Your Writing Journey

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Your Writing Journey

This is your writing journey. It becomes what you make of it. Making writing a regular part of your life greatly contributes to how successful you will be in completing your project.

I know. I have so many projects that have sat on the shelf for years, untouched, and still at the place they were five or six years ago when I thought of them. If you don’t make writing a regular habit, that’s where your family story will be.

I don’t know if you’re a writer that wants to add this project to your list. If you are, you already know that regular writing – daily if at all possible – is important.

If writing is new to your life, but you want to share your family’s tales, kudos to you! It may not be something that you work on every day. You may research in spurts, and write on and off throughout the year. But the more regular you are, the faster progress you’ll make. Plus, I find after extended periods of time of not working on something, it’s harder to get back in the thick of things. If I work on a project, at least once a week, the characters, scenes, and events stay fresh in my mind. If it’s been several months or a year or two since I’ve touched it, I almost have to re-learn the details again.

I found that the more I worked with family stories and memories, either of my own, or the loved ones I talked to, the more my mind paid attention to fragments of the past that would drift through. I’d be getting ready for work and…poof…a brief memory would surface. I’ll remember that, I’d tell myself. Ha! Not so. By the time I’d get to work, work all day and return home, that memory was long gone from my mind. I started keeping a small journal on my nightstand and in my purse. When these elusive tidbits would surface, I’d jot down at least a few words, names, or details. Another notebook is filled with notes I made after talking to my mom on the phone. Yes, sometimes many things got repeated, but it sure kept a lot of fragments from disappearing into the ether – never to be heard from again.

Try to schedule some time for this writing journey you’ve embarked on. It may be one evening, a few hours on a weekend, or it may involve getting up an hour earlier to have some quiet time to write. The more you make room in your life for your writing journey – the closer you’ll be to typing ‘The End’ at the end of your tribute to your family.

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X’ Marks the Spot

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X’ Marks the Spot

Giving your story a sense of place is very important to drawing the reader into your tale. Setting the scene and providing specific details is an art unto itself. Here are a few tips:

If the story is in a certain location, research before you write. Specific details about landmarks, how the town is laid out, where the park is, the woods at the edge of town, the breweries on one end, the train tracks and depot on the other; these will all help you create an authentic feeling tale.

A town’s history may influence actions and events later on. When I was researching for Fat and Sassy, I discovered that with the flu epidemic in Glendora (many years before the period of time I was writing about) that when library books were returned, they had to be wrapped up and held for a length of time before they could be used again. Basically, the town shut down. Even church services weren’t held. Now this was long before the 1940’s when the Jones’ moved to Glendora, but I wanted to include this historical tidbit. So I had the librarian mention this in a field trip my mom’s class took to the library.

What type of setting does this location lend to the story? Fat and Sassy, set in southern California had a moderate climate. When the family moved to Arkansas and Missouri, the winters there were much different, providing more specific details to include as the family battled severe cold and snow.

Who are the local merchants and people that your ancestors/characters will interact with? When my mom tells of pushing her younger brother to downtown Glendora, to buy 3-cent stamps for her mom, the postmaster was Edgar Murphy. Adding specific names adds a depth to the book, and provides some historical context.

Writing the Beginning

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Writing the Beginning

The beginning of your story is the most important part. You need to hook the reader and draw them in so that they keep reading. And that first paragraph is vital, including the first few pages that follow. There is not one way to start, and often you’ll find yourself revising and replaying the opening scene many times. Here are a few good ways to begin.

  • Begin the tale with an action or event that capture’s the reader’s attention and makes them want to keep reading to see what happens next.
  • Start with showing your ancestor in a unique situation.
  • Open with a question, something that creates curiosity in the reader’s mind.
  • Introduce the main character with a brief scene setting. You’ll want to place the characters in the location and give the reader a sense of place with specific details – briefly, not multiple paragraphs worth.

For some tips about what not to include in this key opening scene:

  • Don’t start at the beginning. A chronological family history is a fast way to lose your reader.
  • No backstory. Not here. Backstory is necessary, but you’ll weave it in later.
  • Not too many characters at first. A few main characters, and then gradually introduce others as you go through the story.
  • Limit locations as you start out, allowing the reader to get established in the characters and plot before jumping them all over.

But the most important part about the opening of your story…Just start! You can always change it, and you probably will. Many times. But the longer it takes you to put the first words on paper, the longer it will take before you get to ‘The End.’

Varieties of Family Stories

We’re long past the ‘V’ day of the A to Z Blog Challenge. In fact, today is ‘Z’ – the last day. But I’m frantically doing some last minute catch up on this blog. Sorry for the delay. V-W-X-Y-Z…coming right up!

Varieties of Family Stories

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You’ve set out to write your family story. But you keep hearing different genres thrown about. What genre does your family story fall into? It could be any of these.

Memoir: A memoir is highly personal and uses a narrow lens, looking at a snapshot in time. Now the snapshot may cover a period of many years, but it’s not a birth to now telling.

Marilyn Davis wrote about memoir on Two Drops of Ink. “Good memoirs find truth and Truth. Little truths and the Big Truths and in the writing process, the writer often finds the Universal Truth, and that will make a compelling experience for all.

Autobiography: An autobiography is also personal. You are the main character, and this will cover a longer scope of time, with a wider lens than a memoir would have.

Biography: A biography’s main character would be someone else, not you as the author. It could be a significant family member. The scenes and events would be filtered through their connection to the main character.

Historical Fiction: Historical fiction is just that. It’s historical and may be based on actual events and happenings, but it will be largely fictionally created. When I wrote my story, Fat and Sassy, it was based on my grandparents and my mom and her siblings when they were young. I had a lot of real events and memories that I drew from, but had to embellish so much to create a tale, that I ventured into historical fiction. It’s not a true family history, as it didn’t go into my grandparents earlier days, or their family tree before them.

Using Tag Words in Writing Your Family Stories

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Using Tag Words

Typically in writing using tag words refers to dialogue tags. He said. She screamed. They murmured. She whispered. Dialogue tags is a whole other subject, which we won’t get into here. Common advice is recommending not getting too fancy with the words chose for dialogue tags. The experts, or those icons we follow and learn from, say that simply using ‘said’ is the preferred tag. It’s considered an invisible word, one that doesn’t register with the reader. It’s also recommended that you use an action in conjunction with the sentence to inform the reader who is speaking without using any dialogue tag at all.

For example: Sally pulled her hair back and gave it an exasperated tug. “I don’t believe this.”

But, for our post here, we’re talking about tag words, which have a different purpose.

As we’re writing our family stories, be they fully true and accurate or partially fictional, we’re usually writing about an event or a person from the past. It may be long before our time; ‘before we were a gleam in our father’s eye’ as Grandma would have said. We may have been at the event, but been so young we wouldn’t have remembered or been aware of what happened. But somehow we need to take this small snippet of history and bring the scene to life.

Yet, we don’t want to mislead or intentionally misrepresent either.

By using tag words, we can let the reader know we are speculating. Some tag words you might use are:

‘Probably,’ ‘perhaps,’ ‘most likely,’ ‘almost certainly,’ ‘for all we know.’

The Family History Writing Studio shares that author Lisa Knopp called this technique “perhapsing.” They also mentioned another method used by author John Phillip Colletta, where the speculation is addressed as an instruction at the beginning of the story.

So, even though you may not know exactly what happened, or what words were spoken, don’t let that stop you from telling your family tales. Use your research and the historical knowledge that can be documented. As the Family History Writing Studio states:

“We can then conclude or deduce a conclusion based on a premise and our accumulated facts. We can interpret the peoples and or their actions. We can close in on those missing pieces and ultimately write a family history narrative that will satisfy the reader and that we trust is based on sound research, historical context and speculation.”

Three Hats

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Three Hats

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Your role in writing your family stories will involve a variety of different processes. In a sense, you’ll be wearing three hats throughout this journey.

Journalist: As you gather family stories and anecdotes, you’ll need to wear the hat of a journalist. You’ll need to think and act questions like a journalist. Who? What? Where? Why? When? How? By thinking to ask these questions, you’ll end up with better details and more specific information.

Genealogist: As you dive deeper into research, you’ll be wearing a different hat – that of a genealogist. You’ll need to learn where to look for information, where to find archived information, what sites are the best for discovering pertinent details. You’ve heard of the hours and hours (and hours!) that a genealogist spends in looking up family history? If you haven’t learned that it’s true, you’ll find that out now while you’re wearing that hat.

Novelist: The third hat you’ll be wearing is that of a novelist as you begin piecing your scenes together into a cohesive story. This is where you’ll be thinking of setting the scene, developing your characters, including dialogue, developing the storyline, using action verbs, looking at point of view, showing versus telling, and all the other fine tuning details that will help bring the characters and your story to life.

Several years ago I joked about wearing different hats for all the genres I write in. I got several baseball caps at the local craft store. I was going to decorate them all to relate to whatever piece I was working on at the time. One for children’s stories, one for my vintage tales, one for the ghost hunting and cemetery books, one for the inspiration books, etc. I never did embellish the caps as I’d planned and I think I eventually put them in a bag that was donated to the local thrift store. But in case you ever feel like you’re doing the same thing as you work on your family stories…it’s an idea you might want to keep in mind.

Social History

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Social History

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Social history is more than just historical background. Historical elements will color your story and add their own unique perspectives, such as coping with post-Depression difficulties, being in the middle of World War II, or living through a flood in that area. Social history is looking more at the ancestors and looking at the social parts of their life to help bring them to life on the pages.

In Bringing Your Family History to Life through Social History, Katherine Scott Sturdevant writes, “Social history is the study of ordinary people’s lives.”

We look at the groups are ancestors were associated with and try to understand how these groups interacted with each other and the world. Our ancestors social groups would have differed based on:

Occupation
Education
Religion
Age
Sex
Social Status
Culture
Civic and Fraternal Organizations

A farmer would have had a much different daily life than the owner of the local mercantile. A Jewish immigrant’s days would varied vastly from those of a Baptist preacher. Life for a woman in 1800 was tremendously different than for a woman in 1920, 1950, or 2000.

Understanding how some of the social aspects would have shaped our ancestors lives is a great step towards adding depth and dimension to the lives we’re attempting to portray with our words.