Family History: Story themes and Ideas for writing your history

10-16-2014 1-38-27 PMBy Barry J. Ewell

Do you want to write you own history but don’t know where to begin? The following themes are some of the many threads that weave through our lives. Think of each theme in relation to the different stages of your life: Early childhood, teen years, young adult, middle age and retirement years. What stayed consistent? What changed? And maybe this is all you write! What story do you have to tell? Story themes and Ideas The following themes are some of the many threads that weave through our lives. Think of each theme in relation to the different stages of your life: Early childhood, teen years, young adult, middle age and retirement years. What stayed consistent? What changed? And maybe this is all you write! What story do you have to tell? Places Lived List addresses and descriptions of places you’ve lived. Include unique features you remember about each.

  • The tile in the bathroom.
  • The fabric on the living room drapes.
  • The end table Grandpa made.
  • The chandler your son broke playing Tarzan.
  • The secret fort up in the tree.
  • The lime green colored cabinets of your first basement apartment together……

Favorite Anything At each age….

  • Favorite color
  • Favorite smells
  • Favorite time of year or time of day
  • Favorite foods
  • Favorite music
  • Favorite holidays
  • Favorite ice cream
  • Favorite flower
  • Favorite chair…

Belongings At each age…

  • What were your prized belongings?
  • Favorite toys, favorite clothes (in grade school, as a teen, as a young adult…)
  • Favorite heirlooms, favorite “stuff” (maybe a photo, a fishing lure, your first transistor radio, a piece of bric a brac, a coffee cup, and old thread-bare sweater…)

Pets or Animals

  • What do you remember about your pet(s)?
  • Their names?
  • When and how you got them?
  • What did they look like?
  • What foods did they like?
  • What funny, embarrassing or frustrating things did they do?
  • What was special about your pet?

Cars or Other Vehicles List the year and model of each car you’ve owned. What was special about each? Holidays and Vacation Time At each stage of your life, how did you spend your vacations?

  • Where did you go? How did you get there?
  • What did you do?
  • Who’d you go with?
  • What special things do you remember?

Hobbies and Leisure Time What were your unique pleasures? What special memories do any of these hold for you? At each stage of your life, what did you like to do?

  • Jump rope
  • Climb a tree house
  •  Baseball, stamp collecting
  • Movies
  • Drag racing
  • Hunting
  • Reading
  • Woodmaking
  • Sewing
  • Baking
  • Photography
  • Gardening…

Culture and the Arts What part did the arts play in your life? Music

  • What are your early memories of music?
  • What kind did you/do you prefer?
  • What are your favorite songs, hymns, classical works, and musicals?
  • Who are your favorite performers? Have your tastes changed over the years?


  • How important have books been to you throughout your life?
  • What were your most memorable or favorite books?
  • Your favorite authors?
  • Do you like Shakespeare?
  • Mysteries?
  • Gothic romance?
  • Science fiction?
  • What magazines have you subscribed to over the years?


  • What was your first exposure?
  • What were your favorite shows or movies?
  • Who were your favorite stars?
  • How often and when did you listen to the radio?
  • How often did you see movies or television?
  • What special memories do they invoke?

Theater & Concerts

  • How often did you attend?
  • What type of events did you enjoy?

Important Events in Your Life At each stage of your life, what were the highs and the lows? Humorous or Embarrassing Moments We all have these. What are yours? Accomplishments—Failures At each state of life…

  • Was it the home run with the bases loaded?
  • The piano recital in 3rd grade?
  • Helping Dad build the boat house?
  • Your first cooking disaster?
  • Signing a major customer?
  • A broken relationship?
  • A beautiful quilt?
  • Any awards or trophies?

Special Moments What are the special moments, dates and events that are most special for you?

  • A wedding
  • A birth
  • A special evening out
  • A conversation
  • A speech…

Describe the moment. What happened? Why was it important? How did you feel, who was there? Other This can include any other interesting, unique experiences.

  • Times you were “in a jam.”
  • Times you surprised yourself.
  • Times when you really said and did the right thing.
  • Times you didn’t, but wish you had.
  • Opportunities you let get by.

People in Your Life At each stage of your life, who were the important people for you and why?

  • What made them special?
  • Who were your friends?
  • What did you do together?
  • Who influenced you? How?

Private Thoughts and Opinions 1. At each stage of your life, what were the things you thought about? Dreams What were your dreams of wanting to do or see or be? What did you want to be when you “grew up?” Have you accomplished your dreams? What are your dreams now? Fears What were your fears?

  • The bogeyman under the bed?
  • Being left alone?
  • Giving a speech?
  • Are you superstitious?

Philosophies What are the philosophies you’ve lived by as a child, a teen, an adult?

  • Have they changed?
  • What are your philosophies now?

Opinions Do you feel strongly on specific subjects?

  • Ecology
  • War
  • The value of friends
  • Life after death
  • Unions
  • Honesty
  • Changing technology
  • Changing values?
  • Politics?

Miscellaneous   These can be lists of anything you might want to record whether serious, whimsical, insightful or just plain unique. Examples:

  • Things I’ve learned (or didn’t learn)
  • Things I think are wonderful, neat, dumb, stupid, scary, silly…
  • Things you know you should throw or give away but can’t bear to part with. What are your connections with these
  • People you never liked and why
  • Things you always wanted to do but didn’t have the guts
  • Projects you put off
  • Times you were mischievous and got caught
  • Names of fellow students in grade school, buddies in the Army, members of your card club…
  • Gifts you remember getting or giving for Christmas, birthdays, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day
  • Natural disasters you’ve survived (blizzards, tornadoes, floods, fires…)
  • Things that bugged you about others (your brothers/sisters, friends, bosses, etc.)

Plain Old I Remember When….. What are the things that have changed in your lifetime? What have been some of the important inventions you’ve seen? How did they do things in “the olden days”

  •  What was it like going to the dentist, the doctor, the barber, the tailor?
  • What was mass transit like and what kind of street maintenance was common?
  • What were the police and fire departments like?
  • How were things delivered, like the mail, groceries, milk, newspaper, and ice?
  • How was the family laundry or housekeeping done?
  • How have clothing styles changed such as bathing suits?
  • How have things changed in the kitchen? (Ex: How was toast made before the electric toaster was invented?)
  • How much did things cost like eggs, stamps, newspaper, and milk?
  • And on and on

Lifelong Themes There are four other main themes that run continuously through a person’s life:

  • World Events
  • Holidays
  • Family Members and….
  • You—Your Personal Growth

Again, think of each theme in relation to the different stages of your life: Early childhood, teen years, young adult, middle age and retirement years. What stayed consistent? What changed? World Events When does your memory and awareness of certain events (i.e., stock market crash, World War II, the first man on the moon, etc.) kick in?

  • How did you respond?
  • Do they trigger memories of what life was like then?
  • What was society like?
  • What values and principles were important then?

Think of the inventions you’ve seen in your life time.

  • What was life like before them? (How was toast made before toasters were invented? Was there really life before television?)
  • Are there “old-fashioned” ways of doing things that you miss?

Think of yourself as a child or a teenager or a young adult landing your first job —

  • What was going on in the world then?
  • How did it affect you?
  • How did you feel about it at the time?
  • To trigger some memory, check our Historical Events, a listing of over 500 world and national events including a listing of U. S. presidents in office in the 20th century.

Holidays Take any of the major holidays or celebrations and follow it through from childhood to adulthood. How did they change as you matured?

  • Did you start your own traditions as you got older?
  • The following are sample questions to get you started.
  • How did your family celebrate holidays?
  • Memorial Day
  • 4th of July
  • Other holidays and family get-togethers


  • How was Thanksgiving celebrated?
  • Where was dinner held?
  • Who was usually there?
  • Who did the cooking?
  • What kind of food did you eat?
  • Who did you play with?


  • How was Christmas celebrated?
  • Did you always have a tree?
  • Where did you get it?
  • How was it decorated?
  • What did the ornaments look like?
  • How was the house decorated?
  • Did you have any manger scenes or religious statutes?
  • Did you have Christmas stockings?
  • Where were they hung?
  • What was in them?
  • What kind of presents did your family give to each other?
  • Did Santa Claus come?
  • Did you leave him treats?
  • How did he get in?
  • When did you find out Santa Claus was a myth?
  • Who told you? How did you react?
  • What kind of Christmas dinner did you have?
  • Did your family have traditions (going to church, baskets to the poor, singing carols, sleigh rides?)

Family Members Think of family members who have been part of your life, perhaps for a short time (like a grandparent) or maybe many, many years (like a sibling).

  • Who are they?
  • What kind of relationship did you have with them?
  • How have they changed over the years and how has your relationship with them changed?

Parents What kind of relationship have you had with your parents over the years?

  • Has it changed in many ways?
  •  What kinds of lessons did you learn from them?
  • What do you think of your father or mother?
  • What kind of people were they? What qualities, values, advice did they give you?
  • Did you see changes in your parents over the years? What were you most proud of? Least?
  • What traits in your parents do you see in yourself?

Siblings NOTE: Use the same questions as listed above for your brothers and sisters. You might also think how they would respond if you asked any of the following questions:

  • What did we do together that you especially liked?
  •  What was the nicest thing I ever did for you? The meanest?
  • What was my most annoying habit? What did I do that secretly tickled you? That you were envious of?
  • How did you feel about my boyfriend/girlfriends?
  • How has our relationship changed over the years?

Your Personal Growth This is the time to ask:

  • Who was I then?
  • How have I changed?
  •  What’s unique about me?
  • What have I learned about myself?

Think of your life cycles, the ups and downs, the growths, the pains.

  • How healthy was your emotional and mental state at different times in your life?
  • When did you feel the surge of independence?
  • The fear of not fitting in? Anxiety about the unknown?
  • Did you get happier as you grew older? Did you lose your sense of humor through adulthood?

Did your personal taste change?

  • In food, music, entertainment, clothing?
  • Did your values change as you got older?
  • Religion, politics, family, honesty?
  • Awards and achievements
  • Career
  • Community involvement and & organizations
  • Early childhood & family
  • Favorite stories
  • Favorites
  • Friends & neighbors
  • Health & medical
  • Historical events
  • Hobbies & leisure activities
  • In retrospect
  • Labels
  • Marriage and children
  • Military service
  • Pets
  • Political believes
  • Residences
  • Retirement years
  • School years and education
  • Vacations & travel