When you set out to write a person’s life story – your own in a memoir, an ancestor’s story in a family history, or a biography – one of the most difficult problems is deciding what to leave out. Many of us, particularly if we are inexperienced writers, see our principal job as reporting. We try to create a factual chronicle of what happened. All events great and small. That’s legitimate, but it’s not necessarily very dramatic, or interesting. If we want to engage our readers we need to root around in the facts to discover the stories buried there, because stories create meaning from events.
Meghan Ward, the author of the Writerland blog, which I follow, offered some interesting and useful advice to her readers in her post 10 Steps to Becoming a Self Publishing Superstar . I was particularly interested in Step 4: “If you do decide to self-publish, you should hire a freelance editor (even if you have excellent editing skills yourself) and book designer, so that your book is as professional as it would be if it were published by one of the Big 6.” It’s something I often tell authors I talk to. If you think about it for a moment the reason it’s sound advice is obvious.
In science fiction and fantasy, writers refer to it as “world building”. They must create a believable universe that allows a reader to feel as if she were there. But the problem is the same for writers dealing with less fanciful settings. Strunk and White observed in The Elements of Style, that, “If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on one point it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the reader is to be specific, definite and concrete. The greatest writers…are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter.”
One of the best things about recent changes in book publishing technology is that today it’s easy to make a book fully illustrated. The question is how to use illustrations to the best advantage. You may find that you have many more photographs or other possible illustrations that you’ll have space for. How do you decide which make the cut and get into the book?
The gathering and organization of biographical details is the initial task of any memoirist or family historian. For a memoirist it’s a matter of recalling the event. For a family historian it’s a matter of researching them. In either case one collects a list of factual events and experiences, usually assembling them into a chronological sequence. But as William Zinsser wrote in his Introduction to Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography, “Research, however, is only research. After all the facts have been marshaled, all the documents studied, all the locales visited, all the survivors interviewed, what then? What do the facts add up to?”
The next time somebody asks you why family history is important you might want to share a story that recently appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. In January, 2011, Ed Lee, was chosen by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors to serve as interim mayor to fill the remaining year of the term of Gavin Newsom who had been elected Lt. Governor. Lee was the first Chinese American to become mayor of a major American city. A few weeks ago Lee, who had previously said he would not be a candidate, decided to run for mayor in the upcoming election. What does family history have to do with city politics? Chronicle reporter heather Knight explains, “Shortly after Ed Lee became interim mayor in January, the rumor spread around Chinatown…Lee, the whisperers said at banquets and festivals, was not a Lee at all.”
Writers can use mind maps in two distinctly different ways. The first is visual brainstorming to trigger creativity and capture ideas. It’s sometimes referred to as clustering. From a central idea you create radials leading to related sub topics. Each subtopic may suggest additional details radiating out from them. The second way to use mapping is to focus on details.
We’ve explored, in recent posts, some technological tools to help you organize your memoir or family history book project. Today let’s look at a low tech, or even no tech, approach to the organizational process.
I just spoke with an old friend who lives in Roanoke, Virginia, about the earthquake that shook the east coast the other day. It was no big deal – she heard a few shelves rattling, but most of her coworkers in the office didn’t feel a thing. How about the local schools – any kids hurt? No. How about at the earthquake's epicenter, anyone hurt there? Nope, not really.
Why did we keep probing, looking for more damage? How could we be disappointed that this wasn’t a bigger catastrophe? I suppose it’s human nature. We don’t actually want injuries to schoolchildren; what we want is large-scale drama.
Since the earthquake was no big deal, our talk turned to other, bigger catastrophes we have experienced. I recalled that time my home was lost in a flood, and she remembered an electrical fire and how she, terrified, had to rouse the children to escape in the middle of the night. Soon, we were having a wonderful time, telling lurid tales of disaster. Have you ever done this? I am sure you have.
There is something about catastrophic events that makes life more precious and our roles on life’s stage more important. We enjoy putting ourselves at the center of truly big events, acknowledged to be game-changers, and we want to assert that we were there, experiencing it all first-hand.
How does this apply to memoirs and family histories? In my experience, memoirists expect to tap into their catastrophes for all they’re worth. Not only are memoirists convinced that their stories have dramatic merit, they intend from the outset to explore both the highs and lows of their lives.
Family historians often miss this opportunity. Perhaps it is because their sources are factual and dry, so the author is not viscerally aware of the powerful dramatic events that took place. Reading some first-hand accounts of catastrophes that took place in an ancestor’s life will help you to tell these stories with the drama they deserve.
Some family historians prefer to keep the image of the family’s past upbeat and positive, to cast all ancestors in a heroic light. Our culture rewards striving and success, and instead of sympathy, there is a tendency to blame people for their suffering and deprivation.
This is no excuse to sanitize history. We learn a great deal from lessons of hardship – just think of our ongoing fascination with the Great Depression, or recently with Hurricane Katrina’s survivors. In fact, I would argue that catastrophes teach us to be better human beings. And isn’t that why we write family history and memoirs, to give insight to others?
One of the most wonderful results of recent changes in book publishing is that memoirs and family history books can now be fully illustrated books. Historic photographs will enliven the pages of your book and enhance your sketches of the characters about whom you write. Here are some online tools that may help you find what you are looking for.
Writing a book can be a very complex and daunting task, especially if you have never written one before. You have gathered a mountain of research and jotted down notes on ideas and anecdotes you want in the book. How do you get started and stay organized throughout the process? The Scrivener software program from Literature and Latte, a small shareware company, may be just the tool to help you do it.
How do you tell a great story? “Keep it narrative,” said Raney Aronson-Rath, Senior Producer of the PBS series Frontline. The rest of the panel recently convened by Pro Publica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, independent non-profit source of investigative journalism, and New York’s New School, agreed.
Author Bruce Bothwell describes how he revised his father's journals into a narrative form to make his book interesting and entertaining for readers.
NY Times reporter Alina Tugend told readers of her article, Options for Self Publishing Proliferate Easing the Bar to Entry,“…until recently I turned up my nose at authors who published their own books” But as there was more buzz about self publishing she decided, “The phenomenon was worth a second look.”
We are always looking for resources to recommend to people seeking to add depth and context to their memoirs and family histories. The National Women’s History Museum site is certainly such a resource. It defines its mission as to “…illuminate the role of women in transforming society…”