Reach out and grab your readers! The first few sentences or the first paragraph may be the most important part of a whole history. A reader wants to know what’s in your story for him or her. How a history begins makes a difference in whether it will be read and enjoyed.
It is important to have done the research and know the person about whom we are writing. I spend some time thinking about the various events in my subject’s life. I consider their turning points, the events that made a difference in the rest of their lives. A dramatic turn of events makes a good place to start writing.
We are often tempted to write chronologically, to begin with a person’s parentage and birth and then work our way through his or her life. A timeline does serve as a good outline of a person’s life and in fact, I think that constructing a fairly detailed timeline should be part of the research process. Looking at that outline can provide me with natural divisions in the history as it proceeds from the active interesting beginning.
There are many good ways to begin a story, as long as the beginning grabs the reader’s imagination. In one history I began at the ending, describing the unmarked pauper’s grave on a lonely rise that became Swedish Anna Beata’s final resting place. In others, the drama of climbing aboard an immigrant ship to make a new life in a new land provides a good beginning. My great-grandpa had a particularly dramatic leave-taking. In the confusion of a late boarding by his family, he was left on shore with his aunt. At 18 months of age, he was thrown by a dockworker into the waiting arms of a sailor on board the ship. What a great beginning that made to his lengthy life story!
Another great beginning was the dramatic change that occurred with a convert baptism into a new religion. A Danish Church record showing this baptism was the perfect first page illustration for Anna Britta’s history. And the day Anna Weiss from Switzerland went to the Salt Lake LDS Endowment House to remember her mother, her father and her grandparents revealed a wealth of information even though records of her life were scanty. The events of that day served as the introduction to her story.
A traditional family story about their handcart journey begins the life history of one pioneer couple that I wrote about. This often told family tradition served as a springboard to examine the known facts of their lives. Readers familiar with the buffalo stampede story were especially drawn into this beginning.
Family histories should be well-researched and factual, but they do not have to be boring. Use your imagination to put yourself into the person’s life and begin with something that will give readers food for thought and piqué their interest to draw them into the story.