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    Wednesday
    Dec012010

    Bring Facts to Life in Family History

    Authenticity and truth are topics that frequently surface in our workshops and conversations with people working on family history books. As they talk about family stories they may comment, “Of course I’m not sure if it’s completely true,” or “I can’t really prove that.” As a consequence they shy away from including interesting and colorful stories in their books. That’s unfortunate. It’s also understandable as we are bombarded by a steady stream of “false memoirs.”

    A memoir hoax is back in the news. Court House News Service reported that “A publishing company can sue a Belgian woman who wrote a bogus memoir about surviving the Holocaust and later won millions of dollars from the publishing company, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals ruled.”

    The book, Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, by Misha Defonseca was initially unmasked as a falsehood in 2008.

    Blake Eskin summarized the book in Slate. He wrote, “Published in 1997, Misha is about a Jewish girl from Brussels who walked across Europe by herself during World War II and spent months living in the forest…Even if you forget for a moment that Defonseca has two prolonged encounters with wolves in war-torn Europe, her story strains credulity: She walks from Belgium to Ukraine, sneaks into and out of the Warsaw Ghetto, and stabs to death a Nazi rapist who attacks her—all between ages 7 and 11.”

    Misha sold only about 5,000 copies in the United States. Disney had an option on the film rights but let it lapse. Oprah taped a segment with the author at a wolf preserve, but it never aired.

    However, in France and Italy, the memoir sold more than 30,000 copies. French-Jewish filmmaker Véra Belmont made a feature film Survivre Avec les Loups, based on the memoir.

    On the eve of the book’s exposure by the Brussels newspaper Le Soir as a fabrication Defonseca released a statement through her lawyer, "I told myself a life, another life. I apologize.” She said, the book "is not actual reality, but was my reality, my way of surviving."

    [Note to the genealogists among us: It was genealogical research that proved that Defonseca’s story was untrue.]

    What Defonseca and other “false memoirists” like James Frey did is fraudulent. They made up the whole thing. If their book had been shelved in the fiction section it would have been fine.

    That’s a long way from a family historian using techniques borrowed from fiction to make a book more interesting. The family historian has a factual framework generated by his research which lays out the detailed records of ancestors’ lives. Bringing those ancestors to life by researching the historical context of the time and place they lived to help readers understand their experiences is a very legitimate way to help sharpen the story you are telling. Weaving family lore and stories passed down through the generations helps to create a more lively portrait of your ancestors. Looking at the factual record in an imaginative way to explore possible emotions, motivations or even dialogue which might have accompanied documented events are all valid tools to help characterize real people.

    Family historians shouldn’t hesitate to make their books as colorful as they can by employing a variety of literary techniques. They have nothing to worry about regarding being truthful because their factual research is the framework for the entire book.

    Click here to read Jeff Gorman’s article, Publisher Can Sue Over Holocaust Memoir Hoax

    Click here to read Blake Eskin’s story, Crying Wolf: Why did it take so long for a far-fetched Holocaust memoir to be debunked? in Slate

    

    Saturday
    Nov272010

    Why You Need a Professional Editor

    When a self publishing author completes a draft of a manuscript their first question is often, “What’s next?”

    Susan Daffron of the website Self Pub U, advises, “As someone who has worked in publishing for a lot of years, I believe that I can safely say that everyone -- and I mean everyone -- needs an editor.”

    Not every author agrees. They believe that they have carefully revised their manuscript and checked it for correctness. They don’t need an editor.

    There’s something that first time writers don’t understand.

    “Every writer has blind spots to his or her own writing,” says Ricky Pittman of Writers Weekly.  “You see, you know the story so well that your eye will play tricks on you while you read and you WILL miss what others will see. This is why you need readers and editors.”

    Some authors ask friends, colleagues or their high school English teacher to edit their manuscript. But, as Jerry Simmons of the Readers and Writers Blog cautions, “Though it may be tempting to save money and do it yourself, self-editing is not a good substitute for professional editing. Having an objective, experienced eye to evaluate and edit your work is worth its weight in gold. A good editor won’t just fix your grammar and usage oversights, but will let you know what sections in your book need to be expanded, clarified, or removed…an editor will also make sure your story stays consistent, not just in tone, but in plot and “voice” as well. Your editor will let you know about all the problems you (or your friend the high-school English teacher) weren’t aware of.”

    Once an author decides that hiring a professional editor is the best thing for her book, there is one more pitfall to avoid. Nancy Peske calls it the #1 myth about hiring an editor. “Any editor can help you with any type of book you’d like to publish.” In reality, says Peske, “Excellent editors may work in several genres, but for the most part, editors specialize. They can’t be experts on everything, and an editor with integrity will tell you flat out if he’s not the right person to help you with your book.”

    So when you finish your manuscript give some serious thought to hiring a professional editor who specializes in your genre. If it’s memoir or family history we hope you’ll choose us.

    Click here to visit Self-Pub U

    Click here to read Ricky Pittman’s full article Why Beginning Writers Need an Editor

    Click here to read Jerry Simmons’ article on Interviewing an Editor: The Seven Questions You Need to Ask by Lauren Hidden

    Click here to read Nancy Peske’s full article, Seven Common Myths About Hiring a Freelance Editor for Your Book

    

    Wednesday
    Nov242010

    After 100 Years a Mark Twain Autobiography

    If you are interested in life stories, there’s something special just off the presses – Volume I of The Autobiography of Mark Twain.

    We’ve had to wait one hundred years since his death. Twain ordered it. He didn’t want to be inhibited by a concern with offending anyone. The trustees of his estate haven’t completely respected Twain’s wishes. Several segments of the autobiography have appeared in print. However, as Guardian reviewer Tim Adams put it, “Never before has the book been published as Twain wished it, though – in all its fragmentary and convoluted glory.” Volumes 2 and 3 will appear within the next few years.

    If you are concerned with how long it’s taking to get your own book done, take heart. Twain began his Autobiography when he was 42 years old and worked on it in a rather desultory fashion for the next three decades. He ultimately settled on what he described as “The Final (and Right) Plan” to get the book finished. Concerned that his real story was the interior monologue going on in his own head, Twain hired a secretary to walk around with him transcribing his thoughts.

    How true to America’s greatest writer was the result? Twain suggests that his readers keep in mind his mother’s description of him as a boy, "I discount him thirty per cent for embroidery, and what is left is perfect and priceless truth without a flaw in it anywhere."

    I am certainly looking forward to reading it. After all, how often do we get the chance to see a new work by an author like Mark Twain who has been dead for a hundred years?

    Click here to read Tim Adams review in the Guardian online.

    

    Monday
    Nov222010

    Factual Family History - What Gets Lost?

    Novelist Suzanne Berne’s new book Missing Lucile chronicles her search for meaning in her family’s history.

    The experience is one that is not unfamiliar to genealogists and family historians. It might also be a cautionary tale they would be well to examine.

    At the heart is her grandmother, Lucile, who died of cancer in her early forties. However, her father, a very young boy at the time, always believed that his mother had abandoned him. He said, “We were told she was gone. No one ever said where.”

    Berne decides that her missing grandmother is "the Rosetta stone by which all subsequent family guilt and unhappiness could be decoded.” She sets out to unlock the family secrets by discovering what she can about Lucile’s story.

    The result leads Julie Myerson, British novelist, columnist for the Financial Times and book reviewer for the BBC2’s Newsnight Review, to comment in her New York Times Book Review, “…this is my kind of book. Why, then, did I find it so arduous?”

    The answer lies in Berne’s decision to tell the story not as a novelist but as a journalist or historian might do it. She commits herself to creating a factual account of the family’s history. She does imagine what might have happened or have been said, on occasions where all of the facts can’t be discovered. But each time, she stops the narrative to tell her reader what she’s doing.

    The string of cautions and qualifiers leads Myerson to say, “I began to dread the sight of another lumpen passage dotted with Berne’s increasingly repetitive what-ifs and perhapses.”

    That’s too bad. There is another way.

    As Myerson commented, “Berne has said that she originally thought of writing her grandmother’s life as a novel, and you can see why. She’s a first-rate fiction writer, and the passages where she quits her detective-style ruminating and allows herself to bounce off on some imaginative tangent are by far the most vivid and successful in the book. Skies and flowers burst to life. History turns from black and white into Techni­color. You can smell the air, feel the breeze on your cheek. People have conversations that sound credible and alive. Who cares if they didn’t happen exactly as they’re written?”

    This is a lesson for family historians. Family history is not academic history. The goal is to bring ancestors to life, and draw the reader into your book, by telling their stories. The factual record may not tell a person’s whole story. It’s incomplete, with gaps that can only be filled by using inference and imagination to round out the story. That process is the basis for a relatively new literary genre - creative non-fiction.

    We can see the genre as it has been employed by masters in books like Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, Joyce Carol Oates’ On Boxing and George Plimpton’s Paper Lion.

    Lee Gutkind, author and professor at Arizona State University, who Vanity Fair dubbed “the Godfather” of the creative non-fiction movement explains, “Although it sounds a bit affected and presumptuous, “creative nonfiction” precisely describes what the form is all about. The word ‘creative’ refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction—that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner. To put it another way, creative nonfiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exist more interesting and, often, more accessible.”

    When you write your own family history consider employing the techniques of creative non-fiction to tell your family’s stories. It will make the experience for your readers much more lively and interesting than relying only on what can be drawn from the facts. You can preserve the documentation by listing source material for the factual record in an appendix, for those who want to read it.

    Click here to read Julie Myerson’s review of Missing Lucile.

    Click here to read Lee Gutkind’s article What is Creative Non-Fiction?

    

    Saturday
    Nov202010

    What Do Readers Want?

    Would you like to know how to make your book more appealing to readers? Would it help the revision and editing process if you knew which sections of the book readers found most interesting and which they skipped over?

    Tools to answer questions like these may soon be available on Scribd, a social publishing website sometimes called the You Tube for documents. Visitors can browse millions of documents or “upload your PDF, Word, and Power Point docs to share with the world’s largest community of readers.”

    Scribd CEO Trip Adler recently announced that the site would offer a free tool, Scribd Stats. The new statistics will provide, he said, “new data on reading that’s never been available before."

     

    Jason Kincaid of Tech Crunch described some of types of data available with the new package including:

    • Data on search queries that led people to your document
    • Data on what people are searching for within your document
    • Graphs that allow you to track your document’s popularity over time
    • Data analyzing Scribd’s Read Cast feature which let’s readers share content they’ve just read on Facebook or Twitter

     “Perhaps the most interesting feature of the new Scribd Stats package is the heat maps that will run down the side of each document…,” said E.B. Boyd of Fast Company. [see image above] “The heat map represents the entire document. Red indicates pages that users spent the most amount of time on, blue the least. Clicking on a section of the heat map takes you to that particular page in the document.”

    Ann Westpheling, Scribd’s new strategic partnership manager who recently joined the company after 11 years in publishing marketing, said…“If I create an excerpt with material from three romantic novels, I can now see which author drove the most traffic. Experimentation [with different marketing strategies] becomes more meaningful.”

    The implications of the new data are potentially enormous.

    Boyd said, ”The stats could provide insight into how long people read different kinds of material--leading, perhaps, to new optimal lengths for different genres of books--as well as how reading speeds vary by day of the week or by age of reader--which could also lead to changes in how authors write.”

    Click here to read Jason Kincaid’s Tech Crunch article. 

    Click here to read E.B. Boyd’s Fast Company article.

    Click here to visite the Scribd website. 

     

     

     

    Monday
    Nov152010

    Great Weekend at Atlanta Family History Expo!

    This weekend Nancy and I participate in the Atlanta Family History Expo held at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Georgia. It was our seventh FHE this year. We have had a great time at every one.

    The Atlanta Expo offered the between 1000 and 1500 people who attended the two day session two days crammed with opportunities to learn and share ideas about genealogy and family history. There were thirty exhibitors, and 110 classes providing research tips and techniques, technology tools, opportunities to post and publish results, and resources of all kinds. Most of all there was plenty of encouragement and inspiration for the family historian.

    I think Ginger Smith, who writes the Genealogy by Ginger Blog, had a fairly typical reaction. She wrote, “This was a good experience overall though because I finally got to see exactly what a conference like this entails and it was very cool to be able to talk about GENEALOGY (and some about technology) for two whole days!!!!”

    Nancy and I had the opportunity to teach two classes twice each: Family History Books – Editing, Design and Publishing, and A Good Read – Make Family History Books Exciting. We always enjoy the opportunity to teach. It’s fun to share what you know with others.

    What’s even more fun at conferences like this is that we get the opportunity to talk with individuals about their own family history book projects. We spoke with people at all stages of the author’s journey from gathering ideas to choosing a printer. Our message was always one of encouragement. Anyone who wants to create a family history book can do it. We’re happy to offer advice and help.

    If you haven’t had the opportunity to attend a Family History Expo or another big genealogy conference I’d encourage you to check into the possibility of doing so in 2011. I am sure you will find it both worthwhile and a lot of fun.

    Click here to read Ginger Smith’s post on the Atlanta FHE

    Click here to visit the Family History Expo site.

    

    Tuesday
    Nov092010

    Generosity Based Publishing

    We have written a lot in this blog about new directions in publishing. “Now,” as they used to say on Monty Python, “for something completely different.”

    The Concord Free Pressinvites readers to, "Be part of our revolutionary experiment in generosity-based publishing."

    Concord’s business model is simple.We publish great books and give them away. All we ask is that you make a voluntary donation to a charity or someone in need. Tell us about it. Then pass your book along so others can give. It’s a new kind of publishing, one based purely on generosity, and it’s changing the way people think about books.”

    Concord has generated $155,000 in donations to a broad spectrum of individuals and causes with its first four titles.

    The publisher is overseen by an advisory board which includes literary heavyweights Joyce Carol Oates, Russell Banks, Megan Abbott and Gregory Maguire.

    Novelist Stona Fitch founded Concord. “Give + Take , my fourth novel, inspired the idea,” she said. “It’s about a jazz pianist who steals diamonds and BMWs and gives away the money – in short, a modern retelling of the Robin Hood fable. But it’s also about the limits of generosity and the slippery nature of value. When the book ran into classic delay at a major New York publishing house, I decided to start the Concord Free Press and give it away, asking only that readers give some money to a charity they believed in or someone in need.”

    The Concord Free Press List currently includes five titles:

    • IOU: New Writing on Money edited by Ron Slate
    • The Next Queen of Heaven by Gregory Maguire
    • Push Comes to Shove  by Wesley Brown
    • Give and Take by Stona Fitch
    • Rut by Scott Phillips

    “I’m the Robin Hood of publishing,” Fitch laughs. “Or the Guy Fawkes of publishing. Or the death of publishing. The best phrase anyone has come up with to describe what we’re doing is ‘a grand experiment in subversive altruism’.

    “Our approach is certainly unusual and against the grain. But noble? Let’s just say that I’d rather make trouble than money.”

    Click here to visit the Concord Free Press website.

    Click here to read more about Concord Free Press in the IrishTimes.com

    Sunday
    Nov072010

    A Guide to Self Publishing Options

    The author who is considering self-publishing may find his attempt to gather information about how to proceed obscured by an array of terminology. Mick Rooney clarifies some commonly used terms in an article on The Self-Publishing Review, “The Types of Self-Publishing – Peeling Away the Layers of Confusion.”

    Self-Publishing Review

    Rooney provides descriptions of Vanity Publishers, Subsidy Publishers, Partnership Publishers, POD (Print on Demand) Publishers, and Independent Publishers. Rooney brings some transparency to the jumble of terms which confront authors. That’s useful.

    But there’s one thing missing – true self publishing. In the most of the paths to publication Rooney describes the author signs an agreement with the publisher to provide services. Often in exchange the company receives control of rights, including copyrights to the book. The book then becomes theirs. The author receives royalties for a percentage of the sales. In the meantime the publisher often provides in-house editing and design services.

    In a true self-publication the author handles all the arrangements to produce the book and retains all rights to the book. If the author requires services like editing and book design, he contracts with free lance editors and designers. If the author wants help with marketing services she hires someone to provide them.

    David Carnoy, a columnist at cnet,  wrote about is own experience in publishing a book  in an article “Self Publishing: 25 Things You Need to Know,” advised,  “I’d never work with [a publisher’s] in-house editors, copy editors and in-house design people…it’s better to hire your own people and work with them directly.”

    When the book is ready the self-publishing author can seek someone who will offer the best price on printing it without any related services added on.

    Is self publishing the route for your book or would you be better off with one of the publishing arrangements Rooney describes? The answer depends on your goals for your book, your budget for its production and your comfort level with managing all of the arrangements independently. But it’s certainly a possibility that any author seeking a path to publication should consider.

    Click here to read Mick Rooney’s “The Types of Self-Publishing – Peeling Away the Layers of Confusion.”

    Click here to read David Carnoy’s “Self-Publishing: 25 Things You Need to Know.”

    

    Thursday
    Nov042010

    Is a Writing Group for You?

    Writing can be a solitary task. Sometimes it is difficult to get a good perspective on the manuscript you’re producing. One solution is to seek out other writers and join with them in a writing group or workshop.

    A recent interview between Kate Bittman of the New Yorker and actor James Franco, star of films like Milk, Pineapple Express and Howl. Their conversation which appeared in the magazine’s online Book Bench focused on Franco’s newly released story collection Palo Alto.

    Franco said he had written for years, but had only recently begun showing his work to others. When asked, what was the best advice about writing he had ever received, he said, “I suppose it’s finding good mentors and good readers; people who will give you a good sense of what you’ve written, because you can’t always assess it on your own.”

    About five years ago Franco discovered writer’s workshops when he could feedback from fellow writers about how to sharpen his writing skills.

    “Once I started enrolling in writing workshops and had people reading my work, it immediately gave me a new perspective," he said. "I was suddenly writing to communicate with others, which made all the difference. I no longer cut corners. I could no longer judge my work by its potential. Instead, I had to listen to how it was being perceived by others. I could no longer fool myself in isolation.”

    The advice and support provided by members of a writer’s workshop can make the difference in whether a project gets finished or not. It can almost certainly make the manuscript you ultimately create better.

    You can locate online groups or groups in your neighborhood with a quick Google search.

    Click here to read Kate Bittman’s interview with James Franco.

    

    Tuesday
    Nov022010

    Using Photos - Giants Win It All!

    I’ve been a San Francisco Giants fan for all 52 years since they came west from New York. Only baseball fans in places like Chicago, Cleveland and until fairly recently, Boston can understand what that means. Watching year after year as your team struggles futilely in its quest for a championship is indeed as a Giant’s broadcaster described it “torture.” So I am feeling a very strange sense of excited contentment today.  The photo below captures the reason.

    Freelance writer Randy Murray, in his blog First Today, Then Tomorrow, offers some excellent tips on using photos and illustrations.

    Murray begins, “Here’s the big secret: the image has to contribute to the reader’s understanding and comprehension of your text, not just to make the page more visually appealing.”

    How do you decide when the image does contribute to the reader’s understanding. Murray suggests four guidelines to decide:

    1.      You are referring to the specific image in your text – they purpose of your text IS the image.

    2.      The image will allow you to take a shortcut. By pointing to the image you can significantly reduce your description or be more accurate. “It looks like this,” with a picture, might save you 500 words and keep your readers’ interest.

    3.      The image reinforces your message

    4.      The image provides credible evidence to back up your words. Think “news photo,” like the picture of a house fire. [Or maybe the Giants!]

    

    Sunday
    Oct312010

    Organizing a Family History - BYU Ancestors

    If you’ve been following our recent posts (or even if you haven’t) we have been looking at how to organize a family history book. The Brigham Young University TV series Ancestors offers some good insights on the subject. The website for the series which first aired in 1997 addresses several questions you’ll want to think about as you decide how to organize your book.

    • What type of history do you want to create?
    • How many people or generations should you include?
    • Who is your intended audience?
    • What style will you use? This section focuses on decisions about chronological or topical organization or combinations of the two. It also offers video clips which explain some of the choices you will face in organizing your family history.
    • Do you need an index or source citations?

    The website offers a variety of resources for family historians. It’s worth a look.

     Click here to visit the BYU Ancestors site.

     

    Friday
    Oct292010

    Rock Memoirs - The Good and the Bad

    I recently ran across a blog post on TheWrap which boasts it “Covers Hollywood” titled “Sex, Drugs & Publishing: Music Memoirs on a Rockin’ Roll.” Leading with the news that Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones has collected a $7.3 million advance for his just released memoir Life, the post notes that Rock memoirs have become a reliable cash cow for the publishers.

    “They’re pretty easy to produce, and with an already built-in audience, fairly cost-effective,” a NYC-based publishing executive told TheWrap. “Pretty much all you have to do is interview the subject and just get a ghost(writer) to polish it into prose.”

    Richards leads the Amazon preorder list.

    That might lead to a bit of justified cynicism.

    But on the same day I saw the post I heard Terri Gross on NPR interview singer Patti Smith, a punk icon, about her memoir Just Kids which has been nominated for a National Book Award in non-fiction. What a contrast.

    Smith’s book recalls the late 60s and 70s in New York City and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Together they grow up in the avant-garde world of Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsburg.

    Smith described their life together in this way, “We gathered our colored pencils and sheets of paper and drew like wild, feral children into the night, until, exhausted, we fell into bed.”

    N.Y Times reviewer Tom Carson called Just Kids “…the most spellbinding and diverting portrait of funky-but-chic New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s that any alumnus has committed to print.”

    The book deals with events before either Smith or Mapplethorpe had achieve the fame that would come later.

    As Carson put it, “Just Kids captures a moment when Ms. Smith and Mapplethorpe were young, inseparable, perfectly bohemian and completely unknown, to the point in which a touristy couple in Washington Square Park spied them in the early autumn of 1967 and argued about whether they were worth a snapshot. The woman thought they looked like artists. The man disagreed, saying dismissively, “They’re just kids.”

    It’s nice to see that the rock’n roll genre can produce art as well as schlock.

    Click here to read the complete NY Times review of Just Kids

    Click here to read TheWrap’s “Sex, Drugs & Publishing: Music Memoirs on a Rockin’ Roll”

    

    Tuesday
    Oct262010

    Unlocking Family Photographs

    Too often we meet people who say I have all kinds of old family photographs, but I can’t identify most of the people in them.

    Maureen Taylor’s book Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs is a tool that can solve their problem. Taylor shows her readers how to use historical photos as research tools. She demonstrates how a family historian can unlock clues contained in the pictures. For example:

    • Using clues about the type of photographic process used to take the picture helps to accurately date it.
    • Historical details like telephone lines visible in the photograph demonstrate that it couldn’t have been taken before a specific date.
    • Details of the dress, studio props and poses of photo subjects can be compared to historical records to help date the photograph.
    • A close examination of a photograph may allow the researcher to determine its location.
    • These clues may also reveal the identity of the photographer.
    • And finally all of this information combined with a family historians knowledge of ancestors may allow her to identify the people pictured.

    “If you are only going to buy one book on this subject, this is the book for you,” said reviewer Carol Boston of Eureka, Illinois.

    

    Sunday
    Oct242010

    Facts and Imagination in Memoir and Family History

    In writing a memoir or family history is your goal a factual retelling of your memories of your life story or those of your ancestors? Or is it to imagine what it must have been like to be a particular person living at a particular time and place? Is your goal to write a personal history or a piece of creative non-fiction or to blend the two?

    Richard Gilbert in his blog Narrative uses a recent interview in The Writer’s Chronicle to explore these questions.  Faye Rapoport Des Pres conducted the interview with Michael Steinberg, author of Still Pitching, a memoir of growing up in New York in the 1950s.

    

    At the core of a memoir [And I believe a family history as well.] are facts often based on extensive research. Says Steinberg, “Memoirs are set in real time and in real places, and they include real people and real events. Whatever else we think of the form, none of us would be inclined to trust a writer who fabricated those things. It goes without saying that a memoirist’s credibility, like the journalist’s, rests in part on those things that can be verified, even fact checked.”

    But the memoirist or family historian must make an important decision about what to do with the facts. Are the facts a limit or a point of departure?

    In Steinberg’s view a writer needs to add creative elements to the facts to get at the real story. He said, “…in my memoir Still Pitching I needed to re-imagine my childhood in order to better understand it. This was the only way I could express and articulate what it felt like to be that kid growing up in New York at that particular time in history (the ‘50s). In order to understand your past—in my case, childhood—you have to be able to imagine that past and the person you once were.

    Choosing that course may depart from the strictly factual.

    But by using the facts of the historical context in which the people about whom you write lived, you stand a much better chance of using you imagination to bring them to life for your reader.

    Click here to read Richard Gilbert’s full post on Narrative.

    Friday
    Oct222010

    Add Your Insights, Along With Family Stories

    I recently read a novel I would recommend highly, called The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry. In it, an institutionalized woman secretly writes a memoir of her life in Ireland. In just the first few pages, I was hooked. The book is part mystery, part memoir, and contains insightful passages that shine like small jewels.

    I was delighted with this passage about the role of family stories. The narrator is remembering a story her father loved to tell. He had experienced a miracle, he said, when an Indian friend saved his life and appeared to sprout wings from his back like an angel. She concludes,

    "...my father's curious happiness was most clearly evident in the retelling of this story. It was as if such an event were a reward to him for being alive, a little gift of narrative that pleased him so much it conferred on himself, in dreams and waking, a sense of privilege, as if such little scraps of stories and events composed for him a ragged gospel. And if ever there were to be written an evangelical gospel of my father's life – and why should there not, as every person's life is said to be precious to God – I suppose those wings merely glimpsed on his friend the Indian's back would become more substantial, and things merely hinted at by him would become in the new telling by a second hand solid, unprovable, but raised up even higher into the realms of miracle. So that all and sundry might take comfort from it.

    My father's happiness. It was a precious gift in itself, as perhaps my mother's anxiety was a perpetual spanner thrown into her works. For my mother never made miniature legends of her life, and was singularly without stories, though I am sure there were things there to tell as good as my father's.

    It is funny, but it strikes me that a person without anecdotes that they nurse while they live, and that survive them, are more likely to be utterly lost not only to history but the family following them. Of course this is the fate of most souls, reducing entire lives, no matter how vivid and wonderful, to those sad black names on withering family trees, with half a date dangling after and a question mark.

    My father's happiness not only redeemed him, but drove him to stories, and keeps him even now alive in me, like a second more patient and more pleasing soul within my poor soul. Perhaps his happiness was curiously unfounded. But cannot a man make himself as happy as he can in the strange long reaches of a life? I think it is legitimate. After all, the world is indeed beautiful, and if we were any other creature than man we might be continuously happy in it.

    There is a lesson, or sevaral lessons, to be learned here. It is not just the family story that captivates us. The author who comments on the story, who draws conclusions about what it means to her, can add a whole new level of meaning. What an opportunity for all of us, as authors, to not only reproduce and record family stories, but also to enrich the family narrative by conveying our own vision of the world.