Putting yourself in your family history will make it more interesting. You’re the author. You belong there. Putting yourself into the book will add context and meaning to the facts and family stories. A lot of people setting out to write a family history think they must only recount the facts they have discovered in their genealogical research. That’s a legitimate way to write a family history. Unfortunately, it’s often not a very interesting way. Readers are looking for meaning. They are drawn in by emotions. Those are two ingredients you as an author can supply.
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?
Giving a book a good title is hard. Author’s often struggle with it. Would you read a novel titled Trimalchio in West Egg? That’s what F. Scott Fitzgerald titled his third novel until his editor Maxwell Perkins convinced him The Great Gatsby might work better. As Michael Hyatt, Chairman of Thomas Nelson Publishers explains, a book’s title is “…like a newspaper headline: If prospective readers are intrigued, they keep reading. If they don’t, they move on to the next book…” How do you make sure you have a good title?
We’re looking forward to the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree which begins Thursday in Burbank. One of the things we enjoy is that the participants come ready to learn. Many come equipped with questions they want answered before the conference ends on Sunday. If you have attended a few genealogy conferences you know that the questions people thinking about writing or already working on a family history book will ask usually follow a predictable pattern. Here are five we are sure we’ll here more than once?
I am currently reading John Sayles’ massive (955 page) novel A Moment in the Sun. .It is in every sense a big book focusing on the United States at the turn of the 20th Century by focusing on dramatic events including the Alaskan Gold Rush, the Spanish-American War, it’s lingering aftermath, the Philippine insurrection against American intervention and the 1898 Wilmington North Carolina race riots ... But there’s something about the style of Sayles’ book that I think writers ought to reflect on.
I never met my Uncle Cecil. He died June 17, 1944, just over two and a half years before I was born. But I thought a lot about him as we took a few days off over Memorial Day Weekend. That was appropriate because Uncle Cecil, known to everyone in the family as Squeak, was killed in Normandy, along with so many other American soldiers, near the town of Sainte Mere Eglise, eleven days after D-day. We are working on a second edition of Squeak’s War: Letters from the Front Lines of World War II, a book that travelled around the family in a type-written form for more than sixty years before it was rescued and published as a hardback book. It consists of the letters he sent home from the time he was drafted in 1942 to training at Ft. Ord, near Monterey, California, Camp Crowder, Missouri, and Ft. Bragg, North Carolina and front line service in North Africa and Sicily before landing in Normandy.
The general rule in scanning photos for inclusion in a print book is that they be scanned at a minimum resolution of 300 dpi. What’s important to understand is that means that the quality of the scan will be acceptable if it is printed at exactly the same size as the original. A 4”x6” photo scanned at 300dpi can be printed at 4”x 6” or smaller in the book. But that’s only part of the story. If you want to enlarge the photo size in the book the original must be scanned at a much higher resolution. The Scantips.com website gives a good summary of the basics of the relationship of scanning dpi and print size in an article Pixels, Printers and Video – What’s With That?
The writer of fiction, the memoirist, and the family historian are all story tellers. To be sure, they tell stories differently. But in each literary form, the author is the teller of a tale. In that role what do these story tellers have in common? It is instructive to see what two of our greatest contemporary storytellers have said about their art.
Self publishing authors who are working on manuscripts often try to mix two steps of the process of creating a book – writing and book design. This is unfortunate, not to mention often frustrating. What happens is that these authors try to format their books in Microsoft Word and place their photos as they create their manuscript. When they edit text the photos move from the spot they were originally placed. Word 2010 is better than previous versions, but the reality is that it’s not a tool for book design. A printer will ultimately require a manuscript designed in Adobe Creative Suite’s InDesign software. So let’s look at a better way to manage your photos as you create your book.
This one's just for fun - geeky fun. As you know, part of book design is having an eye for fonts. How do we learn about fonts? If you're of an academic mind, the best book on the subject, ever, is The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. You can learn about the history of type, structural forms, shaping the page, and much, much more. Bringhurst writes with such passion that you find yourself deeply engaged with the rules of acronyms and ellipses, ligatures and page proportions.
No? OK, then, how about playing a goofy game online instead? Check out www.typeconnection.com, a wonderfully designed site that lets you think about type in a whole new way. It's set up like The Dating Game, the old TV show.
You pick your font and try to find a good connection for it. You need to choose a strategy for finding a good match - by (font) family, by (visual) similarities, or by dissimilarities, since "opposites attract", or by shared history and influences - perhaps the same period or font foundry.
Next comes the part where you might actually learn a thing or two. Like the dating game, you skim the bios of the fonts competing for a match. Pick one, and you go on a date. You can see how the two fonts pair up. Incidentally, you'll learn about ascenders and descenders, serifs and strokes and curls. Mostly you'll just enjoy this website's interactivity and the creative way they make fonts the subject of a game. Check it out!
I am reading an excellent sci-fi novel, The January Dancer, by Michael Flynn. In describing Brigit Ban, one of his characters, Flynn says, “…she was the sort for whom a well- constructed narrative is worth a thousand detailed facts, and on occasion she was known to discard a fact or two to save the narrative.” Great description! Also, important advice for memoirists and family historians. Whether telling your own story or that of your family you have a mass of facts at your disposal. Creating a book involves choosing which of those facts to include and which don’t make it into the book. Not all facts are equally important.
Authors published by traditional publishers counted on and received quality editing before their manuscript went to press. A self publishing author must make sure that his book receives no less professional attention before publishing it. Harriet Evans, author of the novel Love Always, said recently in a piece in The Guardian, “It is vital that an author has someone willing to be tough with them. It's in their best interests.” Why?
There’s a branch of the family tree that a lot of family historians ignore – themselves. People often express frustration about not being able to discover interesting stories as they research ancestors. They say, “I wish I’d asked ________to tell me more family stories before he/she died.” When future historians in your family look back, will they say that about your generation? They won’t if you preserve your own personal history.
If you haven’t yet explored the TED talks (TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading) check them out at http://www.ted.com/talks. You’ll be sure to find something that speaks to your particular interests.
For me, that particular interest is in books – reading them, making them, sharing them. So this talk from Chip Kidd, king among book designers, pleased me to no end. Chip Kidd brought us the distinctive book cover of Jurassic Park, and one of the best-designed, all-around-best books on my reading shelf right now, Haruki Murakami’s IQ84.
Chip Kidd is clever, he’s funny, and he is right on about books! Check out his performance for a laugh, and maybe it will also inspire an idea for how you’d like your book to look.
“One in three children admit they don’t want to listen to their grandparents because they find them ‘boring,’” said The Mail Online reporting on a poll taken by print on demand publisher Blurb.com. “42% of parents say children tune out when elders start to speak about the past.” That’s a real challenge for anyone working on a family history book. The vast majority of those authors say they want to write a book to preserve the family history for the grand children. How can a family historian make sure she captures the grand children’s interest? One important way is to recognize the difference between researching and recording the family history and telling the family story.