The Black Book, a journal of political aphorisms, quips and observations from four generations in the Adlai Stevenson family demonstrates the value of journaling for family historians and memoirists.
Author Johnna Tuttle describes her experiences with writing, editing, designing, and self publishing.
"No one’s family history is compelling and interesting, until you make it compelling and interesting," said family historian Sharon DeBartolo Carmack. Absolutely! But how do you do that? One important part of the process is recognizing that there is an critical difference between genealogical research and writing a family history.
Still looking for photos to illustrate your family history book? Here are two more excellent sites you will want to visit.
This post offers suggestions of the best online sites to search for old family photos to use in illustrating your family history book.
In my last couple of posts, we’ve looked at to problem a family historian faces when trying to write a book about relatives accessible only through written records. Today we’ll look at what can be done when dealing with more distant ancestors for whom written records may be less plentiful.
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.