Five Minute Family History

Save the stories! Become a story-catcher during your coffee break!

Welcome!  I'm glad you found me. I hope we can have fun here and do something really important, too. Doing family history isn’t only about visiting graveyards and documenting all the begats of dead ancestors, it’s also capturing living memory and creating a story your descendants will be eager to read.   So set aside a few short minutes–with morning coffee, at lunchtime or before bed–and write, type or speak fast!

 Click HERE and let's get started

Mystery Person?

Do you have a mystery person in your family?  A black sheep?   A person family members shy away from mentioning?  Well, of course, this is something you MUST find out more about, right?  Think of the person who most fits the black-sheep label in your family and concentrate on that person for today.  Jot down everything you know about him/her, including what has earned the designation.  This is an exercise to contribute to your own understanding of your family and you can choose at a later time whether to put any of it into your family scrapbooks, so don’t hold back.

Foodie Family

I've been away for a long while now due to writing deadlines.  The second in my Family History Mystery series was just released, DEATH IN REEL TIME.  So now I can get back to some family history prompts.

Who in your family, past or present, had the reputation of being the best cook?   What was his/her signature dish?  Was this a dish of his/her own invention or did they learn to make it from someone?  If so, who?  Describe the dish and jot down any details about this person that come to mind.  You can flesh it out later, for now just capture the info.


Holiday Traditions

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I've been away for awhile, enjoying the holiday season with family.  But now it's time to get back to business.  Our challenge for today's five-minute-family-history exercise is to choose one holiday tradition in your family and write about it.  This may be a tradition that has carried down through the generations, or one that you've established in your family that you hope will continue for generations to come.  

In our family we celebrated St. Nicholas Day on December 6th when our children were little, and hope to reestablish that tradition with our grandchildren.  On the night of  December 5th the children left their shoes by the front door along with a carrot and bit of hay for St. Nicholas' donkey.  They awoke the next morning to find the carrot and hay gone and a small gift inside their shoe.   


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As we’re finishing up the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers, time to preserve special Thanksgiving recipes.  For today’s five minute family history, write (or type) one “must have” traditional family dish.   If it came down within the family write what you know about its origins or who was most particular about it, or most famous for preparing it.  If you have more than one dish you’d like to document, make a list in your “book of lists” and come back another day to continue.     

One Ancestor at a Time....

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We are born of two parents, who were each born of two parents; rinse and repeat. This doubling each generation explains how “doing” family history quickly gets out of hand and becomes a tangled ball of factoids, unidentified photos and confused names.

So for today, let's focus on capturing the living memory of one relative or ancestor.   

Write free style or fill in this form.




Family History research can be addictive, but it can also be a lonely pursuit if you can’t get other family members on board.  For today’s prompt, how about reaching out to another family member, maybe your favorite cousin, a sibling or an uncle or aunt, and encourage them to share their own memories. Maybe if you start out slow you can eventually reel them in.

Take a few moments to compose five questions you’d like to ask your new collaborator.  You can pose these by phone or by email, but I’ve gotten the most comprehensive answers by snail mail.  Maybe it’s because we pay more attention to personal mail that lands in our mailboxes these days since it’s becoming a less frequent occurrence.  A good format is to write (or type) the question and then leave a big blank space.  There’s something compelling about it and people seem to feel the need to fill it. Also, it's a good idea to include a SASE.  It saves your collaborator the hassle of a trip to the post office, plus you show you value their input by springing for the price of a stamp.

Try to frame your questions in an open-ended form to elicit the most info.  Example:  You want to know about the scar on Uncle Richard’s cheek?   If you ask:  How did Uncle Richard get that scar on his cheek?  the answer may come back: In the war.  Whereas if you ask:  What can you tell me about that scar Uncle Richard had on his cheek?  you may get a more elaborate response.

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In an earlier post called THINGS we concentrated on choosing one thing of significance to your family and writing about that thing. Let's do some more with that.

I have several things that I know are "family things" that have lost the story that goes with them somewhere down the line.  I don't know who these things came from or why they became significant enough to pass down the line.  Let's not be the generation that loses the stories of the things we know about.  In keeping with our current list making activities (previous posts LISTS! LISTS!  LISTS!), take five minutes and make a list of things that are in your household (or perhaps that your siblings or other family members have in their possession) that you consider family heirlooms.  And remember, an heirloom doesn't need to be something costly or grand, just something meaningful. 

If you have some time left over go ahead and write the name of each thing at the top of a 3  x 5 card, or make a separate page in your notebook for it.  In future session, choose a card and write down everything you know about that object.  And take a picture to attach to the info if you can. 

Quilt photo courtesy of Brown Bird Quilts




Food for Thought...

For many families food is a trigger for memories of good times, comfort or culinary disaster stories.  Today make a list of recipes that are/were special in your family.  You can elaborate later.  For today just make a list of every special dish you can think of and link it to the family member most famous for preparing the dish.

One famous dish in my husband’s family is the Tomato Soup Cake, which is a moist spice cake .  His grandmother (or perhaps the beloved housekeeper) started to make this cake during the war years (WWII) since it did not require using rationed butter or eggs.  It is a mainstay for birthday celebrations in our family, though guests are sometimes reluctant to try it when they hear what it’s called.  It could be worse though, the Sauerkraut cake was also popular during the war years. 


Tomato Soup Cake

1 can tomato soup (Campbell's)

1/2 c. butter

1 c. sugar

2 c. flour

1 pinch salt

2 t. baking powder

1 t. cinnamon

1 level teaspoon soda  (baking soda)

1 c. raisins

1 t. vanilla


Add melted butter to soup and combine with sugar.  Sift spices, soda, salt and baking powder with flour and add to first mixture.  Then add raisins (seedless) and vanilla.  Pour into greased loaf pan.  Bake 60 minutes (or sometimes it take 90 minutes) at 325.

Top with cream cheese frosting if desired.


Working the List!


Last time we talked about lists.  Lists are our friends.  There are many ways to use them, but one of my favorites is to write each ITEM on your list (It was PLACES of family significance for our first list) on the top of its own index card.  Bundle the cards together with a rubber band and keep them in your pocket or bag and when you have a few moments (waiting in line at the grocery store, for instance) shuffle through the cards and chose one or more and make notes about what you remember. This provides material to work with when you sit down to write about it later and it will go more quickly.

Hint-you may want to break down the list into even more specific elements, rooms instead of houses, architectural details in the room such as mantelpieces, the view from a specific window, etc.


Lists! Lists! Lists!


In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury writes of his penchant for making lists and how those lists helped him see patterns and served as “provocations” for writing.  A good list to hand can prevent blank paper paralysis when we sit down to write our family history.  So for today, let’s make a list of all the houses associated with your various family lines.  Residences, vacation houses, apartments, rentals, all living quarters that were significant to your family.  Write down addresses if you know them.  Today you need only make the list. In a later post we’ll talk about how to use it, but if an entry “provokes” you to write about one of your abodes, go for it!


Fright Night!

To get you in the mood for today’s prompt have a look at these creepy Halloween costumes from past eras.

As Halloween nears this seems a good time to capture how you or your ancestors spent this holiday.  Our five-minute family history exercise is you-pick-one:

1. Write about your favorite costume(s) and/or Halloween traditions when you were a kid.

2. Call, Skype or write to an older relative and ask about Halloween traditions in their younger years (granted this one will probably stretch beyond five minutes, but it could be worth pushing the envelope).

3. Pick a relative who was born around Halloween and tell about him/her in as much detail as you can remember.  Physical appearance, career and family info, personality triats anecdotes, etc.   Or chose a family event that occurred in October and write what you remember about it.  Break this down, if need be, and write about it over the next several days.


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A Holiday Romp


We have lots of holiday traditions in our family, some brought down from generations before and some we've come up with on our own.  One relatively new tradition is the Christmastime trek to a neighborhood near us to view a light and decoration extravaganza.  We take the dogs and the cameras and have hot chocolate waiting when we get back home.  While it makes me tired just to think of setting all these things up, they're fun to look at and I'm sure it builds community in this cul-de-sac. 

Pick a holiday and write about your favorite tradition in your family.   


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We all live among things.  Some of those things become imbued with special meaning.  They’re associated with people or events, they engender curiosity, sentimentality or can even become talismans of sorts.  This is why a family will sometimes be in perfect harmony about splitting stocks and bonds, but fall into a squabble over a chipped cookie jar.

One of the family artifacts my children fixated on was a card shuffler, an item that came down from my husband’s grandparents.  They loved feeding the cards through it and watching it shuffle.  This provided an opportunity for hubby to share something about their great-grandmother who played bridge with her friends every week and to tell them what that activity (and those friends) had meant to her life.

So for today’s assignment, pick an artifact (either one that has come down to you from your family or one that you’ve procured in HOPES of making it a family heirloom for future generations).  Write everything you know about that object:  what it is, how it came into the family, what it was used for, any memories of events or routines that involved the object, if it has monetarily value, etc.  Write for 5 or 10 minutes.

There, in a short time you’ve captured a bit of family history.   You can put the butterfly net away until next time.


Our First Post

Today is the day to start preserving the unique story that belongs to YOUR family.  Let's not put it off until that great someday when we "have time" to work on the project. Whatever we can capture in a few minutes each day is a gift for the generations to follow.  So grab a pen and a notebook, your laptop or an audio recorder and let's get started!