Writing about your family history (i) … the people you never knew…

So many people I’ve talked to about writing their family stories say ‘I just don’t know where to begin’… It really is a dilemma but I think the best answer to ‘how do I start’ is – just start! You may then say ’but where do I begin? Do I begin with Great Aunt-Jane because she had such an interesting life, or do I begin with Sir Hougo de Frogface our distant medieval forebear?’ Well think about Great-aunt –Jane and Sir Hougo – do you know any stories about either of them? If you do then you can tell them! If you don’t, maybe you can imagine from the facts you do know.

Whoever you start with, think of how you would tell someone in a conversation about them – you wouldn’t say ‘Jane Smith was born in 1888, she had three brothers, John, Paul and George who were born in…’. You might, however, say ‘oh, Great Aunt Jane! What a character, she was born in the middle of a thunderstorm and the barn was set on fire by lightning  so the story goes…’ That’s how you would tell an interested friend or relative if you were talking to them… try writing it down as f you were speaking to someone – or write is as a letter!

You will probably wonder whether you should begin at the beginning (wherever that is) and work through the years towards your own immediate family and yourself, or whether you should start with yourself and work back in time. That’s something you have to decide  – and you might start in the middle with great-aunt Jane!  You might have photos of your family, your ‘characters’ in your story so you have an idea of what they look like – if you don’t have any images, use your imagination!

So  supposing someone was a blacksmith, you have his birth record and he appears in censuses – he will be beefy and strong with great shoulders and arms – if many of his descendants have red hair, then maybe he had red hair too. If there’s a family trait of having a wonderful singing voice, maybe he could sing – maybe he was in the church choir, in the church where he was baptised and married. In a later census you know he became a whitesmith – so you can tell he was a person ready to adapt and to embrace new technologies. His first three children died before they were two, so he may have been marked by that sadness… his eldest surviving son became a sailor, how did your red-headed blacksmith feel about that? His second and third sons, twins, joined him in the smithy – you know one later became a stove and oven manufacturer in Manchester, that tells you something about him and his character. His brother and twin stayed with his dad in their village which was growing into a town, working as a silver smith but then went into plumbing as people began to have water in their homes rather than from a pump in the yard… With only the most basic information, using your imagination you can tell your red-headed smith’s story without just a spread sheet of names dates and references…

And what about the smith’s wife? His first wife died after the death of her third child… was she weakened by her pregnancies or was she a sickly person and her poor health meant she struggled to have children?  You have no pictures of her but you might be able to imagine her, slim, pale, not very strong, and saddened, depressed by her struggles to have children (she may have suffered miscarriages as well) She would have struggled physically and mentally, and the life of a housewife in those days was hard and labour intensive.

His second wife (bringing him joy after his sadness and bereavements) lived to be ninety-seven, and bore him eleven children, all of whom survived, including the sailor, the stove manufacturer and the plumber who became an electrician at the turn of the century… And you do have pictures of her as an old woman – can you work out what she may have looked like as a strong young woman? Use your imagination!!

You have the facts, apply the imagination! You may think you have no imagination, but I am sure you do – otherwise you wouldn’t be so interested in the lives of people you never knew!


In my Radwinter stories I have written about someone exploring his family tree and his family’s history… in the next in the series he is looking at the complicated ancestry of his wife… Huguenots, one-armed heroes, tragedies and love! If you haven’t read any of my stories yet, here is a link:



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