Brick walls, those frustrating points where you can’t find the information you need and don’t know where to turn which stop your research in its tracks, are favorite topics when genealogists gather. How do you break through that brick wall? You may run into the same sort of blockage while you are writing your family history. Often the barrier is a missing detail. Until you can find it, you can’t move on. Your family history is stuck. You take off your writer’s hat and slip back into the role of researcher. Fortunately there’s a way to overcome such obstacles. The important thing to understand is that just because you family history occurred in a chronological sequence, you don’t have to write your book by following the same sequence. It’s perfectly okay to deal with ancestors, events, or stories out of order as you develop your manuscript. You can go back later to fill in the details of the hurdle that’s obstructing your progress now and add transitions to smooth out the book’s flow. Here are five tricks to help you avoid getting stuck when you run into an obstacle.
Rigid adherence to a chronological framework can be one of your greatest enemies when you are trying to write a memoir or family history that interests readers. Using a chronological approach to help organize your book often leads to chapters of equal length with time periods homogenized so that all events seem to have equal importance and receive equal attention. Life, however, isn’t lived that way. Some times or events are pivotal. Understanding those turning points is the key to the story. Other segments of your life can be dealt with in a more summary fashion. Let’s face it, not everything that happens to us is all that interesting. So, how does one avoid falling into a chronological trap?
Looking for a literary agent for your book? The conventional route involves creating a list of agents who handle books like yours and contacting them. You can look in the acknowledgements of recently published books comparable to yours. Then use Jeff Herman’s Guide to Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents or The Writer’s Market to learn more about them and their submission guidelines. We described the whole process in our post How Do I Find a Literary Agent? Let’s look at some online tools you might want to add to your agent search toolbox.
As you are working to get the coals just right for your Labor Day barbeque, take a moment to think about how we happen to be celebrating this day all across America. The holiday’s origin goes back 119 years to 1894. The American Railway Union had undertaken a drive to organize railroad workers nationwide, triggering strikes across the country. A strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company in the Chicago area was the lynch pin of the effort. The administration of President Grover Cleveland, which was solidly anti-union, sent 12,000 troops to Chicago to break the strike. U.S. Marshals fired on protesters near the city, killing two, and the strike collapsed. But the results sparked a massive backlash against Cleveland’s heavy handed actions and only six days after the strike ended both houses of Congress had approved a bill proclaiming Labor Day a holiday and Cleveland had signed it hoping to quell the protests. It’s a fascinating story. You can learn more about the Pullman strike in an article titled Pullman Strike of 1894 in the California Historical Society’s journal California History. A post on the PBS NewsHour Blog The Origins of Labor Day provides details about the holiday itself. If you are a family historian think about the working men and women in previous generations of your family. A search of some of the many excellent collections of documents in libraries and archives will help you understand much more vividly how your ancestors lived.
Is it OK to take a long time? Yes. Writing a book is like a lasting friendship. If you don’t abandon it and periodically give it “quality time” your book will become stronger. Over an extended period of time, you evolve, both as a writer and as a person. Writing itself makes you more skilled as an author. Not only should you consciously attempt to learn the craft, you will inevitably develop a greater sense of command and strengthen your voice. And, assuming you grow wiser as you age, your point of view toward your subject will shift, too. What are the negative consequences to writing a book over a long period of time? How can I benefit from taking more time, and do this right? Should I go back to the beginning each time I’m away for a while? What if I never revisit my earlier material, and resume writing where I left off? How can I make my pieced-together book cohesive?
Your book is written and on its way to the printer. What’s next? You need to get people talking about it. A recent study by the Keller Fay Group, a marketing consulting firm, titled Finally Proof That Word of Mouth Isn’t Just Nice to Have But Drives Measurable ROI, reports that word of mouth is responsible for as many as 54% of buying decisions. So let’s look at some tools to help you create a buzz about your book.
You are writing a memoir. You have an amazing story to tell. Your account of the remarkable experiences you’ve had is sure to captivate readers… Hold on for a minute. Before you go any further, consider Douglas Crow’s comment on the Working Writers Blog: Nobody cares about your book. What people TRULY want is to improve THEIR lives. The only reason someone may find your story interesting is how it relates to them. The old radio station, WIIFM (what’s in it for me) is the most popular thought on the planet. The reason people read memoirs is to gather perspectives, insights and lessons that they can apply to their own experiences. The things which allow memoirists to connect with readers are universal themes viewed in a new or unique way. (See our post Writing a Memoir: Unless You’re a Celebrity It’s Not All About You) To tap those themes you as a memoirist could use some guidance from your potential audience. As they read your story, what touches them? How do you get that kind of feedback?
The New York Times’ Sunday Dialogue: Tumult in the Book World took on the question, “Can traditional bookstores survive the digital marketplace?” Reader Barry Brisco didn’t think so. His assessment of the situation is that the same thing which happened in the music and video business will happen with books: …because the barrier to entry is lower than in the past and the means of distributing the content is vastly more efficient. It will be the same with written expression. Writers will still enjoy creating stories using the written word, and people will still enjoy spending time with a “good book” — regardless of the technology used to consume it. Brisco’s view seems to represent pretty accurately the people who think that the changes in the publishing world will have few consequences beyond opening up the path to publication for authors. There’s a problem with that view. If self-publishing and e-books have eliminated the barrier to market entry they have also eliminated the processes that created a “good book” that people will still enjoy reading.
I was drinking my coffee this morning and perusing the Times Book Review. Flipping to page seven, I found a full page ad titled Brilliant books for your bookshelf! Normally I skip over the ads, but as I did some logos caught my eye – AuthorHouse, Trafford, and iUniverse. Going back a page I saw Xlibris with a full page under Fresh Ideas. Unforgettable Stories. Wow! Penguin’s new subsidiary Author Solutions out there at work for “self-publishing” authors. Having followed the tactics of Author Solutions (which includes imprints for AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Xlibris, Trafford and several others), I was interested in what I saw. A quick look at the Author House site indicated that the authors whose books had appeared paid $5,899 for the New York Times Media Marketing Package. What does that buy?
One of the first pieces of advice a novice writer is likely to hear is, “Show don’t tell.” But what does this really mean? Essentially it means learning how to use descriptive details to give your stories a sense of time and place and an emotional tone which will help readers feel what is going on in the story as you relate it. Let’s look at some ways to do that.
Most people who want to write a memoir or family history aren’t professional writers. For them the process of writing a book is a trip through uncharted territory. They are full of questions about how to go about the process. It’s been a while since I read William Zinsser’s, essay How to Write a Memoir written for The American Scholar in 2006. But when I reread it this afternoon I couldn’t help but believe that Zinsser packed more insight about what it means to write a memoir or family history into fewer words that anybody else has been able to do.
Anyone offering making suggestions to authors about how to sell their books includes the advice to exhibit at trade shows and book festivals. That can be a great idea. Or not. Nancy and I have attended two this year, the Tucson Book Festival and the L.A. Times Book Festival, and we’re gearing up for the Sonoma County Book Festival , Wordstock in Portland, Oregon this weekend and the Miami Book Fair International in November. We really enjoy the events and meet a lot of wonderful people, many of whom eventually become Stories To Tell clients. At the same time we have the opportunity to observe a wide variety of authors who are on hand to sell their books. The results appear to be all across the spectrum. Our advice to authors is simple: If you are going to market your book at events, do it right. Here’s how.
New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler asked himself, “What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?” The answers he discovered appeared in a piece in the Sunday Times titled The Stories That Bind Us. It should be required reading for genealogists and family historians. Feiler consulted Emory University psychologist Marshall Duke who had explored myth and ritual in American families. What he learned was that, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Family historians and genealogists must be onto something. The large majority of people I talk to about writing their family history say that their goal is to create something to pass on to the grandchildren. Writing a family history will, they hope, help those grandchildren have a greater sense of identity.
How much research is enough? When we speak at family history conferences we talk to many people who say they would like to write a family book. But not right now. They need to do a little more research before they weill be ready. I thought about those dedicated researchers recently as I was rereading Practicing History, a collection of essays by historian Barbara Tuchman, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, one for The Guns of August, an account of the first month of World War I, and the second for Stillwell and the American Experience in China. Tuchman offered a great piece of advice on when to quit researching and begin writing. She said: “The most important thing about research is to know when to stop. How does one recognize the moment? …One must stop before one is finished; otherwise, one will never stop and never finish."
You’ve traced your lineage back ten generations. You know who came over on the Mayflower, or crossed the Middle Passage on a slaver, or came steerage to Ellis Island. You have all the details documented to the highest possible level of proof. How do you pass the product of your years of diligent research on to the next generation? Put it in a book!