction first as setting the scene for the rest of my post, and like Jim, I edit a lot from my initial draft. Thank you for the reminders on effective blogging.
I take back my earlier comments to Jim about “lightly editing.” I wrote a guest blog this morning, and took notice of how many edits I made before letting it go. I think I spent longer editing than writing!
I definitely wrote the intro last, though – seems to work for me.
Thanks very much for visiting!