Help Your Audience Connect with Your Family History Project

August 12, 2023 ·Updated January 17, 2024

After countless hours spent reading and rereading my great-grandfather’s poetry and letters as I transcribe and typeset each one, I’ve created quite the list of questions like “what does this mean?” “I wonder what this boat looked like?” “What was it like doing this job at this time?” “What was going on in Los Angeles during 1945?”

Now that the transcription is done and has been reviewed, I’ve finally had time to dig into all of my questions. Answering these questions isn’t just for me, though. An important part of my books, and any family history project, is creating the proper context, or window, through which to view the content. (You can read more about my books as “mini museums” in my other article “Introduction to Creating Custom Family History Books at Home”.) By answering my own questions about the content, I can help guide the reader through a better, more tailored experience. In my grandpa’s case, the poems and letters he wrote are much more fascinating when you know what was going on in LA in 1945 and have images and definitions for words and objects that were then commonplace.

On the flip side, I’ve dug through hundreds of photos from another grandpa of beautiful trees and mountains, small villages and people where I have little to no context. It’s sad to think that these people and places had stories captured on film that will never be heard or known again.

The process of creating context can be difficult to do when you’re just starting out, but by using the guidelines I outline in this project update and with a little practice, you should be able to start creating your own “windows” for your family history projects.

Step 1: Evaluating Location, Content and Length of Information for Context

The first step in creating context for your audience is evaluating how you intend them to interact with your final product. The following questions are a good starting point.

How will my audience interact with the final product?

If your project is a book, will they be reading it from cover to cover, like a biography, or will they be flipping to random pages, like a reference book or my poetry book? If it’s an image, where will they be looking at it, in your house on the wall? in a gallery? in a post online? Asking questions like this help determine the best location for context, be it interspersed throughout your book, in the beginning in one spot, hanging next to a photo, or maybe even included in the photo itself.

What aspects of the product are you trying to emphasize?

For a book, are you wanting the audience to simply understand factual information about the subject or do you want the audience to see the world through the eyes of your ancestor? Are you wanting to depict a certain time period, or give an overview of several different periods of time? The answers to these questions inform you of the type and tone of information you want to convey to the audience. If your wanting to transport your audience to a different time period, you’ll need detailed and emotional depictions of sights, smells, historical events so that they can picture what is going on in their mind. If you are going for more factual, a straightforward, dry, and almost newspaper article-like details would be better suited.

How much information does the audience need to appreciate what you are trying to emphasize?

Your biggest limiting factor will most likely be space, followed by the attention span of the reader. By limiting the information you are presenting to the bare minimum the audience needs to appreciate your work, the faster the audience can move on. Some projects may only need a year or a location to give plenty of context, where other projects may need several pages or whole chapters dedicated to the subject.

Step 1 Example Answers

How will my audience interact with the final product?

  • Poetry books are not typically read from cover to cover, but are flipped open to random pages and read sporadically.
  • Since this is not a reference book, I expect people will pick the book up rather infrequently to peruse at their leisure.
  • I imagine that readers will have similar questions as I did while I was reading through the letters and poems, and may even search for their answers on the internet.

What aspects of the product are you trying to emphasize?

  • I want the audience to be able to enjoy the poems.
  • I want the audience to have some understanding of who my great-grandfather was - what his personality was like, what were his passions, what did he think about.
  • I want to provide the audience a unique window into what the world was like in 1945 in Los Angeles when my great-grandfather was writing the letters to my great-grandmother.

How much information does the audience need to appreciate what I’m trying to emphasize?

  • Some of the poems have descriptions of objects and places that are unfamiliar to my audience, a simple picture and description may be enough.
  • Some of the letters mention the housing market, my great-grandfather’s job as a teletype operator for the army, the very recent marriage of my great-grandparents, etc. This requires a lot more information to really set the stage for what was going on with the world during this time and how it would’ve affected a young couple.
  • There are a lot of locations that are important for the letters to make sense, so a map with important location marked may be helpful.
  • There are outdated and uncommon words used throughout the poems and letters, a simple definition would help make the content more clear.

Step 2: Gathering and Organizing Information

Now that you have a good idea of the types of information and resources you need to gather and look for, you can dive into the research. Step two is where you are (finally) able to let your curiosity lead you down all of those little rabbit holes you’ve been avoiding until now.

I feel like this step doesn’t need a whole lot of explanation, since there are countless resources available for how to do research, but here’s a list of some places you can start looking:

Step 2 Research Source Examples

I used a variety of resources to gather the information I needed, I’ve listed a few examples below:

  • Simple definition searches for various parts of boats were just done using Google.
  • I learned all about teleprinters on Wikipedia.
  • I dug into a few army historical websites to learn about Camp Callan.
  • I had several family photo books scanned, one of which had pictures of Camp Callan.
  • I also had several vital records and documents that included more detailed information about what my grandfather did and important dates for recreating his story.

  • I used ChatGPT to give a synopsis of events going on during the relevant time periods.

An Example of Using ChatGPT for Research

Prompt: “Write a brief historical synopsis of what was going on in October 1945”


“In October 1945, the world was undergoing significant changes in the aftermath of World War II. Here’s a brief historical synopsis of some key events and developments that took place during that month:

1. Post-War Rebuilding: Following the surrender of Japan in August 1945, countries around the world focused on the monumental task of rebuilding war-ravaged cities and economies. The process of demobilization and repatriation of soldiers began, with many nations transitioning back to peacetime activities.

2. Formation of the United Nations: On October 24, 1945, the United Nations (UN) officially came into existence. The UN was established to promote international cooperation, maintain peace and security, and address global challenges collectively. Its founding charter was signed in San Francisco earlier in the year, and the organization replaced the defunct League of Nations.

3. Nuremberg Trials: In Nuremberg, Germany, the trials of major Nazi war criminals commenced on October 18, 1945. This series of military tribunals sought to hold accountable those responsible for atrocities committed during the Holocaust and World War II. The trials set important precedents for prosecuting war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

4. Cold War Tensions: As World War II ended, tensions between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies began to rise. Disagreements over the post-war division of Europe and ideological differences between communism and capitalism laid the groundwork for the emerging Cold War. October 1945 saw the early signs of this growing rift between the Soviet Union and the United States.

5. Decolonization Movements: In various parts of the world, nationalist and independence movements gained momentum. Colonial powers, including the British Empire and France, faced growing demands for self-rule and independence from their colonial subjects. This period witnessed the beginning of decolonization processes that would unfold over the following decades.

6. Scientific Advancements: Scientific progress continued to shape the world. In October 1945, American scientists led by Percy Spencer filed a patent for the microwave oven, revolutionizing the way food is prepared. Additionally, the development of nuclear technology during the war laid the foundation for subsequent nuclear research and the exploration of peaceful applications.

These are just a few significant events that occurred in October 1945. It was a transformative period characterized by rebuilding, international cooperation, the pursuit of justice, geopolitical shifts, and the aspirations for independence from colonial rule.”

Ultimately, use whatever resource you have available to fill in the requirements you outlined in Step 1 and collect it into one place. While your not trying to write anything at this stage yet, try to keep your information organized by dividing into with subtitles or creating different folders for different questions. Make sure to save photos, links, anything and everything that could be useful.

Step 2 Organization Example

As far as organization goes, I just used my working document as a drop zone where I could copy and paste images and text directly into the document. This made all the sources easier to reference and organize for the next step.

An example of what my working document looks like with images and text scattered some haphazardly across multiple pages.

Step 3: Creating a Draft

At this point you can start sifting through everything you’ve gathered and writing your first draft. Depending on the level of detail you need, this step may be really quick or may take some time to get right.

For more lengthy writing, I find that it’s helpful to start with a brief outline of what I want to write. Then I move around my research to fit into my outline. And, finally, I write out my summary of my research for the section. I always leave the first introduction paragraph for last since it usually provides an overview of what is coming next and I don’t know what is coming next until its already written.

Step 3 Examples

Example excerpt from the introduction of the book.

Example of a page with footnotes.

Step 4: Sharing for Review

Once you have a draft that you are happy with, it’s time to put it to the test. Share your draft project with someone who is representative of your audience and see how they interact with it. This draft should be relatively close to what the final project would be. So, if it’s a book, print it out. An image, hang it on a wall with the placard next to it. Do what you can to simulate the environment in which the final project will be viewed. Take notes of what is working and what isn’t. Are they interacting with the project as you expected? What questions do they still have? What parts of the project are sticking out to them, and is this what you intended?

Step 4 Printed Example

Since my final project is a book, I printed and partially bound a draft version of the book at the final size. This allowed me to give the book to various family members and watch how they flipped through the pages and what they were able to read. This worked really well for not only seeing if the footnotes and introduction had the right information, but if they were accessible and legible as well.

Step 5: Refine

Finally, repeat steps 3 and 4 as many times as necessary until you have the outcome that you intended for the project. I repeated this process 2-3 times before I was happy with everything.

Final Thoughts

When I first came up with the idea of creating a poetry book of my great-grandfather’s poems, I didn’t plan for this step at all. I figured the project consisted of me simply compiling and transcribe the poems. However, looking at the project now, after having gone through this process, I’m extremely happy with the results because the poems have so much more depth and meaning than the first time I read through them. I can better understand the terminology he used, and the world events that were happening that would prompt such thoughts. As I’ve shared the drafts with others, it’s been exciting to see them be able to jump to that depth and meaning much faster because I’ve added the context the needed for that depth.

So, be sure to plan in time for creating the right context for your next family history project - it’s worth it!

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