2 – How to research your family history

Where to begin?

I was lucky to have my aunt Barbara who had done much of the research already. Moreover she was meticulous, unlike some family historians, and unimpressed by claims of connections to Prime Minister Pitts and other dignitaries. (I did double-check her findings but could not fault her.)

If you have a relative who’s done some research already, all the better. Otherwise, start with grandparents or parents, if you have any, and go on from there. Instead or in addition, every major city will have archives and/or genealogy centres. Sydney has the Society of Australian Genealogists (wonderfully named SAG) and London has the Society of Genealogists (SOG) as well as the aforementioned British Library – free to join – and the National Archives, ditto. There are plenty of books that can get you started as well as websites such as the Mormons (freely available but not always totally accurate) and of course Ancestry and FindMyPast (free in England in public libraries but again not always totally accurate).

Create a website

If you Google the web for Mary Matcham Pitt you will find a WordPress site I set up for relatives of my pioneering ancestress which contains basic information on all the various branches of the family, made up partly of contributions from other family members who have contacted me over the years through the website. This is really useful.

Create a Facebook group

That’s if you do social media of course. Again this is a way for distant relatives to make contact and add or acquire information, and it’s easy to update if and when anything happens in the news that relates to the family.

Organise a family reunion

Okay, a bit of a tall order, though we have done it. Or rather my cousin (aunt Barbara’s daughter Libby) did it several years ago in the house that was built and lived in by our great grandfather in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. This is a great way to celebrate our combined history and to make contact with other family members (and maybe for selling books).

Coorah, in the Blue Mountains, built and lived in by my great grandfather and the venue of the Pitt family reunion.
Coorah, in the Blue Mountains, built and lived in by my great grandfather and the venue of the Pitt family reunion.

Writing your family history

If this is your plan – and I recommend it – first it’s important to decide who you are writing for and why you are writing it.

The two questions are interlinked of course. If it’s just the immediate family and very interested friends you’re aiming at then of course all you need to do is a lot of research and put it all down in a clear and readable manner.

However one of the joys of family (and social) history is the way in which it shines a light onto events of the time.  As I said before a family does not have to be extraordinary to be worth writing about. Family history is social history told through the eyes of ordinary people: ‘ordinary’ in the sense of not famous, and never having played a major part in big events, is what makes them identifiable, like us. 

To broaden the appeal of your book, set it in its context. Some of the most gratifying reviews for Worst Country have come from people with no connection to me or my family at all. As my editor Shelley Weiner said when I queried the amount of personal family history in the book, the more specific and detailed you are about your own family the more appealing it is likely to be to a wider public.

My book went through several metamorphoses under different titles until I landed on The Worst Country in the World, which perfectly summed up what the book is about: namely the story of how a country that began its colonial life as a penal colony that no Europeans wanted to set foot in became what is commonly described as one of the ‘luckiest’ countries in the world. All this as seen through the eyes of my ancestress Mary Pitt and her offspring.

The title of my next book, A Country to Be Reckoned With, told the story not just of my great great grandfather but of the transformation of Australia throughout his lifetime in the 19th century from a country nobody wanted to live in to a thriving community with a bright future.

The idea behind both books was to appeal not just to family members but to anyone interested in the early origins of colonial Australia, as has turned out to be the case.

G M Pitt
G M Pitt, my great great grandfather and the subject of my second book

Both books are a mixture of history, family history, personal reminiscence and – here and there in order to fill in the gaps – dramatisation. The purpose of including dialogue scenes between the characters was to bring my family story alive in a way dry history cannot do. It makes the books more fun to read, and to write, though it’s obviously important to clarify what is real and what is invented. (I did this in the chapter notes.)

Publishing your book

The obvious way to do this is through self-publishing. This was becoming a Thing as I was preparing my first book, and not just for writers who couldn’t find agents or publishers to take them on. Many traditionally-published authors have taken to indie publishing in order to keep control of their work. With the advent of print on demand (POD) a self-published book does not necessarily have to sell in its thousands, though that would be nice.

Self publishing requires a lot of time, effort and patience, as you are taking on the job of a publishing house single-handed. You can get help from outside with any or all of the aspects of publishing such as editing (essential), formatting and professional cover design (ditto), though be careful who you deal with – there are sharks out there. The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) can help here. Even if you don’t become a member they have published several guidebooks on self publishing which among other things tells you what not to do or who not to hire to help you.

Happy travelling on your family history journey! If you have any questions contact me through the site and I’ll do my best to help.

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