January 7, 2021

Lessons I Learned

 Dennis L. Peterson

When I began genealogical research years ago, I never dreamed my efforts would produce a book. What began as a personal curiosity became a quest to preserve the family heritage for my children and grandchildren. Almost before I knew it, it had become a book, A Goodly Heritage: A Peterson Family Legacy.

Here are a few of those lessons about how (and how not) to gather and write your findings.

1. Determine your target audience.

My intended audience was immediate family—my four daughters and my seven grandchildren—and perhaps a few interested distant relatives and friends. I intended to give the books as Christmas gifts. The target you set will determine how you address the people in the history you write and how to market it.

2. Do your basic genealogical research.

The essential sources include family records (both written and photographic), family stories and traditions, family graveyards, individuals’ obituaries, census records, and military service records and interviews of older family members while they are still around.

3. Set your limitations.

Genealogical research can be endless. One detail leads to others. Determine how far to go, which tree branches to cover, and which (if any) photographs to use—then stick to those limitations!

4. Avoid sidetracks and rabbit trails.

The temptation to chase rabbit trails is present in writing family history. I got off track trying to trace my uncle’s footsteps during World War II. Although interesting, it was a poor use of my time and energy.

5. Include interesting tidbits.

Show your readers the setting—historical, financial, and cultural—in which your “characters” lived. Make them more human and more interesting by including anecdotes and examples from their lives.

6. Set a deadline and a timetable for completing your project.

A deadline forces you to keep working with a clear purpose and helps you finish the project. My quest originally was to last one year. Instead, it lasted more than two.

7. Determine a publishing format to use.

Will you staple printed, typewritten pages or bind it? If bound, will it be perfect or spiral bound? Or will it be professionally designed and printed? Will you try to obtain a traditional publisher or self-publish? Unlike my traditionally published Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries (McFarland, 2016) and Combat! Spiritual Lessons from Military History (TouchPoint, 2020), I chose to self-publish my family history using Amazon’s CreateSpace program (now Kindle Direct Publishing). This gave me a great deal of freedom in choosing the layout and design for the book and allowed sales to anyone, not just the target relatives (although that was not my intent), through

Whether you present the story of your family’s history as a gift or intend it for sale, research it thoroughly and enjoy the journey.

Dennis L. Peterson is an independent author, historian, and editor with numerous published credits in regional and national journals and magazines since 1981. A former history and writing teacher and lead author of American history textbooks and curricula for a major Christian textbook publisher. Served as senior technical editor for Lockheed Martin Energy Systems, Inc. at the historic Oak Ridge, Tennessee, nuclear facilities. He is a member of several historical organizations, including the Society of Independent Southern Historians, the East Tennessee Historical Society, and the Travelers Rest (SC) Historical Society, on the board of which he also serves as 2nd vice president. He is also a docent for the History Museum of Travelers Rest. His areas of special interest include Southern history, the War Between the States, the Great Depression, and World War II as well as biblical studies
Soon to be published by TouchPoint Press: Christ in Camp and Combat: Religious Work in the Confederate Armies (due to be released in Spring 2021) and Evangelism and Expulsion: Missionary Work Among the Cherokees Before Removal (due to be released in Summer 2021).  
Visit him on his website:

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Dennis for being on Suite T today. I am so glad you shared this with us. I have been wanting to do research on my family and write some of the things I remember about different ones and times to share with my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Your information is greatly appreciated and will help me get started on this projet. Thanks for sharing with us.