Guest Bloggers

Writing Family Stories

Guest Blogger Nancy Julien Kopp encourages writing family stories as a gift to family members.

When stories are only told around the holiday dinner table, they eventually get lost. Writing the stories ensures that they will live on, that those stories will be a continuing gift to other family members.

Many people want to write their family stories, but don’t know how to begin. There is no set place or time to begin. It’s not necessary to start with the first ancestor you remember. The starting spot is anywhere, about anyone, or anyplace.

Begin with the most vivid memory you have. Type your family stories, put them in a binder, and assemble them any way you like: By the person, by the era, by the ones you like best. It does not matter how you put your book of family stories together. What is important is that you do it.

Writing family stories is a big undertaking and once started, people get enthused and want to keep going. 

Below is a list of prompts to help you get started. You’ll note they are questions, and it’s you who have the answers.

What part of the world did you live in?

Did you live near close relatives?

Did you see relatives only on holidays?

Were grandparents part of your everyday life?

Were your closest relatives born in America or somewhere else?

What kind of storms did you have where you lived?

Were your parents and grandparents strict?

Did you have siblings?

Were you close to siblings?

Was there jealousy among siblings?

Were any of your relatives mean?

Who was the kindest relative you had?

Do you know stories about your siblings at school?

Did you have cousins who were close to you?

Was your family large or small?

What were holiday gatherings like in your family?

How did you decorate for holidays?

What special foods did your family make for holidays?

Did you wear new clothes or hand-me-downs?

Did you have chores to do every day?

Who was the biggest eater in the family?

Who made you happy?

Who made you sad? 

Who taught you to drive?

Do you know any weather-related family stories?

Was there anyone in your extended family that scared you?

Who had a special hobby?

Who was the best cook?

What were family vacations like? Or were there any?

Did your family attend church?

What leisurely activities did your family pursue?

Did you have radios, TVs, record players?

Who was your favorite relative? Why? 

Did your father and mother each have a best friend?

How did your parents or grandparents meet?

What kind of wedding did they have?

These are not meant to receive one-word answers but to trigger some memories so that you can begin to write your family stories. Pick any one of them and get started. Starting is the hardest part of the project. Once you begin, you’ll probably want to continue. 

There will be parts missing as you delve into your family history.

For instance, I know that my maternal grandparents lived in different states. My grandmother grew up on a Minnesota farm, daughter of Irish immigrant parents. My maternal grandfather came to America from England with parents who settled in Iowa and were coal miners. How, I have often wondered, how did they meet and decide to marry? As a very young person, I never thought to ask my mother. Did she even know? So, it remains a mystery. That story about my grandfather coming to America with his parents? Turned out the man his mother married was not his father. Grandpa was not English but 100% Irish like his mother and the man who fathered him before his mother fled to England in shame. It’s the stuff that we read in novels. A great-uncle went to England and Ireland and researched the people involved. It was a true revelation in our family. A family story to be told over and over, but I still don’t know how my grandparents met! Or where.

Ask questions of your older relatives. Find out the answers to questions you have before it’s too late. Don’t worry about where or how to begin writing your family stories. Just start!

Nancy Julien Kopp lives and writes in the Flint Hills of Kansas. She has been published in various anthologies, including 23 times in Chicken Soup for the Soul books, websites, newspapers, and magazines and The Write Spot: Writing as a Path to Healing (available on Amazon both in paperback and as an e-reader)

She writes creative nonfiction, poetry, fiction for middle grade kids, and short memoir.

Nancy shares writing knowledge through her blog with tips and encouragement for writers. 

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