When you begin to think about writing a memoir or family history it’s best to do so from two perspectives.
The first is, of course, your own perspective as the book’s author. What are your goals? Beyond creating a wonderful book, what do you want to do?
- To review my own life or family history, in order to understand it better
- To pass on family stories or my own story to future generations
- To leave a historical account of the times my ancestors or I have lived through
- To enjoy reminiscing and reliving the good times
- To heal from the painful experiences of my life or that of my family
- To recount the challenges my ancestors or I have overcome or what we have achieved
- To publish my book for a commercial audience.
Whatever your goals, if you understand them clearly, they will guide you in developing a logical plan for your book.
But there’s another perspective to consider as well. Who will read your book? Do you seek a commercial audience or plan to publish for a small audience of family and friends? Whichever answer fits your book, you might consider emulating biographer and historian Catherine Drinker Bowen, author of Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, The Lion and the Throne: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Cooke, which won a National Book Award and biographies of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Francis bacon, Bernard DeVoto and Benjamin Franklin. Bowen wrote her books with a sign which read “Will the reader turn the pages?” pinned up over her desk. Reflect upon the goals you established for your book and now related them to your intended audience.
Here’s an exercise to help you do it:
Consider the following passage, and then write a brief description of your audience – your relationship to them, their interests, and what you want to tell them.
- Consider your book a direct communication with the people who will read it. If you are speaking to children and grandchildren, consider what they want and need to know. Imagine the young child who is fascinated with family history – what will you leave for that special child?
- In contrast, if you’re writing for an adult audience, your style and story choices will differ. Who are the adults who will read your book? How will they react? What will interest them?
Understanding your audience will help make sure that your readers keep turning the pages.