Writing a memoir or family history can be tricky, because you know a lot – even too much – about your subject. Some of the story you know as fact, some you can only speculate about, and then there are your personal feelings. What’s the best way to tell the story? Researchers and authors sometimes see themselves as reporters, telling about events as they actually happened. But if you are mostly concerned with exploring the emotional and psychological experience, these aspects of life are harder to report, much less to document. Should you write a factual memoir or family history, or would a fictionalized account be better?
Genealogy is not a topic that often hits the pages of the New York Times, except when the business pages report on companies like Ancestry or My Heritage. Today’s op-ed piece Your Ancestors, Your Fate by is one that should generate wide interest, especially among those interested in genealogy and family history. According to the author, researcher Gregory Clark, “To a striking extent your overall life chances can be predicted not just from your parents’ status but also from your great-great-great-grandparents.” University of California, Davis economics professor Gregory Clark is the author of The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility. He and fellow researchers began with a simple question: what is the reason for a person’s upward social mobility, or lack of it? Clark reported that,” …my colleagues and I estimate that 50 to 60 percent of variation in overall status is determined by your lineage. The fortunes of high-status families inexorably fall, and those of low-status families rise, toward the average — what social scientists call “regression to the mean” — but the process can take 10 to 15 generations (300 to 450 years), much longer than most social scientists have estimated in the past.”
There are more authors out there today than ever before, and many of that growing number of authors have never published a book before. Unfortunately, these inexperienced authors can be fleeced by unscrupulous companies who disguise themselves as publishers. Publishers Weekly reported that there were 347,178 books published traditionally in 2011. Bowker put the number of self-published books in 2012 at 391,000. “Currently, authorship, including books and new media, is growing nearly tenfold each year,” according to Seed Magazine. As these neophytes search for a publisher they are targets for a variety of schemes to rip them off. One thing which makes them vulnerable is a lack of understanding of today’s publishing universe. There are two clearly defined and legitimate publishing models, situated at opposite ends of the publishing continuum.
Would you like to write in a crisp, concise, vivid style? Who wouldn’t? A new app called Hemingway allows you to see how your writing measures up to Papa’s standard. Ernest Hemingway, the king of powerful, spare writing, has influenced generations of writers. He crafted his Nobel Prize-winning novels based on four rules he learned as a cub reporter at the Kansas City Star: Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative. Brian Clark of Copyblogger adds a fifth rule Hemingway confided in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.” You can use the app in two ways: Hit the Write button and create a new piece of text to evaluate. Hit the Edit button and plug in a piece of existing writing.
Are you are a family historian working to transform your research into a book? You want to make sure it is one family members will enjoy reading. Here are six things to keep in mind.
Your family history is unique. So why would you want a cookie-cutter template? At the RootsTech Family History and Technology Conference, a number of people came to our Stories To Tell exhibit and asked, “Do you have software or a template to create books?” We didn’t, and we don’t ever intend to make a book according to a template. A template-based book, compared to a custom book, is like a child’s paint-by-numbers kitcompared to a real, original work of art. We don’t offer templates, but a lot of people do. For example,ancestry.com’s My Canvas promises, “Family History Books auto fill with your family group sheets, pedigree charts, and timelines using Ancestry.com records.” Others offer lists of questions to answer which would generate some book text, and there are publishing packages to create family histories. These packages suggest that if you just point and click, you have a book. Ease of use is often a good thing, but what if something important is lost? The function of a template is to mass produce items in the same shape and pattern. Your family may be special or unusual people, but your book won’t be.
Is an ebook right for you? Ebooks are another alternative for self-publishing authors who want to produce and distribute their book. We have been creating ebooks for a few years now, and they are easier to create than ever. Let's look at how ebooks are produced, who sells them, who buys them, and whether this option will work for you. Much of the positive hype around ebooks is coming from the publishing industry. Publishers love ebooks, as they eliminate the cost of printing and therefore are cheaper to produce. Digital publishing also eliminates the middleman role of retail bookstores. Many readers have been motivated to buy an ereader device. Why? For the device’s portability, for the convenient digital bookstore, and for the inexpensive book prices, sometimes significantly less than print. This leads some people to believe that producing an ebook is cheap. With a text-only book, this is true, and you can make an ebook yourself. I recommend Smashwords. However, illustrated ebooks, like print books, are much more complicated to design, and they can cost almost as much to create as a print book. The savings is in the printing, not in the design.
Storytelling is a center of attention at the annual RootsTech genealogy and family history conference. During a stroll around the exhibit hall you’ll find new services for uploading stories to share on to the web, others to help you record or transcribe stories, not to mention plenty of videographers who will record you and your family telling stories. I appreciate the value of placing stories at the heart of family history. I fear that a critical ideas is getting lost in the process of saying “gee whiz” to the latest storytelling systems which will be both fun and so easy that all you need to do is click your mouse. Sharing and preservation are not the same thing. The emphasis with many of the new web-based storytelling systems is on sharing. But family historians need to give at least equal attention to the preservation of their family stories.
When you are writing, do you ever get stuck on how to move from one section to the next? This is a common problem, even for nonfiction writing. These “transitions” are widely misunderstood. It’s not only that the topic has changed, it is that your role as the author has changed. You need a new voice to suit the new material. How can you change your “voice” when you are writing – after all, you are the same person, aren’t you? Yes and no.
Self-publishing a book costs money. It’s a business venture. Hiring professionals to edit the manuscript, layout the interior, design the cover, and assist with publicity and marketing can constitute a significant investment. Savvy authors understand that it’s an investment worth making if they are to give their book its best chance of success Increasingly seeking pre-publication crowdfunding is emerging as a way to underwrite the cost of producing a professional quality self-published book. The most well-known crowdfunding site is Kickstarter, which bills itself as “…a new way to fund creative projects.” It was founded in 2009 and has attracted 5.5 million people who have pledged $959 million to support a variety of projects, books among them. Authors would do well to take a look at Pubslush.
What are the secrets in your family’s history? We may be bombarded by news about the disappearance of privacy in our society, but as Bruce Feiler observed in a recent story in the N.Y. Times, “Secrets endure. Especially in families.” It is often left to the family historian to discover them. The road to these discoveries frequently departs from the conventional path of scouring vital records, interviewing family members, reviewing letters, diaries, or journals and searching newspaper records. Finding the secret truths frequently begins with a surprising trigger that might easily be overlooked.
Imagine this: you’ve spent three years writing a book. You have done everything right, and hired a professional editor and designer so that your book will be perfect. The designer repeatedly sends PDFs of the book for you to check over. You print them out and confirm that each page is beautifully laid out, just as you intended. After careful scrutiny, you authorize the book to be sent to the printer. Now you eagerly wait for the big boxes of books to come. It will be a special occasion; a big family gathering, and everyone will receive a copy. Your investment is twofold: you’ve paid good money for the book order, and what you really want (and money can’t buy) is the affirmation from your family that you’ve done an excellent job. Everyone is delighted. They look through the book, naturally stopping at the pictures. Your heart sinks. Could it be? These pages don’t look like the PDFs you printed out at home! The pictures are much smaller. What went wrong? Fortunately, the family is thrilled, as they don’t see the difference. But you do. Here is what went wrong: one tiny checkbox in the author’s Adobe Reader print dialogue. Worse, it is the default checkbox: she didn’t know it had to be reset. My client had unknowingly been printing out a 6x9 book into a scaled-up format. She was seeing a different book than the PDF I sent!
Today we welcome Lynn Palermo, The Armchair Genealogist and creator of the Family History Writing Challenge, who joins us with a guest post: A 10 -Step Strategy to Writing a Family History Book
A family historian and a detective have a lot in common. Think about legendary detectives – Sherlock Holmes, Columbo, Sam Spade or Kinsey Milhone . What makes them successful? They are all, despite dramatic differences in personal style, careful searchers, engaged in diligent inquiry or examination aimed at discovering the facts. Jack Webb became a TV legend as Detective Joe Friday on Dragnet with the line, “Just the facts, ma’am.” Family historians are equally single-minded researchers collecting the facts about their ancestors... Family historians also need to remember that being a good detective also means being a good story teller.