The Three Spaces to Organizing Your Family History Writing

Whether you’ve started writing your family history book or you’re still in the ‘thinking about it” stage, the process can be a tad overwhelming. As family history writers we have a lot to manage when it comes to writing a book. Let’s just consider the writing, for example, making sure we have all the necessary information going into our stories, like setting and characterization and a good plot and then handling the editing and revisions. Of course, we also have mountains of research that we will have to draw on throughout the writing process. We will need to make sure we are creating accurate citations and a bibliography of our references. Finally, we will want to add pictures to enhance our words, do we have a plan for managing them?

Without a well thought out and practical workflow, a family historian can waste a lot of time shuffling papers, and this can become frustrating and confusing and often result in an abandoned project.

I highly recommend you create yourself a writing workflow that consists of three organizational spaces; your writing space, a reference management area, and a research organizational space. Let’s look at how to set these up so that you can get to the finish a line a little bit quicker.


Gathering Your Research

It’s important to gather your research, primary documents, pictures and social history research in one place, where you can keep them organized and readily available. You need to choose that place and set up a filing system that works for you. A big part of the planning process is having a detailed knowledge of your research and having it organized and readily available to you.

Much like historical fiction writers, family history writers must give much thought to the history and timelines of the world around their characters. We must re-create that world for our readers, impossible to do without in-depth research. Having your family history spewed across various files, programs and computers can be a time waster in writing. You need to create a nice neat workflow, and your first stop is a home for your research. A few tools available include programs such as OneNote or Evernote. I prefer to create a project binder in Evernote.  I admire Evernote and its ability to sync across all my computers, so regardless of where I am working I have access to my research and love the organization of the program. It’s a personal thing. Give both a try, find your preference.

In Evernote, I create a binder for each surname I’m covering in my book. I create a notebook stack. In that stack, I create notebooks that can be dedicated to each ancestor. In each ancestor’s file, I store all the necessary documents, pictures, family group sheets and pedigree charts for each ancestor in this particular story. I also create files for setting and social history. Setting up these files is simple. The work comes in rounding up all your research. It can be a big chore but will make your task of writing your stories so much more enjoyable. The work of gathering your research is beneficial in of itself.  It allows you to become reacquainted with your research, helps you identify holes and ask questions.

As I begin to write in Scrivener , my chosen writing software, I can then quickly pull the research I need into Scrivener’s research area. It’s right in front of me while I write, ensuring accuracy and there is no time wasted shuffling papers and clicking through my digital files looking for my research.


Managing Your Citations and Bibliography

Creating a management system for citations and a bibliography is the second step in my writing workflow. Without a plan for citations and a bibliography before you begin to write you can end up with a massive task when you are done writing. It’s important to keep track of your references as you work through your story. It doesn’t mean you have to create citations as you write, you can handle these as two separate tasks so as not to disrupt your creative writing process. However, it doesn’t mean you ignore them and leave it all to the end.

As I place citations into my writing in Scrivener, I pull them from a number of sources, my reference manager, my family tree software, RootsMagic, or I create them manually if necessary, for instance with Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills as your reference guide. You can learn how Scrivener handles citations and works with a reference manager in my new guide, Scrivener for the Family Historian.

You’ll also find yourself heading to the Internet or an Archive for additional information, usually social history, as well as world, regional and local history. A reference manager can easily capture this information with browser apps.

Citation managers are wonderful tools that allow you to organize your sources for creating citations. They make the task quick and easy, keeping you from spending too much time away from writing, looking up sources and formulating citations. They also make creating bibliographies a fast and painless task. Three citation managers I suggest you consider are Zotero, Papers, and Refme. Take them for a test drive; find one that works for you. Again take the time to load up your citation manager with your sources in advance of writing. As you begin to write your stories, you’ll have your sources readily available and can add to your list as required. When you reach the end of your project, your bibliography will be a breeze as most reference managers will automatically generate one for you.


Managing Your Writing

The final and third essential element to my writing workflow is my writing software. While most of you are probably using Word, I chose to move my writing to Scrivener about 5 years ago.

What makes Scrivener such an exceptional program is its’ ability to handle a large project. Rearranging your text, chapters, and sections and just having the capacity to get a big picture view of your book or story is worth the prices of the program. Only $40.  It also has the capability of being extremely flexible. Every writer is unique and wants something a little different in their writing space, Scrivener offers that flexibility. Finally, Scrivener can take your project from the earliest stages of planning with its digital corkboard right through to publishing, whether that be a paperback, hardcover or ebook.

Before you begin to write, establish a writing workflow, a process that you are going to put in place to manage your research, your references, and your writing.  Make writing your family history productive and organized but most of all let’s get to the finish line and get those family history stories published. A great workflow can help get you there.




August 12, 2016
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