1. Family: We all talk about our relevant family when writing a family history, but many family writers merely recount names and dates. Their "family histories" read like encyclopaedia entries ... yet how many people read a complete encyclopaedia entry for pleasure? To write a family history that others want to read, we need to explore ...
2. History: Our ancestors were not suspended in space. Their feet were firmly grounded on the earth on which they walked. They were the embodiment of their times. Understanding and communicating this historical context is a critical component of any family history. It is only when the family's story is set against the historical backdrop and is used to explore and illuminate that particular backdrop that the family history becomes interesting and relevant. But it is still boring if it reads like an encyclopaedia entry. Which brings us to the third point ...
3. Story. Tell your family history as a story, a narrative. We all love a good story and we remember good stories. Don't merely recite the facts. They slip over our (the readers') heads and are instantly forgotten. But how do you tell your family history as a story if you don't have any family stories passed down through the family, or letters or diaries? If you are not sure, then read books about writing family histories (like my own Writing Interesting Family Histories). And deconstruct what other authors do. I recently suggested to someone who had written a fact-laden, largely story-less family history to read one of my popular histories and deconstruct what I do. The writer apparently took some offence and said that they would not write in another person's style. Deconstructing another's writing does not mean writing in another's person's style or "authorial voice". In the same way that it takes an incredibly talented painter to forge a painting, it takes an incredibly talented writer to write in another's authorial voice. In fact, some argue that it can't be done, that authorial voice is as distinctive as finger prints, and they use as evidence the fact that they caught the Unibomber by having a computer programme analyse the Unibomber's writing and compare it with the writings of known anarchists.
By saying that you should deconstruct another's writing, I am suggesting that you look at how the author creates sentences and paragraphs and chapters using similar material to the type of material you hold, and how the authors weaves this evidence together and sets it against the historical backdrop. I write "non-fiction thrillers" (as some describe them) yet I use exactly the same sources as family historians use. In fact, my own writing skills were honed writing family histories and my publisher at Allen & Unwin says that I came to professional writing at a very high level.
So for those thinking about writing their family history, whether it is only for yourself, for your family or for the broader market, remember the three critical ingredients: family, history and story. Your readers will be grateful.