Follow STTBooks on Twitter

Our Author's Guide

view on

This form does not yet contain any fields.

    Family History and Memoir: Making Choices

    ”Photographs from the past are familiar to anyone trying to write a memoir or a family history–all those long-forgotten men and women begging to be remembered and to have their story put in some kind of order,” says William Zinsser in his column in The American Scholar.

    Zinsser, the author of the classic book On Writing Well and more recently Writing About Your Life, teaches classes on writing memoir and family history at both The New School and Columbia University School of Journalism. Speaking of both the photographs themselves and the stories that accompany them, he says, “My writing students have been bringing family images to my memoir class for 20 years.”

    Like nearly everyone seeking to create a personal history Zinsser’s students are often overwhelmed by the task of trying to sort and organize. They struggle to decide what must be included and what can safely be left out. Are there skeletons in the family closet better left unrattled?

    Many memoirists and family historians are so intent on “doing it right” that never manage to get these questions answered. They never complete their projects and their books remain unwritten.

    Zinsser’s advice is simple, “……there’s just much too much stuff in the cluttered attic of memory. I can only offer one word of salvation: Reduce! You must decide what is primary and what is secondary.”

    A family historian trying to document the distant past spanning several generations faces different challenges from one recording first hand memories that extend to the present day. A memoirist may not want to write a “tell all” book. The choices are up to you. There are no wrong answers.

    Once you’ve decided what belongs in your book, don’t look back. “Don’t ask: “What will my sister think?” says Zinsser.  “If your sister has a problem with your memoir she can write her own memoir.”

    Click here to read Zinsser’s full article.



    The Story of a Self-Published Family History

    Ralph Jensen’s family gets it. They tell their story about the rewards and challenges of writing and self publishing a family history in The Journal Times.

    Jensen, a resident of Racine, Wisconsin, who will be 85 years old this year, is the repository for stories passed on orally by his parents and grandparents dating back to the family’s arrival from Denmark in 1888. Jensen didn’t want those stories to get lost.

    "I talk to so many people who don't know their family history and seem to have no knowledge of who their grandparents were. I wanted to put some of the history that I know down in writing so that another generation from now, people would know what went on in our family," said Jensen.

    "My Dad's a story teller," said Jensen’s son Mark, in an in an interview with The Journal Times of Racine. "It seemed a shame to not have those stories captured somewhere."

    The process of getting the stories into print became a two-year family project involving Jensen's wife Carol and their four grown children. The result, My Memories: A Brief History of the R.L. Jensen Family From 1888 to the Present, was recently self-published by (Note: is a favorite on-demand printer we use frequently. Good choice, Jensens!)

    The Jensens learned why we always advise clients to work with a professional editor. "Seven of us proof read it and things still slipped through," Ralph said.

    That mattered little to Jensen’s daughter Heidi. "It's not just a book," she said. "It is an important part of my father's family history. I'm going to keep it in a special spot, so that I always know where it is and I hope that the grandchildren and even great grandchildren will some day have the same feeling about it."

    Mark Jensen is considering a second volume which will include his own memories as well as stories that didn’t make it into his father’s book. "This may be something we continue over a long period of time," he said.

    Click here to read the full article from The Journal Times.



    Use Photos to Tell Stories in Your Book

    Selecting photos to use in a memoir or family history book can be a tricky business. One way to choose is to decide which photos can stand alone, which express both the ideas and the emotions that tell a story.

    Noupe Blog writer Aquil Akhter explores how the images created by photo journalists do exactly that. “It is their objective to produce direct, truthful and bold images that tell the stories for those who have no voice,” says Akhter.

    Photo journalist Mark Hancock explains the responsibility he and his colleagues face. “At all times, we have many thousands of people seeing through our eyes and expecting to see the truth. Most people immediately understand an image.”

    Akhter’s post examines 35 Powerful Photos That Tell a Story. Some are horrendous, like the 1994 World Press Photo of the Year, which shows a man in Rwanda mutilated by a Hutu militia. Others are spectacular, like a shot of Igauzu Falls in Brazil. Still others are inspiring, like Cameron Herweynen’s photo of a joyful young boy running along a road in Malawi.

    Click here to view all these exceptional photos. You may or may not understand the full story that each image contains,(we need text for that) but undoubtedly you will be struck by powerful emotions.

    When you have choices to make about which photos should illustrate your own book, think about the stories they will convey to your reader. What is the emotion you hope to evoke? Powerful images will increase the impact of the written stories in your book.



    A Plan to Complete Your Book in a Year

    Writing a book can be a daunting prospect. Many more people begin a book than those who complete one. What can you do to help assure your memoir or family history will go to print? Get over any notions about artists and inspiration. Instead, approach the task methodically and systematically.

    Melissa Butler in the Writing, Self-Publishing and Book Marketing Blog offers some sound advice. She addresses it to novel writers, but it is equally applicable to someone writing non-fiction. Says Melissa, “Writing a novel is a huge task, but looking at the big picture makes it appear much larger than it needs to be. Think of writing as a process, rather than an end product.”

    She recommends that you think not about writing 300 pages, but about writing one page – today. By committing half an hour to an hour a day, five days a week, you can plan and create your book in a year. If you don’t have quite that much time, that’s okay. Commit to what you do have and recognize that it will eventually lead to a completed book.

    Drawing upon ideas in Bill O’Hanlon’s article Baby Steps, which appeared in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, Butler offers two methods to organize your time.

    What both come down to is committing to a month or so to plan your book, and then to write 250 to 500 words a day. The specifics are less important than the consistency of output.

    Remember that despite our best intentions, life occasionally gets in the way of our plans. When it does, return to your writing schedule as soon as possible.

    If you want to formalize your plans you can sign up for the 250 or 500 words a day challenge on the InkyGirl Blog. Click here to read Butler’s full article.



    Focus, For Books People Want to Read

    Sunday’s New York Times Book Review reminded us that sometimes taking a much narrower focus makes for a better story. Two somewhat offbeat memoirs were reviewed - Lay the Favorite: A Memoir of Gambling by Beth Raymer and Wide Awake: A Memoir of Insomnia Patricia Morrisroe. The lesson? A memoir or family history need not be a complete, chronological life story to be interesting.

    In Lay the Favorite: A Memoir of Gambling, Raymer seeks to give her readers a glimpse into a universe far different than their own. As reviewer Lynn Harris summarizes, “Six 40-inch televisions, each showing a different sport; a banquet table cluttered with hockey digests and Yoo-Hoo; the boss sausaged into tube socks and armed with a copy of Hide You’re A$$ets and Disappear: no this is not your typical workplace. But then, professional sports betting – a sordid, florid microworld lurching along the edge of society, not to mention legality – is not your typical job.”

    To read the reviews,


    In Wide Awake: A Memoir of Insomnia, Morrisroe, an insomniac, seeks the cause of and a solution for her condition among over 80 identified forms of sleep disorder. Reviewer Robert Pinsky says that she, “shapes this material as a personal narrative of her quest for better sleep, an odyssey of encounters with various drug researchers and dispensers, psychotherapists and mystics and conference-goers, as well as a range of savants, bullies, discoverers, profiteers, innovators and at least one sage.”

    These two books demonstrate that the key to writing a good memoir is finding and exploring what’s unique about you, your history and formative experiences. Then the goal is to present your knowledge in a way that is compelling, one that will allow your reader to share your experience.


    After 100 Years Memoir Preserves Stories & History

    Why do we believe that preserving family stories is so valuable? A recent article in the Prescott Arizona Daily Courier offers an excellent illustration.

     The newspaper reported about a new book, All My People Were Killed: The Memoir of Mike Burns (Hoomothya), A Captive Indian. It was published by the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott, Arizona exactly 100 years after Burns first tried to get his stories into print.

     Burns’ story recounts an 1872 incident at Skull Canyon, Arizona, in which U. S. cavalry troops killed 75 Yavapai and Apache men, women and children, including all of Burns’ own family. The then seven-year old Burns was raised by cavalry officers and their wives. He eventually served as a scout for General George Crook during the latter’s campaigns against the Souix. Following his military service, Burns returned to Arizona and lived out his life on the Yavapai McDowell Reservation, dying in 1934.

     The book’s publication meant a lot to Burns’ descendants. "I wish the older ones were alive," Walker said. "They really would have liked to see the book,” said Burns' granddaughter, Leonardine Walker, who was two years old when Burns died in 1934. "This is what he wanted. He wanted to tell his side of the story." Burns' great-granddaughter Gail Hunnicutt said, "We're just grateful for this book to be brought out. It's been a long time coming."

     The value to the family is important. But Burns’ story, like any memoir or family history that recounts events in a time and place, is a document of broader historical value. "It is important that this diary has at last come to light," wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning author N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa Indian. "By knowing Mike Burns in his time and place, we know better ourselves and our country."

     Click here to read the full Daily Courier article.


    There's More Than One Way to Write a Book

    If you are interested in family history and haven’t yet discovered the Family History Expo, we recommend the experience highly. We had a chance this past weekend in Loveland, Colorado, to speak with many people like ourselves who are interested in family history, and more specifically, how to present that history in a book.

    As presenters at the expo, the time limit forces us to generalize about subjects that are actually fairly complex and often a matter of choice and creative license. For example, many people ask us about the organization of the book, and the obvious answer is to provide them with a chronological method that makes sense of all that research.

    However, who says that you must place every element within that framework in chronological order? For the sake of telling an engaging, dramatic story, some literary devices might improve your book. A chapter or section might benefit from a reflective introduction. Told from your point of view in the present looking back, for instance, a first person introduction allows us to explore the consequences of those events long ago and sets the stage for the reader’s journey into the past.

    There are also technical book-making ideas that I never get enough time to explore at length when I speak with friends at the expo. For example, there is a problem that is unique to illustrated books. You may have wonderful images, yet if they are very detailed, you can’t see the details as well as you would like. We’ve all become wonderfully spoiled with the computer’s ability to “zoom in”, so that books seem inadequate in comparison.

    The solution? Maybe some day down the road it will be to produce an ebook. Ebooks have so many multimedia capabilities that books do not. However, they have significant downsides. All digital media are fragile and in a state of rapid evolution – remember BetaMax, and all your cassette tapes?

    There is a good compromise, in the meantime, as we wait for something better and more reliable that the book to come along. (Not in my lifetime, I’ll bet.) Just have your book designer create a companion CD, and affix it to the rear cover of the book. You can supplement the book with high resolution images (this is why it is so essential to have your scans done correctly) and audio, if you are fortunate enough to have recordings. You can even design the CD with a linked table of contents or an index that will align the contents of the book with the contents of the CD. This allows your reader to go directly to the source, and to zoom in (or set the volume) as they wish.

    I’m still thinking some of the other threads I left dangling at the Expo. That’s the benefit of talking with interesting people; it opens up more ideas for exploration. Don’t you think?


    Is Self-Publishing for Commercial Distribution for You?


    Digitizing Audio and Video Cassette Tapes


    Advice on How to Digitize Your Photos


    Advice on How to Digitize Your Documents 


    Preserve Your Personal and Family Memorabilia - Digitize It


    Family History - Get Started on Your Book


    Family History Website or Book? Both!


    2 Reasons You Don't Need a Ghost Writer for Your Memoir