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7 Prompts to Help You Write Your Family History

The biggest obstacle to writing family history can be getting started. Try one of these prompts to jump-start past the opening paragraph – then join me for my workshop!

Have you ever started to write a family history narrative, only to get stuck on the opening paragraph? “Charles John Andrews was born on….” You rattle off dates and parents’ names. Then you realize you’ve bored yourself in the very first paragraph. You give up.

(Note from Lisa: Don’t give up! Keep reading and then sign up for Sunny’s incredible new workshop which starts this week!)

One trick to writing a compelling family history is to find the storylines in our ancestors’ lives. A life isn’t a single story from birth to death. It’s many stories. The steamboat explosion the child survived. Teen years on the farm, attending school part-time. The Civil War skirmish that raged through town and wiped out the family farm.

The following series of writing prompts can help you identify and sketch out the stories you want to tell. Scan through the list of questions and see who or what story comes to mind. Then take 10-15 minutes and just start writing or typing the story. Don’t worry about grammar. Don’t go back and look up historical details. Just write:

1. The course of _____’s  life totally changed when….

2. A big mystery in my family history is….

3. If I could meet _____, I would ask him/her _____ and this is why….

4. I am fascinated by my “black sheep” ancestor, who….

5. My ancestor lived through a (frightening, important, rapidly-changing) time in history. Here’s what was going on, and here’s his/her story.

6. A great love story in my family is the story about _____ and _____. This is how it goes.

7. I often wonder whether the life of _____ was as (sad/exciting/lonely/boring) as I imagine. Here’s what I know….

The real purpose of these writing prompts is to help you identify the stories you most want to tell–and to get you excited about telling them! But you should also find a use for these brainstorming paragraphs. Copy them into a blog post. Expand on them for a short biographical sketch you can share with your family. Expand even more, and you’ve got an article for your local genealogical society’s newsletter.

Come Learn with Me in this Week’s Writing Workshop!

Now is the time to write some your family history, and I’m here to help and support you. THIS WEEK I am leading the fun and productive Genealogist’s Essential Writing Workshop at Family Tree University. It starts October 19. You can do this and I’m here to help!

Click to Read These Gems to Help You Write Your Family History:

How to Start a Genealogy Blog podcast series. Episodes 38-42 of the FREE Family History Made Easy podcast will get you blogging your family history right away!

Easy Project to Write Your Family History: Publish a Q&A

7 Reasons to Start a Family History Blog


Obituaries in Newspapers are Going Online

custom_classifieds_12091 (1)More obituaries gleaned from newspapers are going online. This is welcome news for those researching their  genealogy.

Recently I blogged about BillionGraves’ new Supporting Records feature that allows users to upload documentation relating to ancestors’ deaths. This paves the way for more obituaries to be paired with ancestral tombstones and other resources. At RootsTech we learned about 2 more online obit projects:

Newspaper Obituaries at FamilySearch

1. FamilySearch is spearheading the indexing of millions of obituaries from the U.S.,  followed by other nations. CEO Dennis Brimhall announced this initiative in his keynote speech at RootsTech. “Estimates claim over 500 million obituaries exist in the U.S. alone,” said Dennis Brimhall, FamilySearch CEO. “The average obituary can contain the names of about ten family members of the deceased—parents, spouse, children, and other relatives. Making them easily searchable online can be an enormous future source for creating our family histories. The number of people who will benefit is incalculable. It could very well be the single largest preservation and access project of its kind, and will no doubt be one of the most used online collections worldwide as it grows.”

The timing of completion depends on volunteer efforts, Brimhall says. He hopes to see 100 million names indexed in 2014, but that will require “tens of thousands of additional volunteers.”  (Want to help? Go to

Upload Newspaper Obituaries at ObitsAncestry

ObitsAncestry2. A new website,, allows individuals to upload obituaries for free, along with up to 4 related images. The obituary webpage is like the memorial pages hosted by many funeral homes, where loved ones can post comments and memories. But there’s no advertising, so it’s very respectful and “quiet.” Anyone searching for that loved one’s name will find the obituary indexed by major search engines. And perhaps most useful for the future, “All obituaries submitted to will be indexed and linked by for family history and genealogical purposes.” That gives me a little more confidence in the “staying power” of obituaries I would post there. The site just launched during RootsTech, so their database is growing now.

Available at

Available at

Of course many obituaries are already searchable through digitized newspaper websites. But the accuracy rate for searching these isn’t as high–I’ve seen it reported it as about 60%. Which is a great start, don’t get me wrong, but I’m so pleased that better searching of obituaries is in the works!

Want to learn more about using newspapers and obituaries in genealogy? Check out Lisa’s book How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers.

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