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    Bring an Ancestor to Life with a Biographical Sketch

    This post offers a look at how excellent historians have created biographical sketches to enliven figures in their books and how you can do it too.

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    What Makes a Good Memoir?

    This post looks at several answers to the question, "What makes a good memoir?"

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    Editing and Design Make Your Book Look Its Best

    See how working with a professional editor and book designer can give your self published book a look of professionalism.

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    The Value of a Journal 

    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.

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    Self Publishing Success Story

    Author Johnna Tuttle describes her experiences with writing, editing, designing, and self publishing.

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    Family History With Feelings

    "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.

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    More Sources of Photos for Your Family History Book

    Still looking for photos to illustrate your family history book? Here are two more excellent sites you will want to visit.

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    Images of Ancestors for Your Family History Book 

    This post offers suggestions of the best online sites to search for old family photos to use in illustrating your family history book.

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    Creating a Vivid Portrait of Distant Ancestors

    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.

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    How Family Historians Can Use Creative Nonfiction

    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.

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    A Chasm for Family History Writers

    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?

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    Guided Story Recording

    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.

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    Crowdsourced mapping

    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 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, 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?



    Using Memory Triggers to Gather Family Stories

    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



    Capturing Unique Speech in Your Family History

    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