Writing Your Own Family Narrative: A Short Bibliography

Larry Pearce

Larry with Emigrant Statue in Port of Londonderry, from which most of our Scots-Irish ancestors sailed

One of the greatest privileges of being a teacher is the opportunity to travel and visit various libraries. In earlier articles we’ve mentioned trips to nearby Pittsburgh and the great open genealogy room at the old Carnegie Library in Oakland and the sacrosanct closed stacks at the new Heinz History Center in Lawrenceville. At the first, one finds an entire wall of works about Pittsburgh area families shelved by surnames. The sad thing is that there are almost as many crumbling books piled vertically waiting to be rebound as there are references on the regular library shelves. Such is the state of affairs with most public libraries. At the Heinz, one is impressed by the prevalence of computer access to sources but disappointed by the strict rules for actually handling those sources, i.e. no pens of any kind are allowed in the reading room. If one isn’t familiar with the regulations, he can be embarrassed when the librarian tells him to “Please put that away.” Even so, my goal in this life is to have some of my writing in these prestigious locations for future generations to consider. But, the question in the back of many information specialists’ minds is, “Will paper resources become a thing of the past?” It’s comforting to me, at least, that all of these E-gen articles began as electronically generated pieces, distributed via e-mail and published on my Internet website, with the idea of someday possibly complementing the words with pictures and sound through the CD-ROM format. Unfortunately, all media have threats to their longevity: paper will eventually oxidize and CDs are vulnerable to heat and electro-magnetics. Fortunately, these media both usually outlive us humans, and who knows what storage systems are yet to be invented. We’ve come a long way from the simple oral tradition where the old and learned of the tribe memorized the songs and stories of their ancestors. The music and rhymes in which the narrative was embedded made memory easier and listening more fun. Or have we come so far? According to the Wycliffe Bible Translators, only half of the world’s languages have a written component even today. Some linguists believe that ancient people had larger brains in which to store information. One thing is certain, our modern Western society could do better in venerating our older citizens and the retelling of their experiences. Many of the problems in the world today can arguably be blamed on the youth culture’s immediate gratification mentality. Perhaps the best part of administrating this website is hearing regularly from “cousins” around the world, each with their own stories and questions pertaining to family history.

Aunt Edna Gray

One of the elders whom I admired greatly was the late sister of my mother, Aunt Edna (1920-1997). the Gray family historian, worked her entire life in the offices of public education and spent much of her leisure time in the Butler, Pennsylvania, Public Library. I recently visited the genealogy room there and found it to be, like so many other local libraries, user-friendly. In addition to the usual state and county history journals, there were the accounts written by and about local families. But, what caught my eye and gave me the idea for this article was the large number of books about how to write family narratives. I have already offered a list of Internet sources in this series [see “42 Electronic Resources for Doing Genealogical Research” or how I got started in the opening remarks of the Introduction: Pearce page], but I have avoided most of the unlimited number of books about genealogy. They seemed so dry and academic and perhaps out of date to one who grew up with computers. However, this list deals more with the “story” aspect of genealogy rather than just the dates and facts. As I tell my writing classes, “If you’re afraid of making a mistake, you’ll never write anything. Get your memories and ideas down on paper where you can deal with them. You can always fix the problems later.” I love to quote from Donald Murray’s Shoptalk: Learning to Write with Writers (1990), a source of ideas, tips, and 3,000 quotes from professional writers. For example, Edward Albee said, “I write to find out what I’m thinking about.” Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” My favorite is Ernest Hemingway’s, “Anyone who says he wants to be a writer and isn’t writing, doesn’t.” I hope that you’ll consult one or more of these sources and begin preserving your family’s narrative for the future. If you find a helpful book, let me know and I’ll add it to the list:

Baker, Russell, and William Zinsser. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoirs. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1987.
These journalist and linguist authors get into the fine points of what to include and what to exclude when writing about you and your family.

Banks, Keith E. How to Write Your Personal and Family History. 2nd ed. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1989.
Preserving what’s important to you is the core of your legacy for the future.

Daniel, Lois. How to Write Your Own Life Story. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1985.
This step-by-step guide is for the non-professional writer.

Dixon, Janice T. and Dora D. Flach. Preserving Your Past: A Painless Guide to Writing Your Autobiography and Family History. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977.
Just what you need – a reader and writer-friendly help in writing.

Gouldrup, Lawrence P. Writing the Family Narrative. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1993.
This book and 160-page workbook of the same name is available through the Mormon Church (LDS) or any of their websites.

Neubauer, Joan R. From Memories to Manuscript: A Five-step Method of Writing Your Life Story. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1994.
This LDS source includes: Research, Organization, Writing, Editing, and Printing/publishing.

Selling, Bernard. Writing From Within: Step-by-step Guide to Writing Your Life’s Stories. Claremont, CA: Hunter House, 1988.
Many of these tips are field-tested and have become the basis for tapping memories in the writing classroom.

Thomas, Frank P. How to Write the Story of Your Life. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1984.
The author explains “memory sparks” and “free association skills” used by many English writing teachers.

Chances are that neither your local bookstore nor library will have all or any of these. Why not buy online through Amazon.com, Varsitybooks.com, or some of the other Internet bookstores? Perhaps just Google the author or title. Give one to a young, aspiring writing in your family for Christmas or birthday. While you’re at it, give a few to yourself. With or without a book, you can begin today to jot down memories and ideas. I sometimes use my little $18 cassette tape recorder from Walmart to “talk through” past events while I drive. My wife often asks questions and provides feedback. I’ve taped my parents and family many times as we re-live the past. The key is to transcribe the important things – get them into a more useful form as soon as possible. This is true for whatever medium you choose: pencil and paper, tape recorder, or memory. And, I generally save everything in multiple ways: notes in a folder; rough drafts printed out, punched, and placed in a binder; and the numerous final products and scanned pictures on a floppy or more spacious zip disk. As with any household records, it’s a good idea to store them in separate places in case of fire or other catastrophe. Obviously, I’ve e-mailed them to the most important people in my life, you, and posted them on my website, but these means may not be available to everyone. I believe that the most important thing is to tell your family what you are doing and why you think it’s important. Someday, they’ll be glad you took that time to share your knowledge and experiences, even if they can’t sell the rights to a movie studio. Good researching, good writing, and let me know how you’re doing!


As an afterthought, may I suggest that you check some of the many “E-gen Tools” on the bar atop each page? Also, I have recently discovered the site, RootsTech.org, associated with the free platform, FamilySearch.org. Both are connected with the LDS Church and Ancestry.com. RootsTech has a multifaceted family history conference each year to which the organizers invite artists, historians, and genealogists from around the world to share their crafts in person or virtually. The best part is that all this information is free and  available online in the months that follow on all sorts of topics in many languages. Simply register at RootsTech.org, where you’ll sign-in and have a myriad of choices of everything from an orientation to a personal “playlist” of sessions to a visit to the “Expo Hall,” a list of products and services to make your new hobby easier. I have a more complete explanation of RootsTech forthcoming and how it helped me in my research and writing. You may click this link [coming] or the one under “E-gen Tools” above.

Finally, you may find something of interest in my new series, “Family History Book Review.” This is a collection of authors and titles ranging from Winston Churchhill’s scholarly four-volume, A History of the English Speaking Peoples, to Kay Cornelius’ easy-to-read, four-part historical fiction account, Pennsylvania. I am in the process of providing a relatively brief synopsis for each item in this growing collection as well as sources through which to obtain them. Good reading!

Last revised 4/2/21

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