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    Scene, Summary and Reflection in Storytelling

    One of my favorite bloggers, award-winning journalist Richard Gilbert, recently had a post Lessons from Writing My Memoir. They were lessons that both memoirists and family historians might consider.

    Gilbert described dealing with three elements in telling his story – scene, summary and reflection. Scenes tell stories with the classic elements of setting, character, conflict and resolution. They employ the elements of drama. Summary on the other hand simply tells the reader what happened rather than letting it unfold before her. The reader is presented with a collection of facts. Reflection is the author’s attempt to capture the lessons, insights or wisdom to be gained from events in the past. All three are important tools in the writer’s toolkit.

     The problem is, of course, choosing when to employ each tool. Most of us are like Gilbert who said, “I had memories but some gaps and too few images.” The incomplete memories and shortage of stories is often even more acute if you’re writing a family history. So many people resort to mostly summary accounts of the past.

    Gilbert had the same problem. But his book got better when he started “…realizing that I didn’t grasp the importance and power of dramatic presentation – scenes – to convey an experience … and let me tell you, scenes are infinitely more powerful.”

    Keep this in mind as you work on your book. It’s worth the time to try to find stories to replace summary in as many places as you can. Interviews, or at least conversations, with relatives or friends can help fill in partial memories to allow you to transform summary into scene. You can’t always do it, but where you can you should.

    Scenes which tell stories dramatically will bring the people in your book to life. The stories will also help make the insights you draw from events in your reflections more easily understood and vivid. Make the most of the stories you have. Your readers will thank you for it.  

    Click here to read Richard Gilbert’s full post.



    Prize-Winning Story Telling Tools 

    The process of creating a memoir or family history, when done well, is one of telling stories. Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for feature writing by telling stories well, offered an excellent into the process in a recent interview in Mother Jones magazine.

    Said Weingarten: “Basically, I think the art or craft of [story telling]mostly boils down to figuring out internal kickers—how each section will end. Then you need to build the section to justify the kicker, to make it fair, and clear, and earned. I never start a section of the story without knowing how it will end. I also consciously try to shape the story as though it were a movie. I really try to think cinematically, because that’s how people read. They create a theater in their minds.”

    If these ideas appeal to you, let me offer you a couple of tools to help you employ them in your own memoir or family history.

    Let’s begin, as Weingarten suggests with the end. What’s the point of the story you want to tell? Here’s a simple exercise to clarify the meaning in your stories.

    Children’s stories often end “and the moral of the story is…” We can draw conclusions about the meanings of our stories the same way, by making a simple summary statement about its meaning. Think of a story or two you want to include in your book. Write one sentence summarizing the meaning of the story.

    The exercise should help you to determine the insight, wisdom or lesson that will serve as what Weingarten calls your “kicker.”

    If the idea of a theater of the mind appeals to you, here’s another exercise you will find useful as a tool in organizing your material.

    My Life as a Movie: You are a director in Hollywood and you have been hired to make a movie – of your own life (or your family’s life). Your film must be limited to only two hours of screen time, so you must identify only the most essential elements of  the life (lives) it will portray. As you know, movies often jump from scene to scene. And in some films, the scenes are not in chronological order. On a blank piece of paper, list the ten to twenty scenes from you life (your family’s life) that you think are essential to include.

    Click here to read the full Mother Jones interview with Gene Weingarten.



    Choices in Writing Memoirs and Family History

    When you decide to write a memoir or family history book you may find yourself facing a large pile of memories and memorabilia, photos and documents, not to mention the sometimes not so reliable memories of friends and relatives.

    Award-winning journalist Laurie Hertzel, now book editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, confronted the same problem when she decided to write News to Me, her memoir of twenty years as a reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. The decisions she made offer some useful guidance for anyone undertaking a book of their own.

    Hertzel began by deciding on exactly what the purpose of her book should be. ”I started thinking about all the things about old-time newspapers that people nowadays know nothing about,” she said. “Horseshoe-shaped copy desks – those are gone. Editing on paper with the time-honored editing marks – that’s gone. Cropping photos with a cropping wheel and a pica pole – all of this is gone. I wanted to remember them, and I wanted people to remember them.”

    Having fixed her purpose, Hertzel could decide what to include in the book. And what to leave out. “I left out a lot, she said.  “I didn’t write much about my family, I didn’t write much about my private life. This wasn’t a book about how I got married and got divorced.”

    Hertzel said, “I tried to structure it by pivotal moments in my career, so it was structured job by job by job.” But even then, she had to make choices about which details of her career to include. ” The tricky part is figuring out what parts of your life to tell that keep moving the story of your life forward,” said Hertzel. “And that was trial and error.”

    Hertzel’s experience illustrates the need to make choices in writing any kind of personal history. At the heart of creating a successful book is the decision of what story you want to tell. Once you have made that decision you can take control of all the memories and material you might draw upon and make decisions about what to use.

    Laurie Hertzel’s remarks appeared in an interview with Andrea Pitzer on the website Nieman Storyboard maintained by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

    Click here to read the full interview.


    Truth & Story Telling in Memoir & Family History

    In a recent interview with the Canadian Poet Peter Norman discussing his new collection of poems All the Gates of the Theme Park spoke of an issue he faced in writing poems:

    "Memory is deceptive; I imagine we all rearrange our histories to fit some sort of narrative. Retelling distorts things further. I have a few stock anecdotes—the time I inadvertently sat on a piece of art in a gallery; the time the cops mistook me for an armed robber—and these have probably mutated to become sleeker or funnier, while memory scrambles along behind, modifying itself to match the tale….I distrust the precision of memory and anecdote…”

    Grappling with issues of truth and memory is a conundrum faced by many memoirists and family historians.

    Looking backwards, we find details of events missing. We’ve heard Uncle Harry tell stories about his exploits as a fisherman or Grandma’s tales of the life during the Great Depression enough times to know that they have been improved upon over the years.

    What’s our obligation in creating a memoir or family history? Are we documenting history or telling a good story? Both, I hope.

    There are historical facts that are part of any life story. But they are not the whole story. They are certainly seldom, if ever, the most interesting part. When we write a memoir or family history, we are trying to make sense of the past and the people (including our earlier selves) who lived in it. That means looking backwards to impose an order on events that might not have been evident to the person who was experiencing them. Some we may arrange events into an order that makes more sense. We may decide that some things which in fact happened actually detract from the stories flow and should be left out.

    One of the purposes of a memoir or family history is to help readers come to know the people about whom they were written? What kind of people were they? What made them unique? The stories they told, no matter how far they may stray from what the facts appear to be, provide an insight into their character and personality in a way that a scrupulous historical documentation never could. In trying to capture our life story or that of our family, we must recognize that it’s as important to capture the family lore and the way our ancestors remember it as it is to get the facts straight.

    Click here to read the full interview with Peter Norman



    First-Hand Advice on Self-Publishing

    The website cnet is not a site one normally visits for information on self-publishing books. Executive Editor David Carnoy’s column Fully Equipped: The Electronics You Lust For seems a most unlikely source.

    But Carnoy wrote a novel, a medical/legal thriller titled Knife Music, which he self-published. In a recent column, Carnoy compiled the lessons he learned from the experience into Self-Publishing a Book: 25 Things You Need to Know.

    Carnoy was interested in commercial distribution. As a consequence, many of his 25 things focus on promotion, marketing and sales. If you are thinking about selling your own book you will find his insights useful.

    If, however, your goal is to create a self-published book for limited distribution to family and friends you can skip over those items and focus on the advice he offers on writing a book and preparing it for the printer. Here are some examples of Carnoy’s tips:

    • Have a clear goal for your book.” Clarity on the intended audience will both help you decide on the books content and make a good choice on who you should select to print it.
    • Buy as little as possible from your publishing company.” He explains that many subsidy publishers like Author House and Create Space make money not on the sale of author’s books but by selling authors packages of “publishing services.”  He says, "Personally I’d never work with Book Surge’s [his publisher’s, now part of Amazon's Create Space] in-house  editors, copy editors and in-house design people…it’s better to hire your own people and work directly with them.”
    • If you’re serious about your book, hire a book doctor [content editor] and get it copy edited.

    Whatever your plan for your self-published book David Carnoy’s column will help you make it a reality while avoiding some potentially expensive and frustrating pitfalls.

     Click here to read David Carnoy’s full column.


    Why You Need a Content Editor - A Demo

    How important is editing? Anyone who wonders should take a look at a recent review in the Smokey Mountain News of Waynesville, North Carolina.

    Gary Carden reviewed a recently published memoir Appalachian Roots written by David Waldrop and Michael Revere. Says Carden, “Appalachian Roots captures the essential facts in two very different (but equally daunting) journeys to adulthood in Appalachia.”

    After examining the books strengths, Carden shifts gears with a question, “Does Appalachian Roots have problems? Yes it does…it could have used some serious editing and revision.”

    He finds three problems that editing could have avoided.

    1. The book needs a preface. “There’s no attempt to define this book’s purpose.”
    2. “There’s also a lot of repetition.”
    3. On the other hand, the book is sometimes short of descriptive details. It “…does not tell the reader enough about the book’s most provocative episodes…”

    A good job of editing could have avoided all three. Unfortunately developmental or content editing is a step often skipped on the path to publication. Self-publishing authors find someone to proof read their manuscript and send it off to the printer. Publishers save money by going straight to copy editing and proof reading. In either case the author never has the opportunity to have a conversation with an editor who can help him improve the way he tells his story. When an author works with a content editor he can expect help on how to make sure his meaning is clear. His editor will advise him as on which repetitions can be cut to improve narrative flow and where more detail is needed to improve the story.

    As you prepare your book make sure you get a good edit from a qualified content editor. You will avoid the kinds of problems which marred Appalachian Roots. Your readers will thank you for it.

    Click here to read the full review of Appalachian Roots



    A Resource Rating Publishers and Publishing Services

    Looking for a Publisher? Preditors and Editors which bills itself as “A guide to publishers and publishing services for the serious writers,” is a website that can provide some useful assistance.

     The site offers hundreds of listings of publishers, publishing services, editors and literary agents. Not all services providers are listed in any category. (Stories To Tell doesn’t appear at present.) A link to the provider’s website is provided for each listing. Most entries are accompanied by recommendations or warnings concerning the provider. (There is a thorough explanation of the criteria used in determining ratings.) Entries indicate services provided by each listed publisher, editor or agent. Warnings consist first of general advice on how to spot “scam publishers” or “scam literary agencies.” Both in the general listings and in a special section there are warnings about specific providers. Many of the warnings are reports from writers who have had problems working with a provider. A lot of the content is submitted by readers to the site.

    The site’s emphasis is on commercial publication, but it does provide information on some small publishers who may be of interest to self-publishing authors.

    Whatever your publishing goals, the site is worth checking out.

    Click here to visit Editors and Preditors.



    Telling Stories With Pictures in Your Personal History

    Telling good stories is a critical part of writing a memoir or family history. But it’s possible to enhance the written stories by using images to illustrate them or to tell others that don’t make it into the text. Darren Rowse offers some excellent ideas on how to use pictures effectively in his article Telling Stories With Pictures on the Digital Photography School website.

    In selecting the photographs you intend to use in your book begin by realizing what emotions, moods, story lines, ideas and messages the images you choose may convey. Individual photographs may convey a story in a single image by emphasizing the context in which its subject is placed or by displaying the relationship between two subjects.

    A series of photographs might document a specific event or experience. Think of someone’s wedding photos or pictures taken on a vacation.

    Using photos to tell stories can, on a larger scale, parallel the kind of thinking a writer does in planning a written story. Carefully select introductory photos which will present important characters visually and provide a view of the settings in which events will take place.

    Consider themes you may want to develop as your story unfolds. The themes might relate to the types of photos you employ – visual themes or stylistic themes. Or the photographs might convey details of time, place or relationship by focusing on a single character or characters in a similar pose at several different moments in time or images of a setting taken years apart.

    Select the final images by deciding what lasting impression you want to leave with your reader, just as you plan the book’s concluding chapter.

    Click here to read Rowse’s full article.


    The Best Way to Preserve Family History Research

    After a wonderful weekend at the Midwest Family History Expo in Kansas City, I was once again reminded of how much genealogists love research. Me too! But I also found myself having numerous conversations with people about what to do with their research.

     Donna Przecha offered some good advice to family history researchers in her article From Planning to Printing: Your Family in Print on She said, “Devoted genealogists love going through their many collections of family group sheets, boxes of photographs, copies of census reports, notes from all sources and the ubiquitous photocopies of relevant pages of books. To us these are the building blocks of history — our personal history. However, if you want to get the attention of your children, your cousins, other people with the same surnames or even other genealogists, you have to present your material in a more concise and logical manner.”


    Her conclusion was exactly the one we had been discussing at the Expo, “…the most efficient and logical way for most people is in a book…” I was happy to see that Przecha went on to advise people to, “Try not to make your book a recitation of names, dates and places. Add as much story as you possibly can.”

     The other thing we frequently discussed with Expo visitors was limiting the scope of the book they wanted to create. A lifetime of research is often more than a single volume can reasonably contain. Deciding to limit a book to one line of the family or deciding on a chronological limit, the family’s arrival in the U.S. or the Civil War, or deciding to include three generations can all allow you to work with a manageable amount of material to include in your book.


    Click her to see Donna Przecha’s complete article.



    A Great Self-Publishing Resource

    If you are thinking about self-publishing The Self-Publishing Review is a resource you should check out. The site is an online magazine, and indeed a community, for people interested in self-publishing. Many of its articles are written with people who have commercial self-publishing in mind. These features focus on publicity and distribution channels.

    However, there is plenty for the potential self-publishing author who isn’t in it for the money. The Publisher Reviews are of particular interest. Current posts include Get It Together Lulu which looks at the digital publisher’s problems with ebooks and a look at subsidy publisher iUniverse in an iUniverse Review.

    Reader forums provide interesting comments on topics including: “Knowledge of Copyright Anyone”, “Evaluating eBook Schemes”, and “DIY or Hire It Out?”

    The resources section offers a variety of tools for self-publishing authors. I found the Book Design resources of particular interest.


    Click here to visit the Self-Publishing Review Site.


    How to Interview a Printer or Publisher

    It’s tricky to choose a printer or publisher because they may provide different services, at very different prices. You may hope to shop around by asking the price, but the answers you receive can be confusing. Instead of trying to compare apples to oranges, think of selecting the printer or publisher who is the best match for your needs.

    Make a list of printers and publishers you are considering and call them with your interview questions. If they do not have the exact services you want, move on. You don’t want to compromise on something so important.

    Question 1. Do you provide printing services for books with/without an ISBN?

    If you are privately self-publishing, state that you do not want any marketing services to get “just printing” price quotes.

    Question 2. Can you print my book to my specifications?

    Ask about the size, hard or soft cover, (or both), color interior, acid-free paper, and a sewn, not glued, binding if you want your book to last. If you are looking for specialty features like faux-leather covers or embossing, specify this now.

    Question 3. Will I retain all rights to my book?

    Even if you receive an unequivocal “yes”, make sure there will not be any rights issues you didn’t anticipate. Clarify by asking, “Will I retain the rights to any files I upload to you?” And, “If I want to print the same book with some other printer, or decide to market the book on next year, is there any conflict?” This should shake out publishers with contractual terms you don’t want.

    Question 4. Do you have a minimum order? Are there set-up fees in addition to the cost of the books?

    Depending on how many books you need, fees may seem negligible, or they may be a deal breaker.

    Question 5. How much will my books cost? Is there a bulk discount?

    Some printers offer discounts after 10 books, some after 25, etc. This may make a big difference.

    Question 6. What if I want to order more books later?

    Some printers will have different terms for reorders. They may or may not keep your files. For family histories, it is good to have a plan for reprints in the future.

    To read the complete article, click here.



    Three Questions About Books at the Family History Expo

    We just finished a wonderful weekend at the Midwest Family Historry Expo in Kansas City. We presented a seminar on Family History Books: Editing, Design and Publishing and had the opportunity to talk with a lot of very nice people about their family history book projects.

    The questions we were asked most often related to three topics:

    • What should the scope of my book be?
    • What will I need to submit to a editor, book designer or printer?
    • How do I choose a printer or publisher?

    We’ll look at the first two today and the third in our next post.

    If there’s one thing genealogists and family historians love it’s research. The question they all face is, “How much research is enough?” We advised people to recognize that there is a difference between the process – reaching the family history, which will probably never be finished – and their intended product – a family history book, which will contain a finite part of that ongoing research. The difficult decision for most people is, which part?

    For people who have been researching for years it many not be possible to include everything they have learned in a single family history book. We discussed several possible ways to decide what to include. You might include only one line of ancestors in your book (with the possibility of doing a future book on another line). You might place a chronological limit on the book. For example, you might deal with only the last three generations or choose a year like 1900 or an event like World War I as the starting point.

    Some of the people we spoke with were somewhat frustrated by the fact that they have had difficulty finding stories about segments of their family. They felt blocked by gaps in their research. We talked with some of them about writing their own memoirs and including their own memories of their families.

    The scope of a book will vary from person to person, everyone must decides what fits their family and their research in deciding what to include in their book.

    We have recently posted an article on the second question, “What will I need to submit?” on our website. Click here to see the article, What Your Editor Wants From You.



    "Fair Use" in Memoir and Family History Books

    A question that arises freqently when talking to first time writers is, what if I want to use material published somewhere else? Can I include it in my book? What do I have to do for it to be legal?

     The legal principle used to answer the question is called “Fair Use” which has been developed to determine how copyrighted material may be used by other authors. It weighs the original author’s ownership of her material and right to be compensated for it if someone else wants to publish any part of it against the need of another author to use some of the material in his work.

     The U.S. Copyright office lists four elements used to determine whether a use is fair:

    • The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
    • The nature of the copyrighted work
    • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
    • The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

    The 1961 Copyright Law explained the fair use principle in this way: “quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment; quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work, for illustration or clarification of the author’s observations; use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied; summary of an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report; reproduction by a library of a portion of a work to replace part of a damaged copy; reproduction by a teacher or student of a small part of a work to illustrate a lesson; reproduction of a work in legislative or judicial proceedings or reports; incidental and fortuitous reproduction, in a newsreel or broadcast, of a work located in the scene of an event being reported.”

    Any material used under the fair use principle must cite the source from which it is take.

    If you are uncertain of how the fair use principle applies to the material you want to use, the Copyright Office advises, “The safest course is always to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material.”


    The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts

    Writing  about one’s own past in a memoir or that of one’s ancestors in a family history, if it’s done well, is not just a chronicling of events, but a search for their meaning, The key is not simply writing about what happened next, but also reflecting upon why it was significant.

    Richard Gilbert, in his excellent blog Narative, explores the problem of writing about one’s past in a review of  The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts.

    Birkets’ premise is that to write about the past one must use the “vantage point of the present to gain access to what might be called the hidden narrative of the past.” It is in that reflective pocess that the writer unlocks the insights and lessons to be learned from the actual events and experiences.

    When memoir or family history simply lists what happened next, says Gilbert, they are failures because, as Virginia Woolf said in To the Lighthouse they are mere narratives of events and “leave out the person to whom things happened.”

     To get at that person, the writer must escape from mere chronology. By deciding what is more or less significant in the events she writes about, she may decide that some events require only cursory discussion whle others need to be examined at length, while some mey not be important enough to be included in their book at all. It is such considerations that may lead the author to alter the chronology. She might, for example, choose to begin with a dramatic event which occurred later in time, then trace the things which led up to it. What assumes the greatest importance in the story the author is telling is not its linear chronology, but the meaning of the events themselves.

    Click here to read Richard Gilbert’s review of The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts. 



    We'll See You at the Midwest Family History Expo

    We are getting ready to leave for the Midwest Family History Expo which is coming up on July 30th & 31st at the KCI Expo Center in Kansas City. It will be our fourth Family History Expo this year. The expos are always fun. There are plenty of great people with a deep interest in family history. There are also some excellent opportunities to learn about how to further your family history project. The Kansas City Expo will include 110 classes running the gamut from ways to use technology in genealogy research or accessing all kinds of records to niche workshops like Heritage Travel to Germany or Researching Criminal Ancestors. There’s something for everyone with an interest in family history.

    We will be presenting a seminar Friday morning on Family History Books: Editing, Design and Publishing. We’ll cover a lot of ground including:

    • The importance of stories and how to tell yours well
    • Overcoming obstacles to getting your book finished
    • Choosing photos and illustrations
    • Working with an editor
    • Choices in designing you book
    • Paths to publication

    I know there will be plenty of questions from participants that will broaden and deepen the conversation. That’s one of the things that makes presenting fun.

     So, if you live in the Kansas City area and want to learn ways to make researching and presenting your family history come see us. We’d love to say hello.

     Click here to see more details about the Midwest Family History Expo.