Archive for August, 2011

Writing Family History

August 24th, 2011

Back in May I was both a speaker and an attendee at the Unlock the Past Researching and Writing History seminar in Adelaide. I wrote a review of it and said that I would write more about my own session. After months of travelling around I am finally getting around to it.

My session was actually on Writing Research Guides which is what I do and I have five titles currently published by Unlock the Past – Your Family History Archives: A Brief Introduction; What Was The Voyage Really Like?: A Guide to Researching Convict & Immigrant Voyages to Australia and New Zealand; Family History on the Cheap; It’s Not All Online: A Guide to Genealogy Sources Offline; and Family & Local History Resource Directory for Victoria. All publications are available from Gould Genealogy & History online.

I knew attendees at the seminar would not be that interested in writing guides so I mainly talked about writing in general and how what I was talking about could be used in any style of writing. The key points I stressed to remember were – audience, purpose, language, spelling, grammar and interesting, not boring. While these six things may seem obvious, people often don’t give them enough consideration.

For me there are some basic inclusions in a book (or whatever) and these include – introduction, abbreviations, glossary, conclusion, bibliography and index. Again this may all seem too obvious but I’m sure most of us know of books without indexes, or lists of abbreviations or references and without a bibliography.

There are various stages in writing including planning, structuring, writing, designing and editing which should all be done in consideration of what the proposed audience needs. A useful tool is the Australian Style Manual 6th edition, 2002 which should be available at your local library. If you are planning a lot of writing then it is a useful resource to have at home.

With my own writing, I like to flesh out the ideas for the topic – it is easier to revise your work rather than start from scratch so get as much down first. Accept that there will be multiple drafts as no one gets it totally right the first time. Read your work out loud as this is where you will find any problems with clarity and poor grammar. You also need to set regular writing sessions and give yourself uninterrupted time otherwise you will find it very hard to write anything in a clear and concise manner.

Another critical factor is to seek feedback and be prepared to accept both praise and criticism (remember no one gets it right first time). Take on board all comments and suggestions and while it is good to get friends to read your work, you should also ask people with no idea about the topic as well. The latter are very good at picking up if something doesn’t quite make sense.

Citations should be clear and concise so that you and others can easily identify what sources you have used. Be careful not to inadvertently plagiarise someone else’s work and make sure you check any copyright issues. The Australian Copyright Council is a good source of information with lots of useful information sheets including one on Family Histories and Copyright.

Illustrations can help to make a publication more interesting but can add to production costs especially if you want colour. Also remember to check any copyright or reproduction right issues – while a photograph may be out of copyright, a library may hold the reproduction rights and may charge a fee.

For me indexing is a critical part of any publication as it allows greater access to all parts of the publication. The Australian and New Zealand Society of Indexers (ANZSI)has some indexing resources on their website which may be useful.

Some basic tools that all writers need include a dictionary and to use a spell checker (but remember that it won’t pick up if you have used a wrong word eg from or form). Writers’ Centres in the various Australian States also usually have writing resources on their websites so check out not only your own State but others as well. My local Centre is the Victorian Writers’ Centre.

There are also professional associations which might be worth a look including the Australian Society of Authors, the Australian Writers’ Guild, and the Fellowship of Australian Writers.

Two books that I find really useful for writing family history in particular are Hazel EdwardsHow to Write a Non Boring Family History, 2nd edition 2011 and Carol Baxter‘s Writing Interesting Family Histories, 2009. I particularly like Hazel’s recipe for a family history:

Recipe for a Non-Boring Family History


1 cup of self raising imagination


Thyme (endless spoonsful)

Researchitus (diluted)

Sprinkles of ancestral curiosity

Pinch of opportunity

Flakes of serendipity

Intriguing title, cover  and blurb

zest of reader-researcher

half a litre of language including mixed fruit of adjectives (use moderately)

half a dozen embryonic ideas (egg shaped)

Slurp of suspense, secrecy or drama

Dash of inspiration


Dash inspiration on all pages.

Mix all data and especially dry ingredients in computerised container. Keep for an appropriate time. Heat emotions or ice-over disputes. For special occasions, decorate and display at reunion, anniversary or family gathering.


Historical readaholic or relative indigestion due to over much hot air.

Originally published in Hazel Edwards Writing a Non Boring Family History (Hale and Iremonger)1997 and kindly reproduced in this blog with the author’s kind permission.

In conclusion this has been a very brief overview of writing in general, and I have not attempted to cover publishing issues. That’s a blog for another time. Points to note about writing are to define your topic and scope at the beginning, always remember who the audience is, seek feedback along the way rather than at the very end and finally, enjoy yourself. You are writing to share your knowledge of the family with others and to ensure that the stories are not lost to future generations. Good luck!

Family History Feast 2011 review

August 2nd, 2011

This year’s Family History Feast was better than ever for a number of reasons. The day is organised by State Library Victoria (SLV), Public Record Office Victoria (PROV), National Archives of Australia (NAA), Victoria Office and BDMs Victoria and is a free event each year in National Family History Week.

Catching an early train meant that I could have a coffee at Mr Tulk’s (the cafe at SLV) before heading for the registration desk at 9.30am. As usual there is a seminar satchel (a useful NAA cloth bag) with leaflets, flyers, notebooks, pencil, rulers and so on. This year a very handy addition was a PROV USB with most of the presentations included to make note taking easier.

Sue Hamilton, Acting CEO and State Librarian, SLV welcomed everyone and gave a brief update on the Library. The first speaker was Hazel Edwards on Writing a Non Boring Family History and she is an excellent speaker but her session was only 30 minutes, way too short in my opinion. I took the opportunity to buy the revised copy of her book on the same subject during the lunch break.

The next session was Margaret May from BDMs Victoria who gave an update on the Early Church Records project. I always wonder why people do live demonstrations but don’t work out first what they will search on so that it all goes smoothly. Unfortunately some of the searches Margaret did revealed no results which didn’t demonstrate the product to its best advantage. I was also surprised to hear that it still won’t be released until later this year or even early next year, seems like it has been in progress for years.

Sebastian Gurciullo and Ed Story from PROV and NAA then gave a presentation on Koorie Records in Victoria which was very good for anyone tracing Aboriginal families. I have a fairly good background in this area having worked with both PROV and NAA and their Koorie record projects and databases.

During the lunch break the Who Do You Think You Are program with Shane Bourne was shown but I had seen that episode so I took the opportunity to have lunch and catch up with friends. I even found time to do a quick visit to the SLV’s Genealogy Centre to look up some information on New Zealand records.

Mark Brennan from NAA then gave an interesting talk on Conscription and records held by NAA on this topic. It’s amazing what is held and Mark pointed out a number of NAA Fact Sheets which helped identify relevant material.

SLV’s Katie Flack then gave a wide ranging talk on the resources available in the La Trobe collection and it was a good reminder that not everything is online and that there are still useful indexes either in card format or microfiche located near the Information Desk.

The next section was a tribute to Don Grant who died last month. Don had been very influential in Victorian and Australian genealogy circles as well as having been employed at both PROV and SLV. While Shane Carmody from SLV and Pat Eade from the Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies (AIGS) read tributes to Don, a succession of family photographs played in the background as we learnt about Don’s life and his passion for genealogy.

The final session of the day was the Victorian Association of Family History Organisations (VAFHO) annual Don Grant Family History Lecture with Andrew Lemon talking about Storming the Barricades: The Family History Revolution. This was an interesting talk with Andrew bringing together his knowledge of Victorian horse racing and family history in a story about the jockey who rode Briseis to fame as the winner of the Melbourne Cup in 1876. It was an excellent example of how BDM certificates can conflict with each other and how ‘facts’ can be misrepresented and then repeated by others so that the ‘truth’ becomes blurred. I look forward to hearing it again when the podcast is available.

The other talks will also be available as podcasts and the best way to follow what is happening is to check the Genealogy Centre’s blog Family Matters which is also giving updates on each of the presentations. All up it was a great day and I look forward to next year’s Family History Feast. Thanks to all who were involved in organising the event.