3. Who’s on First? Keeping Track

Staying organized within your story and keeping track of who is who for your reader can be a lot like the old Abbott and Costello skit “Who’s on First.”

As family historians, most of us have spent countless hours with our family trees long before we ever begin writing down stories. Often, we’re on a first name basis with the dearly departed and their entire household. Such familiarity is great for the genealogist, but it doesn’t help your stories come to life for your readers.  It’s a common oversight to forget how unfamiliar all of this was when we started learning about our ancestors.

Writing good, readable, “recaps” of family lore is hard work. Don’t get me wrong, it is a lot of fun too, but to do it well you have to keep your eye on the reader. Hopefully you have  read “Audience” by now, and have a pretty clear idea of who you are writing for. You have either selected a method for your writing or are well on your way.  Within that same vein of “Audience” runs the need for us as writers to help our readers keep track of the characters.  Readers need help recalling “who is who” and how they are related to all the other kinfolk in the tree.

Basically, you will need to include for your readers an easy-to-reference tool so they can follow along with as little disruption during the story as possible. In writing, you want to hold the reader’s attention, not send them off searching for a point of reference to tell them who Aunt Millie Kranzenberger was and why she was at Grandmother’s wedding.

There are several effective ways to keep score.  Your job is to select the best method for both your Audience and your personal comfort level as the writer.

When writing a Scholarly (formal) piece, you would be best served by including a charted pedigree or a portion of the larger family tree that is pertinent to your subject, at the beginning of your work (whether it is simply an essay length retelling of a specific story, or a larger work such as a book).

If you are very serious about this and wish to publish your writing and have it cataloged into the ISBN system, you really should be using a Genealogical Numbering System. This method is used when you write under the standards of the Chicago Manuel for style and footnotes etc.  There are dozens of accepted methods of numbering systems.  Most you can learn free of charge online (and some family tree programs include numbering as a feature or option).  Simply search “Genealogy Numbering Systems” and you will find all the information you would ever want to feast on! Begin writing about the person by using their full name in the title and adding in their “number” in brackets next to it. For example, a title may look like this:

The Famous Stables at Green Hill, Kentucky Home of George Dugan [23452]

As you write on in this work, perhaps you would mention his wife and note her as:

In 1754, his wife Anna Ferguson Dugan [53522] was taken ill.

You get the idea.  The listing numbers are also noted on the larger family tree, family group sheets (FGS), pedigrees and all throughout the whole Family History.

Informal works written as a keepsake to be distributed to family members and not made with the intent of educating the greater population of the world, can be done more casually. This certainly does not make them any less important in the need of quick reference “score-keeping!” For these, I have had great success by using only a family group sheet and a print out of the larger family tree.  I like to use a very wide view of the tree sheet and then highlight the family group who I will be telling stories about. I treat each of the family groups as a separate chapter. The tale I include are selected for this chapter (or section) because they are primarily about the folks on the group sheet.  I name the Chapters as they are named on the FGS.  An example is written below with the comments and explanations italicized:

John and Emily Greuner and their Children

Often, stories will include cousins, Uncles, etc.  If you are mentioning someone in the family tree, who is not on the family sheet (FGS) simply add an asterisk after their name as they first appear in the story and then much like an on-page footnote repeat the asterisk with their name at the foot of the same page and note their FGS.  Here’s an example:

When cousin David* hopped onto the old sled demanding his turn, the wooden rudders gave out with a loud crack!  The sled had been crafted long ago for children, never expecting to carry a 200 pound nine year old like David.

*David–See Don and Betty Ramsey and their Children

No matter how you choose to keep score of “Who’s on First” make sure it’s a consistent part of your writing.  You want your audience to read and enjoy the stories without spending all their time trying to figure out who they’re reading about.  If it becomes too frustrating or involves too much effort, all your work will become a drink coaster or live out a sad and lonely life on the bookshelf.



2 thoughts on “3. Who’s on First? Keeping Track”

  1. I’m no sure if there is a right or a wrong way to go about this, but I have taken a the path of having a section for each generation of the paternal line, and adding a subsection for the family that each grandfather married into. It helps to keep things straight (with a modified family sheet at the start of each section, and a tree overview to boot)…my own challenge is adding narrative around the dates.

    I also love your comment regarding the way that we ‘know’ these ancestors (having researched their lives for how-many years) and risk writing about them without letting our readers in on all the secrets of their lives that make up the greater picture.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jenni~
      If you wonder about “right and wrong” ways, just look at all the variations of numbering systems! It’s crazy hard to keep track of all of this info. Your organizing method sounds good to me! I am not such a tidy genealogist, I rely on my sister who IS good about rules and numbers and “3-times-removeds” and all of that 🙂
      Now writing the stories makes her hair stand on end, so we make a pretty good team 🙂


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