Many biographers, stuck for a more clever title, have simply called their books The Life and Times of [their subject here]. It’s not terribly creative, but it does convey an important idea for every biographer or family historian to remember: every life comes with a historical context. A person’s life story is shaped by the time and place in which he or she lived. What social, cultural, technological and political forces might have had an impact upon the subject of your research? For family historians exploring those larger forces can seem like a huge endeavor tacked onto canvasing family and vital records to gather the essential facts about a family member. That task just got a lot easier. The Associated Press and Ancestry.com have announced a partnership that will make more than one million stories from the AP newswire available in a searchable database.
If you plan to write about a person’s life – yours in a memoir or a family member’s in a family history – think about your audience before you begin. Why will anyone want to read the life story you have written? Few people are looking for a simple factual account of events, although attention to getting the facts right is essential, as James Frey learned when he fabricated his memoir A Million Little Pieces. Readers are interested in insight and understanding. A memoir or family history may start in individual experience, but it should go beyond the purely personal space to suggest insights and understandings readers can apply to their own lives. Consider the most widely read memoir and family history of the last 50 years: Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes published in 1996 and Alex Haley’s fictionalized 1976 account of his family history Roots.
You have finished the manuscript for your book? It has been thoroughly edited and you are ready to move ahead with self-publishing? At this point you may ask yourself, should I design the book myself? One aspect of the question is the complexity of your book. If your book has extensive graphics, photographs or illustrations, or is heavily formatted the design issues are more complex than for a simpler text only book like a novel. But, even with novels professional book designers employ the tools of the Adobe Creative Suite: Photoshop, Illustrator, Bridge and InDesign to achieve a professional look. Are these tools part of your skill set? Let’s consider some of the reasons for using a professional book designer.
If you spend any time in the tech world you have no doubt bumped into discussions about the importance of the user experience. If you are writing a nonfiction book you would benefit from some similar thinking about the kind of reader experience your book will produce. Begin by thinking about the audience you want to reach.
Veterans Day is the day Americans officially honor the service of our military veterans. What better way is there to honor them than to preserve the stories of their service? That preservation can take a variety of forms. The Library of Congress Veterans History Project at the American Folklife Center is preserving oral history interviews with veterans. The project website provides specifics on how you can participate and offers guides to the interview process. A quick web search of veterans’ history” will provide listings for many state and local veterans history projects which support the work being done at the Library of Congress. Books make a great preservation tool.
Music provides the sound track for our lives. Nancy often says, “There’s a song for everything,” and quotes a lyric. It’s no wonder that writers seeking to create a mood or capture a moment in time should be tempted to do the same thing. But when you are tempted to quote a song lyric in your book, think twice.
The first step in the process of actually creating the family history book you keep saying you will write someday is to transform it from a dream to a specific goal on your to do list. Genealogical research is infinite. There’s always more to do. As long as you’re focused on research your book remains a dream. A book is finite. It requires specific actions to make it a reality. The first step is to set a target date for completion. “I’ll have my book written by _____.” Once you have established a target date, you can plan backward from that date to set sub-goals which will lead you to completion of the book.
To construct a narrative family history one must gather the family lore and stories to supplement the facts drawn from vital records. Unfortunately, as most family historians know too well the people we would like to ask about those stories are often no longer with us. When that’s the case, you need to reconstruct your family’s narrative from the limited records available. Letters and diaries can be a rich source of family stories. Even a single letter can be a wonderful tool in understanding an ancestors time and place. Letters and diaries are part of the cultural conversation of the times in which they were written. The topics they address are those which were important not only to their authors, but to their contemporaries. These personal writings can help us to understand both our ancestors’ connection to their times and their the unique way they experienced those times.
“I just don’t have a lot of family stories,” say far too many genealogists who want to write a family history. I understand. Everyone always wishes they had taken the time to gather family stories when they had a chance. There are plenty of questions you wish you’d asked Grandfather Harry or Great Aunt Sue, who was the family busybody and knew everybody’s story. But the opportunity to sit down with them with a notebook and pen or even better a tape recorder has come and gone. But that doesn’t your family history is doomed to be a dutiful recounting of facts recalled from your genealogical research and pages of pedigree charts. You can make your book lively and interesting. All it takes is a little perspective.
Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) are a routine part of a traditional publisher’s process for launching a book. The should be something you use in getting your self-published book off to a good start as well. The idea of an ARC is to get a copy of your book into the hands of opinion makers – reviewers, media contacts, influencers – prior to the launch of your book. These readers can help create a buzz about your book as it is becoming available.
Most family historians have probably never heard of Leopold Von Ranke, but he’s largely responsible for many of the methods they use in studying their family’s history. Von Ranke, a great German historian of the 19th Century is generally regarded as the founder of the empirical school of source based history. He believed that we should use primary sources to learn "how things actually were." Family historians have happily embraced the search for documentary evidence about their ancestors. Unfortunately there’s another element of the historical method Von Ranke suggested which is much less rigorously applied by genealogists and family historians. That involves the purpose of research. He said, "To history has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages.” The task of instructing can only be accomplished when the historian constructs a historical narrative from the information she has gathered through her research. In short, you have to tell the story of your ancestors if anyone is to learn from your research. How do you plan to do that?
Today we are offering a collection of tips, ideas and tools to help create a buzz about your book and keep up with new developments in the business of writing and publishing. Follow the links to the latest business news for writers from top sources around the web.
Should writers follow the rules? The website Galley Cat which covers the book publishing industry recently posed the question when it offered a link to a writer’s cheat sheet. The Writing Tips, developed by novelist, gamer and technologist Mike Shea, include • Strunk and White’s Principles of Composition from The Elements of Style • Yale professor Edward Tufte’s Rules for Presentations • George Orwell’s Questions • Science fiction master Robert Heinlein’s Rules • Lists of Evil Passive Verbs and Evil Metaphors and Phrases They are all condensed onto a single page which a writer can keep on his desk as a quick reference. Should you?
What’s the best reason to write a family history book? At the beginning of October I posed this question as we began Family History Month. Today. I’d like to share a great answer with you. Mike Casey is writing a biography of his great-grandfather Henry Bothin, who came to San Francisco from Portage, Wisconsin in 1871 with the shirt on his back, a formal education ending at fifth grade, and a strong work ethic which he employed to become the owner of both one of the leading steel companies on the West Coast, the largest property owner in the city at the time of the 1906 earthquake and fire and the founder of one of the first private charitable foundations in California. In the preface to his soon to be completed biography, Mike Casey explained why had written the book.
Last weekend at the Wordstock Book Festival in Portland, Oregon I had an opportunity to talk with Beth Anderson, Executive Vice President and Publisher at Audible.com. We discussed how an author can get a book or ebook produced as an audiobook. This spring Audible, a subsidiary of Amazon.com, launched a new process for creating audiobooks called The Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) Audible describes ACX as “a dynamic online marketplace, production platform, and sales system. ACX directly connects professional authors and other book rights holders with actors, studios, and audio publishers to…provide an easy way to turn professionally published books -new or old – into professionally produced audio books.” Here's a short YouTube video to describe the process.