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    Tuesday
    Sep142010

    Whose Memoir is This Anyway?

    So you’re concerned that your siblings have a different recollection of your family’s history than the one you want to put in your book. Your concern is not unique.

    A melodrama of competing versions of a personal history is being played out today in the family of Ernest Hemmingway.

    When Hemmingway committed suicide in 1961 his memoir, A Moveable Feast, was unfinished. Mary Hemmingway, his fourth wife reviewed the unfinished material with an editor from Scribner’s and assembled a book which was published in 1964.  

    Fast forward forty-five years. Hemmingway’s son, Patrick, succeeded Mary Hemmingway who had passed away as his father’s literary executor.

    "I thought the original edition was just terrible about my mother," said Patrick. Mary Hemmingway had been the fourth Mrs. Hemmingway. Patrick’s mother was Pauline Pfeiffer, the second Mrs. Hemmingway. His concern was with the way the affair between Pauline and Hemmingway broke up his first marriage to Hadley Richardson.

    So Patrick set out to create a revised edition. Patrick’s son, Sean, served as editor for the new version. Ernest Hemmingway had written several versions of his book and saved all the drafts. The new edition makes use of versions that Mary Hemmingway had ignored in the first edition.

    In his notebooks Ernest Hemmingway had also said that the book was a work of fiction although conceding that fiction often contains true stories.

    Robert Fulford summed the situation up in Canada’s National Post online. He wrote, “So Hemingway revised reality as he half-remembered it, and Mary selected from his versions the material she wanted, and Sean made some different decisions. The 2009 book turned out to be a revision of a revision of a revision.”

    Your memoir or family history may never satisfy all of the members of your family. They may have their own memories of the events. If they want to share their version with others, they can write their own book. As for you, you might best be guided by novelist Gore Vidal’s comment on his own memoir, “a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life.”

    

    Sunday
    Sep122010

    What's Your Book's Theme?

    One of the most common obstacles faced by family historians is how to organize the mountain of research they have accumulated. The first advice they are likely to be given is to decide on the scope of their book. Should they choose a single line in their ancestry and trace its story. Or would it be better to start with a specific ancestor and look at all of that person’s descendants.

    Once the decision about scope is made a second question arises. What common underlying experiences or ideas, relationships or connections run through the lives of the ancestors you will write about?  In short, what is the theme that ties together your family’s history? Beyond the unique aspects of that experience how have the events experienced by the people you describe been part of the universal human experience?

    Here are some examples of themes in different kinds of family stories:

    • Wisdom, values or lessons and passed from generation to generation: That was the case for books written by both major presidential candidates in the last election. Barrack Obama in Dreams From My Father and John McCain in Faith of My Fathers.


    • Racial, ethnic or cultural identity:  It’s an experience Booker T. Washington captured in his autobiography Up From Slavery where he observed “my race must continue passing through the severe American crucible.” Frank McCourt was able to turn his Irish-American experience into a Pulitzer Prize winner with Angela’s Ashes. But you can give that experience an interesting twist as Jane Ziegelman did in 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement in which she uses the ethnic foods of the Germans, Irish, Italians and East European Jews on New York’s Lower East Side to tell their immigrant stories.

             

    • The migration west: Jane Applegate’s Snookum: An Oregon Pioneer Family’s History and Lore is an excellent example of documenting the experience of settling the frontier.
    • Family occupation or career: British novelist Robert Louis Stevenson used it to tell his family’s story in Records of a Family of Engineers. The book, recently published after work by the Gutenberg Project, explores the family firm that built most of Scotland’s lighthouses.
    • Political persecution: Kati Marton’s Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America tells the story of her parents, both Hungarian journalists who were imprisoned by the communist government after World War II and finally escaped to the United States after the failure of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

            

    In thinking about the theme for your book look for both what’s unique about the experiences of your ancestors and what universal lessons those experiences might teach your readers.

    

    Friday
    Sep102010

    Should you author an ebook for commercial publishing?

    It has been fascinating to watch the rapid evolution of ebooks, both as a technological platform and as a publishing platform. As a consumer, you may have already purchased an ebook reader, such as Amazon’s Kindle or the Nook from Barnes and Noble. Apple’s entry into the field with the iPad is expected to result in an explosion of new titles available to readers in the ebook format. Yet the workings of this industry behind the scenes, where books are actually created for delivery to these devices, is still evolving.

    The publishing of ebooks has upended and overturned the traditional model of commercial publishing. The traditional author worked through an agent, one who negotiated each book individually with publishing houses to determine the market value of a book. The author’s rights to print, web, and film could be negotiated separately. If the deal didn’t go through, the agent could shop the book around to other publishers.

    The ebook market is far less flexible for the author. Because the producers of these devices control the publishing platform, they get to set the terms. At Amazon and Apple, the terms are set: a 70/30 split. The difference comes in book pricing. Apple will sell every book on its iPad for $9.99, an arbitrary price point the author cannot control. Amazon is willing to offer ebooks at a significantly lower price. Although the 70/30 split is a higher percentage than the author could get from a traditional publisher, these low ebook prices will net far less for the author than the proceeds from a self-published trade paperback.


    Recently, Barnes and Noble announced the creation of PubIt!, their new ebook publishing division. Whether they can offer more attractive terms for authors remains to be seen.

    The stakes are higher than ever before. This isn’t just an issue of the author’s contract, whether he makes a few cents more or less per book. Because there are just a few giants in the ebook business, Apple, Amazon and Barnes & Noble don’t just sell the reading devices, they also control the distribution of ebooks. You can’t choose to shop at an independent bookstore down the street if you don’t like what they’re offering.

    Is it a good idea to publish your book in ebook form? You are not likely to make a profit from a wide readership, but an ebook can be useful to your existing readers. The multimedia form can offer a more complex experience. You can incorporate video and audio into the book experience. One of the best features of ebooks is the embedded internet links, opening up more avenues of exploration for the reader.

    Unfortunately, an ebook costs as much or more to produce than a print book: it requires writing, editing, and design, with more complexity. This is why so many ebooks you see for sale are actually promoting some other profitable venture, whether the print book, or a product or service. The ebook isn't a profit center, but it can be an effective loss leader.
    

    Wednesday
    Sep082010

    Are Ebooks Right for You?

    Online bookseller Amazon.com recently released a statement from CEO Jeff Bezos which said, “… customers now purchase more Kindle[ebook reader]books than hardcover books.”

    In a subsequent interview with USA Today Bezos added, “I predict we will surpass paperback sales sometime in the next nine to 12 months.”

    It’s enough to make anyone with an interest in books give some serious thought to what ebooks may mean for them.

    Our next two blogs will look at ebooks from two perspectives. Today we’ll look at the implications for authors creating a memoir or family history who intend limited distribution for family and friends. In our next post we’ll look at ebooks from the perspective of  authors seeking commercial distribution.

    If Your Goal is Preserving Your Personal or Family History - Print Books Are Best

    What about ebooks? How about that digital camcorder footage from the last family reunion? Perhaps this is enough to tell your stories, and you can be spared the trouble of writing a book.

    Whatever happened to those cassettes or VHS movies? Unfortunately, none of these technologies are reliable over time. Whatever happened to those cassettes or VHS movies? The Library of Congress, as well as other digital media experts, still advises us to document history on paper. Books can last for hundreds of years. Ironically, the lasting value of books is because they are “low tech” and don’t require a machine to operate.

    That doesn’t mean that a multimedia presentation isn’t engaging and valuable. Consider supplementing your book with a CD enclosure that holds all the photos you’ve published, and more that didn’t make it into the book. You might include audio or video recordings of family members. It is easy to create a companion ebook to accompany your book. Ask your editor or book designer how you can coordinate the two projects as you prepare your book.

    But if preservation is your primary goal take the advice of Dag Spicer, curator of the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, “…consider paper as an archival medium.”

    Monday
    Sep062010

    Publishers Weekly and Self-Publishing

    If there were any doubt about the impact of self-publishing on the industry, a quick look at the August 23rd post on the Publishers Weekly blog by PW President George W. Slowick Jr. would dispel it. The publication which carries the tagline "The International News Magazine of Book Publishing and Bookselling" announced a policy change.

    We are returning to our earliest roots. PW dates to 1872, when it was first known as Trade Circular Weekly and listed all titles published that week in what was then a nascent industry. We have decided to embrace the self-publishing phenomenon in a similar spirit. Call it what you will—self-publishing, DIY, POD, author-financed, relationship publishing, or vanity fare. They are books and that is what PW cares about. And we aim to inform the trade.”

    The quarterly supplement which will be titled PW Select promises a “complete announcement issue of all self-published books submitted during that period.” Each book will receive a listing will include author, title, subtitle, price, pagination, format, ISBN, a brief description, and ordering information. PW Select will choose 25 self-published titles for review.

    What Publishers Weekly’s announcement did not do was place self published books on the same footing as those published by commercial publishing houses. For authors who submit a self-published book for inclusion in PW Select, “a processing fee of $149 will be charged.”

    The reaction in the self-publishing community has been predictable.

    “$149 for a brief listing that no one will read, plus the miniscule chance of an actual review in a segregated section? I'm sorry to see PW joining the ranks of the many businesses out to fleece self publishers,” said Aaron Shepard in a comment on the Publishers Weekly website.  

    Another commenter, who did not identify himself by name, said, “PW has decided to launch a service that relatively few will be able to afford. So, in the end, rather than embracing any change, PW is simply laying down another type of self-appointed, financial “gatekeeper” to turn us away from the prize. Really disappointing.”

    An article in the Self-Publishing Review gave a somewhat more balanced view of PW’s new policy: “Great news!  Unfortunately, the way they’re “embracing” self-publishing is by charging a fee.  The way that self-publishing could truly be embraced is by recognizing that self-published titles can be as good as any other and reviewing them alongside other books.  But it still places self-published titles in a separate ghetto. An argument could be made that pay to play is built into the self-publishing model, so this isn’t a terrible development, but this has the feeling of milking self-published authors like so many other promotional schemes.”

    Whether you agree with the way they went about it or not, the important thing is that Publishers Weekly’s action recognizes that it and the industry it serves needs to find a way to address self-published books which are accounting for an increasing share of the book market each year.

    Click here to read the full post on Publishers Weekly.

    Click here to read the response on The Self-Publishing Review.

    Saturday
    Sep042010

    The Family Historian's Dilemma

    In a recent Matilda Butler, who along with Kendra Bonnet, blogs at Women’s Memoirs discussed an insight about family history she had while visiting the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California.

    Said Butler:

     I stood watching a video of interviews with workers who have contributed to the growth of Salinas over the past 100 years. I was struck by what was missing. One person described how his family, his grandparents, moved from the Philippines to Hawaii and then on to California. He said he didn’t know why they didn’t stay in Hawaii, he just knew that they moved to California several years before his father was born. Another man spoke about his parents leaving Italy for California. He didn’t know the year they moved to Salinas. The stories continued in this vein. It was interesting to see how many cultures have made a contribution to the farming in Salinas, but none of these descendants knew the details. They didn’t know what motivated their families to move or when they moved or what they found when they arrived or why they stayed.

     It was an eloquent statement of a dilemma faced by many family historians. While genealogical details of their family trees are complete, the stories of the people who inhabit its branches have been lost. A number of the conversations Nancy and I had with people at the Salt Lake Family History Expo focused on trying to find lost stories of ancestors.

    What is clear is that the longer you wait to get your family history started, the more likely it is this will happen to you. If you followed Nancy’s series on story recording over the last few days, you have some excellent guides to help you in gathering your family’s stories. [If you haven’t yet seen the series, take a look at our last four posts.] But whatever you do, talk with relatives to gather the stories they have and make sure they are preserved.

    You may wait to start your family history book, but don’t wait to gather the stories that will make it interesting and memorable for your readers when you do get it done.

     

    To read Matilda Butler's full post, click here.

    

    Thursday
    Sep022010

    Recording Stories with Speech Recognition Software

    Recently I have been corresponding with a blog reader, Edward, who has a lot of experience with recording his stories digitally. We both have used the prominent speech recognition software, Dragon Naturally Speaking. It seems like the perfect solution if you’re hoping to evade the onerous task of writing a book. Dragon has two modes: one in which you dictate with a microphone and it types as you speak, and another mode that transcribes audio files you have loaded from your handheld recorder.



    I sent Edward this excerpt, among others, from my book, Stories To Tell: A Guide to Self Publishing.

    “Another way to dictate into the computer is a software program called Dragon Naturally Speaking, which converts your speech to text. Unfortunately, this technology is not flawless. If you do decide to purchase this software, we offer this advice from long experience: edit the text immediately after recording. There is often an unintelligible gap between what you said and what was typed, and it is difficult to remember later what you meant to say. With practice and cautious, clear enunciation, Dragon Naturally Speaking can be a very helpful tool.”

    Edward replied to me:

    “I am somewhat ambivalent about Dragon. On the one hand, it eliminates the necessity of transcription, whether by me or someone else, but it is not as natural as I would like. If I become as informal in speaking as story telling really is for me “around the dining room table”, as you suggest, then my voice becomes less disciplined for the requirements of Dragon and my error rate increases. The necessity of remaining consciousness enough to speak properly for Dragon seems at times to detract from speaking naturally….a paradox, since it is called “Dragon Naturally Speaking”. At times, it is not “Naturally Speaking” enough for me. I think I sometimes use Dragon less than I might for that reason. As you say, it requires “practice and cautious, clear enunciation”, which isn’t necessarily conducive to relaxed, spontaneous story telling.”

    Edward and I also compared our versions of Dragon Naturally Speaking. (He has version 8, I have version 10, and yet we both struggle with inaccurate transcription when we speak "too naturally".) The manufacturer, Nuance, http://www.nuance.com/dragon/index.htm has recently released an updated version 11, which is advertised to have better speech recognition than ever before (a promise they have made repeatedly, in each previous issue.)

    What do you think about using speech recognition software? Have you tried Dragon Naturally Speaking, and has it worked well for you?
    

    Tuesday
    Aug312010

    Recording Powerful Stories for Memoirs

    We have been focusing on gathering stories through digital recording in the last few blog posts, with the focus on collecting digital recordings of stories from others, either through interviews or by telephone. To create a family history book, you often need to work with others who know the stories you want to preserve. But what if you are working on a memoir? You have far more control over the story recording process, because you are telling every story in the book.

    Many authors use dictation rather than typing, across all genres, but memoir writers have a great advantage over fiction writers. That is because a memoir writer is working from recall, rather than generating original content. (Imagine the science fiction writer dictating… “The year was 2184, no, make that 2258, on the planet Paradise, no, call it Utopia…”) Too much freedom and spontaneity can be a dangerous thing. Memoir writers are grounded by the fact that you are telling the truth, as you see it, and you have only one memory to work from. There is still plenty of creativity involved in writing a memoir, of course, in how to describe your remembered experience.

    The example of the science fiction writer above illustrates the first rule of story recording: do your planning first. It is only after you have decided the story to tell, and thought about what you want to say, that you should record.

     You can do a great job with your stories with some forethought. Consider this general definition of a story: it is centered on one event, which takes place at one time and place. If you can narrow your story in this way, you will control the action of the story (event) and describe the setting more effectively (time and place). Think of your chapter as a string of these specific, finite stories, and your book will be better structured and more pleasurable for the reader.

    Once you have a plan for your story, the artistry of the oral storyteller can truly shine. How? In the choices you make on the sentence level, and in your choice of words. Your distinctive style of speaking, your “voice’, will b captured as you tell your story, lending your book far more style than if you attempted to write it.

    This artistry is far more likely to occur if you are relaxed and feeling expansive. To relax, get prepared. Rehearse the story once in your mind from beginning to end, and think about details you would like to add in. Usually, in our “first draft” we tell the facts of the story, but with some thought we can add in more colorful details. Recall with all your senses: sights, sounds, smells how it tasted and felt to the touch. Then, when you record your story, include those details to supplement the facts to l make it “real” to the reader.

    Some of our authors use notes to stay on track. If you are concerned that you can’t tell the story in order naturally, a written list of points you want to make can be handy. Or they can be distracting and ruin your storytelling “flow”. It’s up to you. Whatever you do, don’t write out the story and read it into the recorder, as this is usually a summary, not a true story.

    Many storytellers begin by “circling”, trying to contextualize the story in its time and place. It doesn’t “sound good”, but it’s natural, and if you just press onward the story will unfold. Remember, this is just your first draft. You can always add content if you forget something by recording more later, and you can change or delete content easily once you have the story typed up. Story recording allows you to quickly generate the bulk of your book. Then you can refine the content on paper to make your stories shine.

    

    Sunday
    Aug292010

    How to Record Family Stories by Telephone

    If you are currently researching your family history and interviewing relatives for stories, digital recording makes it possible to gather material from far-flung sources. Most of your relatives would tell you that writing is not a practiced skill that they enjoy. If you ask them for written family stories, you are sure to be disappointed. If instead of writing, you ask a family member to tell a story as you record it, you will find that they are relieved and far more helpful.

    One excellent method to record others at a distance is by telephone. Everyone has experience telling stories over the phone, so your subject will be relaxed at the prospect. The technology you use depends on your equipment at home. There are analog devices that can be attached to your landline, if you only use a traditional phone. The recorder is connected to the telephone line. Later, you will need to convert the analog recording to digital, but the quality of landline phone signals is superior, and result in good recordings.

    If you are a computer user, call recording over the internet is very inexpensive. Be aware that this method has limits if you are doing important archival recording. Because this is VOIP, (voice over the internet), your call recording quality can be subject to odd momentary drop-outs. However, if you are simply gathering the story to be transcribed, these blips should not interfere.

    When you are using VOIP for call recording, make sure the phone connection is working well. Do not allow your subject to record with a cell phone. Cell phones and the internet don’t play well together. They result in noisy, indecipherable recordings and dropped calls.

    Many people download the free software Skype to call their relative from their computer. If your relative also has Skype, a Skype-to-Skype call is free. (If they have a landline, you’ll need to pay to call out from Skype to the local telephone network, but it is very inexpensive.) Skpe even has video to video, if your subject has a webcam. Not everyone enjoys that kind of eye contact as they tell a story, though, so give it a trial run befor attempting to gather a family story this way.

     

    There are a number of call recording software programs that work well with Skpe, for tteleophone or video, that silently run in the background as you speak. We recommend MP3 SkypeRecorder. It starts up automatically, and then automatically saves the file that contains your recording.

    If you are doing a large scale project, we have set up an extensive system that works wonderfully using the software Trixbox. In this case, we don not initiate the call, or interview the storyteller in a two-way dialogue. Instead, storytellers dial our toll-free number and are connected to a personal voice mailbox, where they can record as many stories as they like. They can also call when the mood strikes them, rather than setting up an interview. It is a good method for the motivated, but doesn’t work with reluctant relatives who need you on the other end of the line to encourage then to speak. Trixbox allows you to control the quality of your VOIP recording, but is requires a dedicated computer server and some effort to set up, so it is appropriate only if you are gathering digital audio recordings on a larger scale, over time.

    Telephone recording may require a little coaching from you, so that your subject is willing and able to share many stories this way. Encourage them to speak casually, to tell the story as they would face to face with another person. If it can be arranged, invite another person to sit in on the recording session to listen to the story. You’re more likely to receive stories recorded in vivid, full detail if the storyteller is enjoying the experience and feels “heard”.

    

    

    Friday
    Aug272010

    Gathering Family Stories: When, Who, Why, How 

    Gathering your family stories is a different kind of research. They are rarely found in books, in libraries, or online. Genealogical records can only hint at the rich truths in the lives our ancestors have lived. This is just another reason why we, who live now, are so fortunate. Even though much may never be known, we can leave a far more detailed record of what we do know for our descendants.

    Stories are always the greatest challenge to acquire, as are all rare and valuable treasures. This is because they are stored in human memory, and communicated in the context of a relationship. Memories, and relationships, can be faulty and limited. Moreover, many family historians use a hit-or-miss approach to gathering these stories. If they do not feel confident, they are less likely to preserve and publish the stories they do know.

    I often hear miraculous tales about people who chanced on a fantastic family story, entirely by coincidence. What joy they feel as they retell that odd tale! Already, though, there is a chance of details slipping away, lost between successive tellers. All the more reason to preserve and publish family stories, while they are available and fresh.

    The obvious, common obstacles are time, distance, and simply knowing what to do. (I’ll save dealing with recalcitrant relatives for a whole other article.) Assuming you are willing to give some time to your family history, prioritize your story gathering with my favorite adage “living things first”. Facts already preserved in a book may wait, but 85-year old Aunt Ida may not be around that much longer. Make a list of all the living people who are repositories of family knowledge, and go after them!

    But the distance is the problem, you say? No worries. Telephone conversations can be recorded. There is even video chat, if your interview would go better face-to-face, and you can often find some young person on the far end to facilitate the technology. Recording truly is the way to go. It simply is too much to ask someone else to write on your behalf. It never seems to get done, and you can alienate your subject when you ask for the impossible.

    Instead, make a list of what you want most from each individual, and charm their stories from them. How? If you can, visit in person and bring a small, thoughtful gift related to your family history. Come prepared to ask just a few questions (and hope to come back later with more.) Start with facts that aren’t threatening, just reestablishing the public record. Ask your subject what he or she thinks is important to be preserved, before sharing what you think is important. You may elicit more treasures simply by listening without revealing a detailed agenda. Don’t stand in the way of the stories by interacting too much, or you will wind up with a recording of yourself. Encourage monologues, and nod a lot.

    Let’s assume you visit a number of relatives, and you’ve recorded all those sessions. What now? You must separate the wheat from the chaff. I use an excellent audio editing program you can download free, Audacity. Keep the originals, and listen to a copy, erasing the chitchat and preserving the history. Then it’s just a matter of sending your audio to a transcriptionist, and voilà! You have not-so-instant written family stories for your book. It really is easier than you think.

    We’re at the Salt Lake Family History Expo at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy, Utah this weekend. Come by and see us to learn more.

    

    Wednesday
    Aug252010

    Printing Choices in Self-Publishing

    One of the most important choices a self-publishing author has to make is who should print her book. To decide, she needs to know a little bit about the types of print processes she may choose from.

    Joel Friedlander in his blog, The Book Designer, presents a good, brief overview of the options in his Self-Publisher’s 5-Minute Guide to Book Printing Processes.

    He begins with a summary of the three most common processes available today.

    Letterpress-used “from Gutenberg’s day until the middle of the twentieth century.” In this process metal plates are “inked and then paper is rolled over them, transferring the image to the paper, one sheet at a time.”

    Offset Printing – a technology developed at beginning of the 20th Century which creates an image transferred to paper by a rubber covered cylinder.

    Digital – which is the fastest growing print technology today , marries a computer-driven high-speed copying machine to computer-driven bindery equipment.

    ”The major difference between letterpress and offset printing, on one hand, and digital, on the other,” says Friedlander, “is that digital printing is designed to create one copy of a book at a time. The other, earlier methods of printing produce books in stages, and only work efficiently when producing many copies at once.”

    In choosing the printing method which is best for you, you need to consider the intended audience, the purpose of the book and the number of copies to be printed. Friedlander offers the following rules of thumb to consider for each print process:

     “Letterpress printing is used almost exclusively for fine, limited edition books …These books are usually made with lavish materials and can cost hundreds of dollars each.”

     “Offset printing is used for the majority of books produced today. Web offset is used to make mass market paperbacks, like the ones sold in racks at supermarkets and at airports, and for very large printings of other books. Sheet-fed offset book printing offers the best quality reproduction of artwork and photography, and is the most flexible when it comes to the number of sizes offered for books and the different kinds of paper available for printing…Use web offset for mass market and very high volume books that don’t need to be high quality. Use sheet-fed offset for print runs over 500 copies or where high quality reproductions are needed.”

    Digital printing is increasingly being used in the print-on-demand distribution model that’s becoming so popular…The self-publishing phenomenon has created a huge demand for digital printing through print-on-demand distribution, since it has eliminated almost all of the cost of putting a book into print…Use digital printing where print runs are very short or where you have no need of an inventory of books.”

    Click here to read the full Self-Publisher’s 5 Minute Guide to Book Printing Processes

    Monday
    Aug232010

    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.

    

    Saturday
    Aug212010

    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.

    

    Thursday
    Aug192010

    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.

    Tuesday
    Aug172010

    Truth & Story Telling in Memoir & Family History

    In a recent interview with the torontoist.com 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