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Stories To Tell Books BLOG

World Building in Memoir and Family History Books

Biff Barnes

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.”

That specific, definite, concreteness grows in large part out of the author’s ability to give his reader a sense of the time and place about which he’s writing. It’s a challenge in fiction, certainly, but it’s just as important in non-fiction like memoir or family history.

The memoirist or family historian must transport his reader back in time to a day, and possibly a way of life, gone by.

One can capture the sense of place by creating an image that allows the reader to feel what it was like to be there. Harper Lee, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, places her readers on the town square in Maycombin the 1930s, where the story is set, by choosing a few specific details.

“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks., the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oak trees on the square.”

An author who may not possess the same literary skill as Lee might choose to rely simply on a carefully chosen set of facts to create a setting for his reader.

Robert L. Duffus began his career in journalism in 1911, joining the San Francisco Bulletin, immediately after graduating from Stanford University. When he wrote his memoir of that career, Tower of Jewels: Memories of San Francisco, he used a very simple, but effective, technique to carry his readers back to the days in which he began.

“The World Almanac in 1911 made two bold statements: first, ‘Students of the industry assert that the day is not far distant when the power-driven wagon, in its various forms, will entirely displace horses in the great centers of population’; second, ‘The movement in behalf of universal peace between the nations has made great progress in recent years in the interest it has created and in the number and character of its advocates.’”

“That excellent reference book furnished other information that is still of significance. The United States produced 190,000 automobiles during 1911. Its population was 92,174,515. The average income of bankers and brokers, those sinful children of luxury, as some of us impetuous youngsters regarded them, was $7,726. The public debt was $2,831,330,305.66, and it was expected that the 66 cents would soon be paid off. In 1911, Congress appropriated $663,725,794.84, and some persons said the 84 sense was sheer waste.

There was no Federal income tax in 1911, although one was soon to be authorized by constitutional amendment. I supported this amendment, in the belief that I would never have enough income to pay any tax. The national death rate was about 15 a thousand. In San Francisco – a fascinatingly dangerous place – it was about 20 a thousand. First class postage was two cents an ounce domestic, five cents an ounce foreign. Mail went overseas by steamer.

In 1911 Calbraith P. Rogers made a record-breaking airplane flight across the continent: he left New York City on Sept. 17 and arrived in Pasadena, California, on Nov. 5.

In 1912 California was to be the sixth state to adopt woman suffrage.

Most of these things seemed natural and normal to me in 1911 and 1912. Those that weren’t natural and normal were news, some of which I wrote.”

In writing your own past in memoir or family history, don’t ignore the importance of world building. Make sure the reader can experience the world in which the events you describe occurred.