Are you ready to turn your family history research into a family history book? The key to creating the book you dream of passing on to the next generation is organization. Taking the time to plan the structure of the book before you begin banging away at the keyboard will save you time in the long run and help you write a much better book. Here’s a simple, time-tested process to help you plan and organize your book.
Most people writing family history books and memoirs have a very small audience in mind. They want their children, grandchildren and maybe a few close friends to know something about their origins and life experiences. They see their book not as a commercial project, but as a way to share and preserve their heritage with a group of people they love. They are not experienced authors and know very little about the world of book publishing. Unfortunately, they hold onto a great myth about getting their story into print. It’s rooted in the experiences of people they may know or have heard about who published a book just a few years ago. The people they heard about went to offset printers – the only kind available at the time – and found they had to purchase a minimum of 250, 500, or even a thousand books. It cost them thousands of dollars and they still have boxes of unread books sitting in their garage. The family historians who want to pass on their stories to their grandchildren may not know much about publishing, but they know they don’t want to have that same awful and expensive experience. They don’t need anything fancy. To economize, they’ll take their book down to the local copy shop, get it printed and coil bound and give copies to their intended audience. They will save a bundle in the process. Unfortunately, that’s just not true.
Microsoft Word is great for word processing, that’s what it’s designed for. If you ask it to do anything else you can drive yourself crazy. Have you tried to put pictures into a document and had them move around on you when you edit the text? .Frustrating. Word 2010 has some features and tools that make it possible to do things that were difficult or impossible with previous versions, One thing that should make genealogists and family historians happy is that it’s gotten a whole lot easier to create a family tree using Word 2010. About.com has a wonderful You Tube video on how to do it.
Being published by a traditional publisher carries with it a certain cachet. It confers the prestige of being a “real” writer that self-published authors often lack. Some of that is changing. Self-publishing grows more legitimate by the day. But, let’s leave the question of who published your book says about your standing as a writer aside and look at it strictly as a business proposition.
Do you want to promote your book to a huge audience for free? Of course you do! The Google Books Partner Program allows authors and publishers to do just. You send Google your title or upload a PDF of your book and it will be included in the Google index for free. Google Books will then match the content in your book with user searches. This is the same sort of process uses in delivering personalized search results or targeted ads with Google Ad Words. When Google Books displays your book, it does so for a targeted audience which will be most likely to buy it. Here’s a quick summary of how the process works.
Does the term storyteller give nonfiction writers the wrong message? Novice writers, particularly those writing nonfiction, see their responsibility as researching to gather information about events and then telling their reader the story of what happened. Their role is to organize and report, in a history, a biography or a memoir, the facts as they have found. The result often has a “This happened...then, that happened…then, the next thing happened,” quality to it. The author has discovered the facts and told the reader what they are. She has told the story, but it reads more like a list. Think of the difference between a historical monograph and a narrative history. The monograph – the standard form for academic history – is a focused methodical exposition of the facts involved in one limited aspect of history. It can often make the most interesting material dry and dull to read. Narrative history, however, utilizes the tools of the literary artist to bring an event or story to life. Is it any wonder that historians like David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Robert Caro have found a large popular audience for their narrative histories while monographs have remained deep in the recesses of the research library? History would be better served if historians heeded Rudyard Kipling’s advice, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
You have just been through unique or dramatic events, overcome apparently overwhelming obstacles, or traveled to exotic places. These are all experiences which might be the stuff of a compelling memoir. Or, maybe friends tell you that you’ve had such an interesting life that others will be fascinated to read about it. All you need to do is get an account of your life into a book and you’ll have a best seller. Before you start your first draft it might be a good idea to think about a recent comment made by British novelist Hilary Mantel, winner of consecutive Booker Prizes for her novels Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies set in Henry VIII’s England. Mantel, who in addition to her novels has also written a memoir, was asked for the NY Times Book Review, By the Book feature, “What Makes a Good Memoir?” She said: “Memoir is not an easy form. It’s not for beginners, which is unfortunate, as it’s where many people do begin. It’s hard for beginners to accept that unmediated truth often sounds unlikely and unconvincing. If other people are to care about your life, art must intervene. The writer has to negotiate with her memories, and with her reader, and find a way, without interrupting the flow, to caution that this cannot be a true record: this is a version, seen from a single viewpoint. But she has to make it as true as she can. Writing a memoir is a process of facing yourself, so you must do it when you are ready.”
Every author wants her book to be a page turner. How can you make sure yours is? The short answer is write great scenes. Think about why readers read. They are looking for a powerful emotional experience. A romance reader gets the vicarious opportunity to fall in love. The mystery reader shares the detective’s sense of urgency; if he doesn’t succeed, someone will die. The sci-fi reader is literally out of this world. And it’s not only fiction readers who are drawn in by the emotional pull of the world you create for them. Readers look to biographies, memoirs, narrative and family histories to provide the same kind of drama a novel delivers. Here are five things to do to create scenes that will make sure you deliver on your promise to the reader that she will have an emotional experience.
Mark Coker, founder of the Smashwords indie e-book self-publishing platform, speaking at the RT Booklovers Convention in Kansas City earlier this month, offered some valuable advice for authors who want to increase e-book sales. Coker summarized his remarks, which are based on an analysis of indie e-book sales data, on the Smashwords website in a post titled New Smashwords Survey Helps Authors Sell More e-Books. Coker advises authors to “…imagine dozens of levers and dials attached to your book that you can twist, turn and tweak. When you get everything just right, your book's sales will increase … through word-of-mouth. … I refer to these tweakable things as Viral Catalysts. A Viral Catalyst is anything that makes your book more available, accessible, discoverable, desirable or enjoyable to readers.” He examines six of these potential viral catalysts. We’ll summarize what he had to say...
The time-honored way of writing a book is to…write it. That is, to plan what you want to communicate, to put your materials in order, and then write it out. Most writers use Microsoft Word, or Pages, for Mac. Then they turn to an editor and a designer to get their book done and published. Is there a way around this? Can you skip the effort and cost of making a professional book? That is where templates come in. Do templates help? Do they make this process easier? Is the outcome better? We will explore the pros and cons of the three types of template-based publishing that we’ve seen.
Genealogists and family historians might well agree to paraphrase political pundit James Carville, “It’s the sources.” Finding the right sources is the key to unlocking ancestor stories. It’s day three today at the National Genealogical Society Conference in Las Vegas. We’ve been on the lookout for tips on new sources. Ed Zapletal and Rick Cree of Family Chronicle Books showed us two newly released additions to their Tracing Ancestors series: Tracing Your Colonial Ancestors and Tracing Your Female Ancestors... Gary Clark of PhotoTree.com released the third book in his Kwik Guide Series, Real Photo Postcards at the conference.
There’s excitement in the air this week in Las Vegas. No, not the sound of jackpots on the slots and cheers from the craps tables. The National Genealogical Society’s annual conference opened today. Over a thousand family history enthusiasts are diligently seeking just one more ancestor. It seems like a large share of them also want to create a family history book. They have kept us busy this morning with a barrage of questions. Most of the conversations seem to begin, “I want to publish a family history. Can I …?” I think the reason people begin this way is that they have never been through the process of bring a book to life before. It seems overwhelming to them. I can understand that. We try to demystify the process and help these would be authors get from where they are to the beautiful heirloom book they dream of. Here’s how:
A family history book begins with research. You search for much information about your ancestors as you can. After scouring all of the available sources you accumulate quite a wealth of such information. You have facts from the vital records, letters, journal or diaries your ancestors left behind along with colorful anecdotes and family lore. You want to put all that information together in a book that engages your audience.
Before you begin banging away at the keyboard, take a little advice from playwright David Mamet. He said, “The audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn’t, I wouldn’t. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned in to watch drama.”
So how do you find the drama in the mountain of information you have gathered? Here are five places to look:
Look for the conflict in your ancestors lives. Conflict is the heart of drama. What were your ancestors’ goals? What motivated them to strive for those goals? What obstacles did they have to overcome to achieve them? Or, if they were unable to overcome the obstacles, what adjustments did they make in their goals?
My grandfather, originally from upstate New York, was like a series of waves of young men who headed west during the late 19th century. He found his way to Alaska in 1898 in search of a fortune in Yukon gold. Plenty of drama there. But, grandfather didn’t find gold. After a year he headed east on his way home, but stopped in South Dakota where he me my grandmother. Now we’ve added romance.
Relate you ancestors to a larger story. Looking at the time and place where the events in your ancestors lives took place lets you see how what was happening to them was part of a larger story. The time and place can create a dramatic setting for events.
When grandfather met grandmother in 1899, life of the plains was anything was anything but sanguine. The revolt of farmer, who believed they had been exploited by railroads and bankers, had swept across the plains in the mid-90s resulting in the nomination of William Jennings Bryan for president on the Democratic ticket. When the Great Commoner lost to William McKinley in 1896 a lot of people on the plains decided it was time to look for greener pastures in the growing cities or farther west.
Look for turning points. In every person’s life there are points at which the direction things are moving shift and head in a whole new direction. Sometimes that means moving to a new place. The immigrant story where an ancestor decided to leave the old country and come to America is a classic. But deciding to enter a new business or become part of a social or political movement can be equally dramatic. Find these turning points in your ancestors’ stories and build upon the drama inherent in them.
My grandfather and grandmother got married, but they didn’t stay in South Dakota. They headed west, once again following my grandfather’s dream of striking it rich. This time the goal wasn’t as exciting as finding gold, although it did put them on the edge of California’s gold, country where they bought a hog ranch in Roseville, California, not far from the state capitol in Sacramento.
Find the values and themes that run through your ancestors’ stories. In nearly every family’s history there are recurrent themes and values evident in multiple generations. Some of them might include: searching for a better life, confidence that self-reliance will lead to success, dedication to their community and helping others, the importance of religious faith, a belief that education is essential, the entrepreneurial spirit, trust that hard work will be rewarded, confidence that love will help overcome our setbacks, certainty that family is the most important thing. Discovering and emphasizing these themes and values gives meaning to the life stories of your ancestors.
My grandfather never struck it rich. The hog ranch failed when hog cholera swept California’s central valley. He and my grandmother moved to San Francisco and grandfather opened a print shop, pursuing the trade he had learned before he left New York. He did well for a while, but like a lot of small businesses his was wiped out during the Great Depression.
The themes running through his life seemed to be optimism that he would eventually strike it rich, but when he failed he would be resilient and self-reliant enough to reinvent himself. His was a quintessentially western story. Was it dramatic? I have always been struck by the similarities in grandfather’s story to those described by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Wallace Stegner regarding his own family in the novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain.
Discover the lessons your ancestors’ lives have to teach. One of the questions students often asked when I was teaching history was, “So what?” If I couldn’t provide a good answer, I wasn’t doing my job well. The same thing is true with family history. You need to answer the “So what?” question regarding the lives of your ancestors. What meaning did their experiences have.? Ultimately what any reader is looking for is an insight that will be useful to her. Make sure you make those lessons evident.
In listening to my parents talk about my grandfather I learned two important lessons. First, willingness to take risks can lead to great rewards, but failure can put you and those close to you in difficult circumstances. Second, preparation and hard work is a better formula for success.
By seeking the dramatic elements of the stories of your ancestors you can create the kind of engaging family history book that will appeal to an audience well beyond genealogists.
Selling people a dream is easy if it’s their dream. A lot of people dream of being an author, seeing their words printed in a book which flies off bookstore shelves and almost overwhelms Amazon’s buy button. When the Author House website promised: “You set your book publishing goals. We’ll help you reach them,” or the Tafford Publishing website said, “Our publishing experts and production team are on hand with whatever your book needs,” the best seller took on the quality of Gatsby’s green light for the would-be authors, a dream clearly visible and sure to be realized. 160,000 of them flocked to Author Solutions, the parent company of Author House, Tafford, iUniverse, XLibris, Palibrio, and other imprints, which proclaimed itself “The leading indie publishing company in the world.” Last July, Penguin Publishing, one of the Big Six publishing houses, no doubt with an eye on Author Solutions’ $100 million annual revenue, purchased the Bloomington, Indiana-based company. Author Solutions is the biggest fish in the rising tide of self-publishing. Last week the New York law firm Giskan, Solotaroff, Anderson & Steward filed a complaint against Author Solutions suggesting that it is a shark.
When you are researching a person’s life story for a biography or family history the process often involves creating a timeline. As you discover additional information about your subject you fill it into the appropriate place in the list of things you already know. Eventually you reach a point where your timeline is complete; you have listed the sequence of all of the significant events in your subject’s life, or at least all you believe you will be able to discover. You now have the raw material with which to tell your subject’s story. A lot of people writing life stories, particularly first time writers, lock into the timeline they have created to produce a draft that essentially says, “This happened, then that happened, then the next thing happened.” The resulting draft is a list of events chronicling the subject’s life without much analysis or interpretation. The incidents are recounted with a somewhat plodding quality. The account reports the details of its subject’s life, but doesn’t engage the reader. It shouldn’t be that way. You as an author need to step back from the chronology you have created to find its meaning.