Why Narratives? (Part One)

I think that everyone should be a genealogist. By learning about our past, we discover how and why we are the people we are today. Most of our families have some great stories to share, if only we bring them to light.

Unfortunately, many non-genealogists regard the study of family history as either boring or arcane. Except during major life events (births, funerals, etc.), my hunch is that the average person rarely stops to consider their origins. If you mention genealogy to them, their first thoughts will be of a gilt-framed family tree, filled with cramped notations of names, dates, and places stretching into centuries long past –either an heirloom that doesn’t apply to a family as unremarkable as theirs or else a monumental project that requires massive resources of time, money, and skill.

Family Pedigree Dating back to 1621 by Orin Zebest (CC BY 2.0)

We are a People of Stories 

If you think about it, television programs like Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots are interesting, not because of the facts that are discovered, but because of the stories those facts tell. We would not watch a program that simply handed over a box of files and a twelve-generation fan chart or a four-inch think scrapbook of photos and clippings – there’s nothing inherent in those documents that holds our interest or that will hold the interest of our grandchildren. That’s where Narrative Genealogy enters the scene.

Narrative Genealogy, as I define it, involves recording in physical form the story of your family, both ancestors and descendants. Names, dates, and places will necessarily be part of your text, but the primary focus is on the colorful tales of adventure, love, and life that have shaped who you are today. Include the context in which your family worked and played, weaving together personal memories with the external history of the community, state, nation, and world in which they lived. A narrative genealogy should be a compelling story that informs about the past, not simply a compilation of data that stupefies all but the most intrepid reader. Why shouldn’t we leave our descendants a family history worth televising?

Apple Day Appalachian Storytelling by vastateparkstaff (CC BY 2.0)

Research Is Hard! 

If you’ve never delved into your past before, the task of digging for your roots can be intimidating. Records are filed in remote courthouses and archives, old-style handwriting can be a challenge to interpret, and don’t even get me started on overseas resources in a language other than your own.

Narratives can simplify genealogical research by removing some of the barriers to access that keep new family historians from recording their stories. If you start by writing out your own memories—say of your hometown or of your grandparents’ house at Christmas—it becomes easier to interview living relatives and record their memories. Once you have collected some stories of extended family, you’ll likely have a set of names, approximate dates, and general locations that will inform future study.

A common frustration in reading old census records is “losing” a relative between two decennial reports. If, however, in talking with your great-aunt, you discover a cousin that lived in the same area, a second look at the census with this new information may turn up that “lost” great-great-grandfather living out his last years with extended family. Simply by recording the memories of your family, you can open up new insights into your past that would be challenging to root out through document research alone.

A brief note: This blog is not intended to teach you how to begin researching your family tree – sorry! If you stick around, though, you’re bound to pick up some research skills along the way. The best advice I can offer to a neophyte is to start with what you know and work from there. Don’t leapfrog back and try to prove that you’re descended from Meriwether Lewis or Oliver Cromwell; let your research gradually take you back from your parents and your grandparents and see where you end up.

Check out FamilySearch.org or a free library version of Ancestry to get started. Be sure to visit Cyndi’s List – the ne plus ultra of online genealogical resources – and browse around the Genealogy portal on About.com; both places should help get you on the right path to telling your family’s story.

Evidence Exhausted: Those #$@& Citations! 

Another admittedly difficult and/or tedious part of genealogy is the proper citation of the information sources that you use. Names, dates, and places are of vital importance in genealogy. Without a solid foundation of facts, genealogy quickly becomes a fiction of rumors, hearsay, lies, and wishful thinking. Some families have passed down undocumented variations of the truth over the years to the point that nobody knows what is accurate about their family.

As we’ve discussed before, the facts of names, dates, and places are the bones that give structure and support to your family history, and to be evaluated properly, those facts must be documented. Citing your sources, however, can be frustrating, whether simply remembering to do it or searching out the proper format for a particular note.

Narrative genealogy allows us to focus on the stories of our ancestors (and ourselves) in a way that is engaging and manageable, without getting bogged down by footnotes. We should document facts as we know and discover them, but I would argue that preserving our family stories in written form trumps perfect documentation. Better a story with no citations than no story at all. The stories we tell around the dinner table or at a family reunion don’t come with a list of citations, though the facts can often be checked if a diligent researcher chooses to do so.

Family #1 by Alpha (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I caution you not to use this as license to intentionally leave out source citations because you find them difficult; just don’t get hung up on searching out the perfect citation form if it’s going to keep you from writing your story. At the very least, document what you know and why, and let that be a starting point for future researchers. Grandmother didn’t include citations in her diary, but a savvy researcher can evaluate the information and draw conclusions as suggested by the stories. The critical part is to make sure the stories are available to be read!

Coming next time—your family is remarkable just the way they are! 

Share in the comments below your thoughts on Narrative Genealogy:
  • What do you think about telling the story of your family as compared to just recording facts?
  • Have you encountered a non-genealogist who has a nascent interest in family history but thinks it’s too hard to get started? Do you think that using a narrative approach would help? 
  • Do you have plans to climb your family tree this year? What style of research do you follow?


  1. Beautiful and so very true. I try to convince people of this, too. Genealogy is so much more than just old dusty records and photographs. These people lived lives, they had meaning and felt things similar to how we feel now, yet in a different context and era. It seems we think of genealogy in the same way. Love your blog - glad to have found it - Kristen @ loveofheritage.blogspot.com

    1. Thanks, Kristen. It's always a little strange to think about my ancestors four and five generations ago having lives: being kids or having children for the first time. I'm excited to try and uncover their stories!

  2. Stories are what it is all about for some of us who search for ancestors. I'm glad to meet another of those people through your blog. Kathy, http://19thcenturyrhinelandlive.blogspot.com

    1. Kathy, I'm surprised at the folks that don't want to know their ancestors' stories. Glad you found this blog!