Write a family history that brings ancestors to life by using facts as a basis for creative speculation. Audio examples from Paul David Pope's The Deeds of My Fathers.
Once the family historian moves beyond what direct sources can tell her the Ancestry Insider’s chasm opens. Finding stories and narrative details becomes more problematic. She must rely on indirect sources, written records. These may be obscure and difficult to locate. The other alternative, when the records don’t materialize, or never existed, may involve speculating from the historical context of the ancestor’s time and place. How does the responsible family historian who wants to stick to the facts do that?
In my first and second blogs about the Oakland Museum’s interactive history exhibits, my photos showed how history can be gathered from large numbers of people with common and inexpensive materials – post it notes and maps and dot stickers. This exhibit has the same aesthetic – I am charmed by the construction paper and the large print, easy to read instructions. It suggests that this task is “child’s play”, so that anyone can do it. The answer to recording oral history lies in this room. There are two chairs, facing one another. This, to me, is symbolic of how stories should be told – face to face.
I’m still reflecting on my recent trip to the Oakland Museum, and how we can apply the methods used by these curators of culture in our own learning. In my last post on the subject, I talked about their interactive timeline.
The interactive map below is another example of using the information provided by a large group. How simple – a map, and stickers. In this case, the question is, “Where did your family come from?” Yet there are other questions you might ask, such as where have you traveled to, or where did your ancestors live in the 1600’s – each of which would produce wildly different data. You can do this - anyone can.
The graphic doesn’t have to be a map, either. Like the timeline I discussed earlier, these are just representations of the scope of the question we’re asking. If we want to know about places, maps are good. Time? You get it. The key is the ease with which people can give their answer. That’s what is clever here – a sticker, or a post it note is very user friendly. And the internet has made this kind of data collection even easier.
I first fell in love with the idea of crowdsourcing when Wikipedia appeared ten years ago. It seems the ideal way to tap into the knowledge of the masses. Crowdsourcing is controversial - in this Wikipedia article about crowdsourcing, I just discovered that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales objects to the term. It has a negative connotation of taking advantage of free labor. (If you have a moment, check out the article’s list of terms related to crowdsourcing, including citizen science, collective intelligence, and a new one to me – dotmocracy.
So this most commonly used term, crowdsourcing, is a misnomer. Instead, the admirable model used at the museum would be called mass collaboration, or mass cooperation. That’s what’s happening on Wikipedia, and in different iterations it’s happening everywhere else, too. I always read the user reviews on amazon.com before I buy, and I’m careful to check that the majority rated the book highly. Don’t you? I filter my Yelp! searches so that I only need to consider 4-star restaurants. My favorite use of crowdsourcing (sorry, the term is imprecise, but you know what I mean) is the excellent user reviews on newegg.com, without which I could not navigate the world of technology.
The thing that ties these examples together is the absence of “experts”. It assumes that all of us have useful knowledge to share. The charm of crowdsourcing is that no one can force people to contribute; and yet people do, willingly. We are happy to help, happy to give what knowledge we have, especially when it’s a subject we care about.
The interactive map in the museum is just the tip of the iceberg – a literal, hands-on sign that people are willing to contribute. If you want to frame a question, any question, posting it to an well-chosen internet bulletin board will gather results from masses of distant strangers – and isn’t that something to bolster your faith in humanity?
Unlocking memories is a key to an interesting family history book. Gathering family lore and stories from older ancestors brings the past to life. That often means helping the relatives we’re working with to recall those stories.
As Skip Rizzo of the USC School of Gerontology points out, “One key point to remember is that you have a whole library full of information and it will be a challenge for the brain to go back over 80 years of living, and always be able to find things quickly.”
He explains that a person’s memory is really a three part process. It involves:
- Registration – getting the information in the first place
- Retention – moving the information into storage in long term memory
- Retrieval – accessing the stored information
When working with older relatives we’re dealing with the third of the three stages of memory.
As we are try to assist a relative in retrieving a memory part of what we need to do is help the person transport herself back to the time when the events occurred. Rizzo illustrates why, “How many of you go into one room to get something and then you forget why you are in that room? Well we all know that the best way to remember something is to go back where you started. With retrieval, if you go back to that room where you first had the thought, you re recreating the stimulus cues of the environment where you first had the thought. This re-energizes the brain and brings it right back to where you were mentally beforehand.”
How can we create this sort of mental time machine? Rizzo discusses three tools: imagery, association, and organization. The first two are particularly important for the family historian. “Imagery is the art of using your imagination it has to do with forming mental pictures mental snapshots, and it does not have to be just visual,” says Rizzo. “It can be auditory, it can be the sense of smell, touch and taste. You can use all five of your senses, and the idea here is to not just think of something in its language-based description but to form vivid mental pictures.”
Association involves using context by having people recall important national or world events to help transport themselves back to the time when important family events occurred. Once they are “back in the day” it’s easier to access the memories of what happened to them at the time.
Both imagery and association can be “triggered.” Looking at family photos or artifacts is an excellent memory trigger. Playing period music as a background for your conversation can evoke the time and memories you’re seeking to unlock. The sense of smell and taste are two of the most powerful memory triggers. Discussing food can lead to recall of stories. Asking a person to draw a map of their childhood home or neighborhood can stir memories of that place and time. Looking at a timeline with a relative can help them make personal associations with the events listed.
A family historian armed with some memory triggers to get a conversation started is more likely to successfully collect family stories than the one who arrives at a relative’s house with a detailed list of interview questions.
Click here to read Skip Rizzo’s article
How do you capture Great Grandma’s speech in your family history book? She was an immigrant who spoke with a distinctive accent and even a dialect reflecting the neighborhood culture she first experienced in America. Do you simply present her speech in Standard American English and lose the unique style of her dialogue or do you try to capture the peculiarities of her speech in the way you write it.
Charles Carson, managing editor of the Journal American Speech offered some useful advice in a recent post on the Grammar Girl Blog. He cautioned, “To flavor a novel and provide authenticity, authors often use dialect in their written dialogue. But the use of dialect is tricky, and if you don’t use care and sensitivity it may backfire.”
When done skillfully capturing accent and dialect in writing is wonderful. Frank McCourt presents the speech of the Irish beautifully in his Pulitzer Prize winning Angela’s Ashes.
Carson explains, “When we talk about a person’s accent, we’re referring to how they pronounce words. So when Eliza Doolittle [in My Fair Lady] sings, ‘Just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins! Just you wait.’ She is using Standard English with a cockney accent.”
This works wonderfully for Learner and Lowe in the musical. But it doesn’t work for everybody. Novelist Oakley Hall discusses the danger, “Phonetic spelling may be the easiest way to indicate dialect peculiarities, but it is a crude device. Misspelled words tend to jump off the page and assume undue importance, and apostrophes indicating missing letters take on the appearance of barbed-wire entanglements. The following passage from Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is almost unreadable:
Th’ general, he sees he is goin’ t’ take th’ hull command of the 304th when we go in the action, an’ then he ses we’ll do sech fightin’ as never another regiment done.
They say we’re catchin it over on th’ left. They say th’ enemy driv’ our line inteh a devil swamp an took Hannieses battery.’”
“The other option for communicating a character’s accent to readers, which I recommend,” says Carson, “is to use standard spelling along with description of the character’s speech in the text introducing the character. One might write, ‘Her roots in the South were evident in her slow, melodious speech,’ while using standard spelling when writing her speech. This method is much easier for the reader…”
One tool for portraying a character’s unique speech while using standard spelling is to capture the person’s favorite expressions. For example, my mother often said of people , including me, who were not really paying attention, “They are drifting and dreaming.” My father seldom said, “Hurry up.” He preferred to say, “Time’s a wasting.” Favorite expressions can reveal a lot about the people who use them and add color to your family hsitory.
Click here to read Charles Carson's post on Grammar Girl
We were in the Bay Area this past weekend and stopped in to Oakland’s excellent museum to see how the California history exhibit has been faring in our absence. I love museums, not just for their collections, but for the art of exhibiting information itself. Reading books is nice, but even I am willing to concede that interactive learning beats all.
Here’s one interactive exhibit I thought was a great idea for family historians. The timeline spans a long wall, so many people can view it and post on it at the same time. Imagine their conversations as they make their choices for the most important events of the year.
I can see many applications for this exercise, which could be set up temporarily and inexpensively at a family reunion, a seminar, or a book planning session. And it’s adaptable: just change the timeline to decades, for a longer-in-scope book, or to months or even weeks, for a memoir spanning a shorter period.
The key, I think, is the post-it notes. (What a brilliant invention – how did we ever live without them?) We recently suggested using index cards to get organized in one of our seminars, but some folks just couldn’t envision the color-coding. Anyone can get organized with post-its.
“[I spent] six years sailing around the world. Three years writing about it,” says Larry Jacobson.
The result was a book, The Boy Behind the Gate, which Jacobson recently self published. He discussed his experiences in a recent post on The Book Designer Blog titled 8 Keys to Self Publishing Success. Jacobson’s book was intended for commercial distribution, but his observations are interesting for authors planning both commercial distribution and limited non-commercial distribution to family and friends.
The first, and in some respects most daunting, challenge he faced was planning and organizing the project. “Fortunately for me, I had been and continued keeping my ship’s logs and personal logs. I also had hundreds of emails back and forth with friends and family,” said Jacobson. “All of this documentation left with me nearly 2,000 pages to work from, and I was truly overwhelmed.” Developing a sound outline involved making decisions about the book’s intended audience, goals, illustrations, and format.
Once he had a draft of his manuscript, Jacobson had to make some critical decisions about how much help he would need to bring it to publication. The first regarded editing the draft. Jacobson said, “I have always enjoyed writing but knew I had limitations. Be smart enough to know what you don’t know. I hired a professional editor and we worked together for almost two years on three very intense edits/revises/re-writes.”
With a fully edited manuscript in hand Jacobson again decided he needed help, this time from a book designer. “I know how to use Word on the computer and I have iPhoto, so why couldn’t I just do the design and layout myself? (Laugh Out Loud),” he said. “Not a chance-I tried a couple of pages-and knew I needed a professional.”
Finally Jacobson explored his publishing options and decided on self publishing. “While I do know that publishers supposedly have the distribution down, in a world where distribution of books is no longer set in its ways,” he reasoned, “I decided to go alone and start my own publishing company. I didn’t have the time or patience to deal with a publishing house…even if they were interested.”
The lessons from Jacobson’s experience for anyone considering self publishing are clear. First, take the time to develop a clear plan for the book which will allow you to write a good draft. Second, decide where you need professional help in preparing the manuscript for publication. Finally, consider the options concerning the publisher or printer who can best meet your goals for the book.
Click here to read Larry Jacobson’s post.
What was it like to live in Great Grand Dad’s day? That’s a question any family historian trying to bring his ancestors to life in the pages of a book ought to ask.
Getting beyond the rather cold facts of a relative’s genealogical record requires drawing upon family stories when they are available. But it also means trying to recreate the time and place in which that person lived, their historical context. That’s the realm of the social historian.
The City University of New York has placed the work of its American Social History Project a mouse click away. The website is maintained by the University’s Center for Media and Learning. “Informed by the latest scholarship,” promises the Project, “we make the past, and the lives of the working people and ‘ordinary’ Americans who shaped it, vivid and meaningful.” The website “presents history from the perspective of working men and women, pairing a lively narrative with extensive visual and written documentary evidence.”
It’s a wonderful resource for a family historian.
There are a variety of windows into the past. Three I found of particular interest were:
- Who Built America? From the Great War of 1914 to the Dawn of the Atomic Age in 1946 is a multimedia exploration of three of the most tumultuous decades in U.S. history. Spanning two world wars and the Great Depression, this CD-ROM presents a comprehensive and engaging overview of the history of the period along with an extraordinarily rich body of primary sources: dozens of oral interviews, period songs, speeches, radio programs and film clips, hundreds of illustrations, and thousands of pages of primary text documents.
- The Lost Museum: Exploring Antebellum American Life and Culture “a three-dimensional re-creation of P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, the most visited cultural attraction in the nineteenth-century United States.”
- The September 11Digital Archive “contains more than 150,000 digital items, including more than 40,000 emails and other electronic communications, more than 40,000 first-hand stories, and more than 15,000 digital images.” (I know, Great Grand Dad wasn’t around then, I just liked the archive.)
The American Social History Project offers several other multimedia resources and much more including podcasts, blogs, and documentary films. Check it out! Not only will it help you add colorful context to your family history book, it’s just fun to surf.
Let us know what you think! Leave a comment.
Is there a black sheep in your family? A seldom (never?) talked about scandal?
If so, you are probably asking yourself, “How much truth should I tell in writing my memoir or family history?”
There’s been a lot of discussion in recent genealogy blogs about rattling the skeletons in your family’s genealogical closet. Almost every family’s story has had its traumatic moments and dark secrets. They may feel uncomfortable or difficult to talk about. Do you have to include them in your memoir or family history? No. Should you?
One way to make decisions is to imagine the people who will read your book. Would you be comfortable revealing the information to them face to face? Is that what you want? If not, just don’t include it.
Consider these questions before revealing painful truths:
- Is this truth necessary to tell your larger story?
- Will the story hurt anyone if you bring it out in the open?
- Was it common knowledge at the time it happened?
- Does it deliberately vilify someone? Does your telling the story show malice or spite?
- Is it fair to all concerned?
- Are you telling the story only for its sensational value?
- Are people in the story still alive? Can you talk to them about it?
- How will it affect any children involved?
- What will be gained if you include it?
- What will be lost if you omit it from your story?
Ernest Hemmingway, in the preface to his memoir, A Moveable Feast, offers us a good guideline. He wrote, “For reasons sufficient to the author, many places, people, observations and impressions have been left out of this book.”
You find a nice quick, easy, low cost photo scanning service online and ship them the photos you want to use in your family history book. They come back on a CD which you forward to your book designer. The designer tells you that some or all of the photos will need to be rescanned. Whoa! What happened?
Shipping your photos off to an online scanning service is similar to the inexpensive service provided at Costco. For purposes of this post we’ll look at Scan My Photos International of Irvine, California, a large online scanning service. Their services are fairly typical. (There’s a link to their website at the end of the post.) Because all photos are scanned at just 300 DPI, this is a limited, one-size-fits-all solution. What does that mean for authors?
The service will probably work fine for fresh, modern prints, but they are often inadequate for older, more precious pictures. First, these services usually use a sheet feed scanner which feeds multiple pictures through the scanner at the same time. If any of the photos are delicate, as many old photos are, this can be dangerous. Older photos should be hand scanned on a flat-bed scanner which will not stress the photo in any way.
When these services scan at a resolution of 300 DPI, this is the minimum acceptable size DPI for book printers. This is important when you have a smaller photo you would like to enlarge in your book. To enlarge while maintaining image quality, the initial scan must be at a higher resolution. For example, if the photo is 2” X 4” and you wish to blow it up to 4” X 8”, it should be scanned at a resolution of at least 600 DPI. Generally it’s a good idea to scan at the highest possible resolution. Scanning services can be an acceptable alternative for scanning slides. Most people don’t have a slide rack for their scanner. When scanning slides, the scanning services offer a range of resolution choices and price points, because they anticipate that the small images will be blown up.
Scanning services appear attractive both for convenience and their relatively low prices. They are handy for photos that will be shared via the web, as a shortcut to get your prints into a digital format.
However, books require the highest quality images, as they will be printed at high resolutions. If you are scanning photos to be reproduced in a book you will be better served to “hand scan” them, or to get some else with a good scanner and some experience to do it for you. Precious older photos should be hand scanned on a flatbed scanner to prevent bending. The scanner settings can be adjusted specifically to the size and condition of the original. A good scan is the first part of image processing; with the proper settings, it is possible to achieve better corrections to be made in Photoshop at the next step.
A word of caution as you prepare your family photographs for publication in your book. Realize that all photo scans are not the same. Low-end scanning services are fine for the web; but not for book design. Higher resolutions are needed to reproduce well you’re your book is printed – something you cannot see on your low-resolution computer screen. Even the most humble scanner today will scan at 1200 DPI. Why shortchange the future, when your grandchildren will be viewing images at even higher resolutions. With scanning, bigger is always better.
Click here to visit the Scan My Photos International site.
In our previous post we discussed how to create imagined dialogue to enliven your family history book. We looked at
- How time and place might contribute to what ancestors thought and discussed
- Imagining the emotions they might have felt
- Examining retrospectively what motivated them at that time
- Using what you know about ancestors favorite expressions or style of speech
All of these things can help you to imagine how they would have sounded in a conversation.
Creating imagined dialogue is not as difficult as you may think. The best way to test that statement is to try doing it. To help out I’ll give you two prompts to practice on. You won’t have to think about your own ancestors here. Just imagine a conversation involving the people described in the prompt.
- It’s 1937. A husband and wife in Enid, Oklahoma are sitting at their kitchen table of their farmhouse. The country has been gripped by depression for almost a decade. Oklahoma topsoil has been blowing away for almost as many years, creating what has come to be known as the Dustbowl. Several of the couple’s neighbors have lost their farms to foreclosure. The couple fear the same fate. They have just received a letter from a former neighbor who moved to California with her family. After several months of looking for work the neighbor’s husband has found a job as a laborer constructing the massive Shasta Dam just north of the small town of Redding.
Write the dialogue for the conversation the couple might have had.
- It’s late 1942. A woman and her neighbor in Ypsilanti, Michigan are sitting at her kitchen table. The United States has entered World War II. Both women’s husbands been drafted into the Army and shipped off to basic training. They will shortly be headed overseas. Some women in the town have already taken jobs at the Willow Run Aircraft Factory. The local radio stations and newspaper are filled with advertising calling upon other women to join those already at the factory. The women want to do their patriotic duty. They are also concerned with their responsibilities as mothers.
Write the dialogue for a conversation the women might have had.
There are no rules for what you should do. Let your imagination take over. We’d love it if you would share your results by posting them as comments. Have fun!
Nancy and I attended the Family History Expo at St. George, Utah over the weekend. We had a great time as we always do at an Expo.
One of the classes we presented is titled A Good Read: Make Family History Books Exciting. Its focus is on how to use family stories to make your book dramatic. We discuss ways family historians can employ techniques of fiction writers in their accounts of their ancestors’ lives. One of the techniques we discuss is using imagined dialogue. We suggest that you can bring your relatives to life by imagining conversations they might have had at key points in their lives.
How do you do that and remain faithful to a factual portrayal of history? Let’s take a look at some of the things that might guide you. First, people live in a particular time and place. This means that they may face some distinctive challenges or opportunities. Begin by trying to understand as well as you can what your ancestors unique location both geographic and temporal would have meant for them. The situation in which they found themselves will have a lot to do with what they might talk about and what they might say.
Next recognize that circumstances lead to emotions. Speculate on what a person living in that time and place might have been feeling. Their speech will reflect the emotional tone of their situation.
People say things because they are motivated to do so. As a historian, you have the benefit of hindsight. You can look back and see what your ancestor did in response to being in a particular situation. Whatever they did, it’s likely that they talked about what they might do, exploring the things that might ultimately have motivated them to take the course of action they chose.
Finally, you may know something about the way you ancestor spoke. For example, maybe you have heard relatives say that great granddad had a favorite expression or two. If you don’t have that kind of direct knowledge, maybe you have letters written by the relative in question or even a journal or diary. These will give you some ideas about their favorite turns of phrase and how they might have liked to construct sentences.
With a little thought and imagination you can combine these things, all of which have a basis in fact, and construct a speculative conversation in which what your ancestor might have said is fairly represented.
In our next post, we’ll offer a writing challenge in which you can try out some of the things we discussed today.
What’s the difference between a historian and a chronicler or documentarian? Anyone contemplating writing a family history ought to give the question some thought. A person who wants to chronicle events is primarily concerned with creating and documenting a record of everything that happened. It’s not surprising that the daily newspaper I read is called The Chronicle. It sees its responsibility as capturing events great and small which occurred the previous day. Some are of earthshaking import, but most are not. There’s a reason that newspapers often wind up on the bottom of people’s birdcages.
A genealogist’s research is intended to create to create that sort of documented record of his ancestors. It involves gathering facts and demonstrating through documentary evidence the accuracy of those facts.
But, when a genealogist decides to become a family historian by turning his research into a book his role changes. You need to recognize that you are writing for an audience and that you have a responsibility to present your family’s history in the most interesting way possible to that audience.
- Rule One: Realize that just because you have gone to great length to acquire knowledge about a particular detail or event and to document its factual basis it won’t necessarily be interesting or important in the eyes of your audience.
Your readers will probably find it more interesting and significant that your ancestor landed on Utah Beach on D-Day than that he spent eight weeks in training at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. The two facts don’t deserve equal time in your book just because they both happened. One might not even need to be there at all.
- Rule 2: Recognize that life’s turning points, triumphs and epiphanies aren’t distributed equally over the years of a person’s life. Look for the dramatic and significant events in your ancestor’s life. If there were stretches of years when things just rolled along without anything of interest happening, you don’t have to give those years equal time (or maybe even any time) in your book.
Getting away from straight chronology is a good way to free yourself to focus only on the big events giving the most attention to the most important aspects of your family’s history.
A historian interprets events. She makes choices about what is important among the many facts at her disposal and uses them to show why some events are especially significant. By choosing anecdotes that are interesting and unusual to tell your ancestors’ story you will also make that story engaging for your audience.
What’s the best way to organize a big project, like a family history book?
We regularly teach a seminar, How to Plan and Organize a Family History Book. We recommend that people begin with the big ideas first, listing what should go into the book. And ultimately, they should arrive at an outline. But in the middle between these two points, there’s a murky area, a process that seems to stump our audiences.
Ironically, the sticking point comes when we refer to a process we all probably learned in middle school: index cards. Remember them? There are software variations now, using the same principles of organization.
We like index cards because they are hands on, they’re visual, and they are easy to change, add or discard. You can use different colored cards to designate big ideas, subheadings and specific details. After you develop one organization, it’s easy to move the cards to a different arrangement of ideas. When you’re happy with the way the cards are arranged, you can transfer the ideas on the index cards to paper and you’ve got a preliminary outline.
For most folks the index card method makes perfect sense, but others just don’t get it. “Should it be a red card or a green card?” they ask. “How many subheadings should I have under a big idea?” The very strength of the system, its flexibility, confuses people.
Do you have other techniques to suggest? How do you like to organize ideas for a big project? Post a comment and share with us, and our readers, your favorite method of organizing. We’ll look forward to reading what you have to say and I’m sure our readers will too.