Writing a Family History Mystery

family history detectiveAs genealogists, many of us consider ourselves family history detectives, sleuthing through clue after clue uncovering the lives of our ancestors. You’ll often find me encouraging you to take the stories you uncover, and shaping them in engaging and entertaining family history stories using the tools of creative nonfiction.

However, let’s consider another option aside from the traditional family history narrative. Let’s consider telling the tale of your family history research like a mystery novel.

Mystery novels are a very popular genre, the reason for this popularity is because it makes for exciting reading. Mystery novels bring the reader on a journey, leading them along, almost allowing them to play detective beside you. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to incorporate the tools of the great mystery novelists in writing your family history.

As family history writers and bloggers we can enlist this genre to write and relay our family history research in a manner that will capture the attention of your readers.

How a Mystery Novel Works

  1. The Opening – Create the mystery for the reader

The opening of your story should begin with presenting a mystery to the reader. We want to grab the reader immediately, and therefore, it’s important to give the mystery on the very first page to capture the reader’s attention. In mystery novels, your reader does not know the answer to the mystery until the end of the story.  The story is centered on the exercise of trying to figure out the answer to your mystery.

In the beginning, you want to introduce the reader to your mystery and the setting of your story.  As well you will introduce your main character, that’s you. You’ll be the detective in your mystery novel, bringing your reader along with you on your discovery. Place yourself in the setting of your story. The setting may come in the form of many places, your office, an archive, your ancestor’s hometown.  Where are you when you first begin your story and take on your call to adventure.  The call to adventure is your inciting incident, the moment you took on the task of uncovering the answer to the mystery.

Think about the number of puzzles that you have pieced together in your research journey – which one will you write about? Don’t tell us about every ordinary discovery you have discovered in your research. Nothing will put a reader to sleep faster. You know the ones, the finding of a birth certificate or your ancestor’s hometown. Don’t get me wrong these are great discoveries for genealogists, but the average family member won’t be interested.

You need to think big. A mystery novel approach is best reserved for those discoveries in your family history that have high stakes attached to them. Of course, there are no stakes in uncovering your ancestor’s story; the high-stakes lie in the ancestor’s story itself. The higher the stakes, the more engaging the tale you have to tell. The bigger the mystery, the more compelling a story you have to share with your reader.  Of course, to tell a mystery you need to have an answer to the mystery. Don’t bring us along on a research journey that you have yet to discover the answer. Nothing will frustrate a reader more than not having an ending to the mystery.

Possible Mysteries in Your Family History

Murders or any significant crime you uncover in your family history are great storytelling topics for mystery novels. Was an ancestor murdered? Was there a trial? Trial transcripts may provide excellent information for the retelling of a murder mystery. You may know the answer, but your reader doesn’t. Turn your ancestor’s murder into a whodunit crime novel.

An ancestor is murdered or found dead under suspicious circumstances – Was there an inquisition into the death? Again these inquisitions can provide excellent information for the retelling of a mysterious death.

Some of the best mysteries start out with a dead body. But we might not all have the option of starting with a dead body. Here are some other ideas for your mystery story.

Was a valuable item stolen from your ancestor?  Again you may find information in a trial or the newspapers.

Did an ancestor go missing ancestor or did you uncover the disappearance of an ancestor that you later solved?

Did your ancestor witness a crime, was the victim of a crime or solved a crime?

Was there a secret child, a hidden family or a second family that you uncovered?  Did you come across a child in a census and you don’t know who they are, or a child that disappears from the family. Did you discover a child in a census that your family never talked about?

Did your ancestor have a secretive career that you uncovered?

These make great mystery stories to recount as you uncover the clues to the answer.


  1. The Middle – Building the Tension

You will spend the better part of the middle of the story revealing the mystery piece by piece, overcoming obstacles until finally the mystery is solved for your reader. A mystery often brings great tension. Mystery novels are usually page-turners that keep the reader engaged to the end. How does a writer accomplish this?


The middle should demonstrate the obstacles you faced in uncovering the mystery. These barriers may come in the form of people, suspects, false leads, and misleading clues.

Create a list of obstacles you encountered throughout your research. Were there missing records? Unattainable records?  Folklore stories that lead you in the wrong direction?  Records with missing or misleading information?

Did you experience any red herrings? Red herrings are clues that are false or deceptive. Did an ancestor lie on a document sending you in the wrong direction?


A cliffhanger is a storytelling technique that writers use to end a scene or chapter. They leave the reader in flux desperate to read more.  In your family history mystery, cliffhangers may be formed from any number of problems you came up against during your research.  A missing document, a dead end, a family member unwilling to talk, a small piece of information that leads to more questions.

Major Setback

Did you experience a major setback in your research?  A time when you almost gave up in solving the mystery?  A major setback will escalate the tension in your story and keep the reader guessing.

Bit by Bit

You want to make sure you are dripping the information to your reader bit by bit, encouraging them to keep reading. Don’t lay it all out right away. They will have no reason for your reader to stay with you until the end.


  1. Resolution – How is the mystery solved?

After overcoming your obstacles and pulling your reader along on the journey, you need to provide them with a solution, an answer to the mystery. This solution, while it should unfold gradually from your research and not come entirely out of left field, you still want it to be somewhat surprising to your reader. That means holding a little back for the end.

However, your resolution shouldn’t just be about the answer to the mystery but also demonstrate how you the author and detective of that mystery has experienced a change or shift in perspective after learning the answers to your ancestor’s mystery.

Your solution may come in revealing if your ancestor was, in fact, a murderer, or was murdered. Your solution may come in the form of explaining some motivation behind your ancestor’s actions in committing a crime, or hiding a child or a family. Your answer may come in the form of revealing the reasons that motivated your ancestor’s actions and putting their actions within the context of the time.

Consider using a mystery novel approach in sharing some of your family history findings. It makes a great format for bloggers and story writers alike.

Tip: One final thought when it comes to writing a family history mystery. Read examples of mystery stories to become acquainted with how they are written.


What mysteries in your family history research would make a great mystery novel? Share your ideas below in comments.



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