Writing Challenge: day 44

Today I tackled day #14 in The Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge. That makes it the halfway mark. Yeah! I’m learning lots on this journey. The topic for today, “Re-Creating Past Conversations” is basically how to add dialogue without crossing over the line into fiction. Here is a little of what Lynn had to say about sources for re-creating dialogue:

  • Notes from an oral history interview and direct quotes from interviews can help shape dialogue in your stories.
  • Quotes from diaries, letters, affidavits or other documents can be constructed into dialogue. You can use these sources to give the illusion of dialogue in your narrative.

Lynn emphasized that while we should never make it up, she thinks here a two exceptions to the rule:

  • You can look to remembered conversations to add dialogue. Perhaps you remember your father telling you a story about his grandfather or a conversation you had with your grandmother but you can’t recall the conversation verbatim. You can recreate the conversation capturing the essence of the exchange, as long as you are open about the recollection.
  • You can also create habitual or typical dialogue. Habitual dialogue is merely capturing the flavour of a conversation that happened in real life, demonstrating the sort of talk that went on, but you stop short of claiming that it actually happened. Be clear about this. This is where you’ll cue the reader with inference cues such as usually, or always.

For today’s writing exercise of listening to a conversation and writing it down to get a feel for how real dialogue goes, I went to the library. I needed to pick up a book they had on hold for me anyway. It wasn’t a very successful attempt. I couldn’t hear well enough to catch very much of the conversations. Usually I could hear one side of it or they were walking and they would get out of range. Silly place to choose now that I think about it. We are trained to talk quietly in the library and people doing a pretty good job of it. I think I’ll try this exercise again at the first opportunity.

Have you used dialogue in your family history writing? My first and only attempt so far was with My Grandma Mary.

Writing Challenge: day 43

I completed day 13 in The Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge today. It featured a guest author, Biff Barnes of Stories To Tell. He talked about writing family history when you can’t know all the facts. My literal mind doesn’t like this, I want to know every detail and then I know that I’m getting it right. We all know that just isn’t possible. Biff shared three points from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor Richard Todd offer some useful advice in their book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Here it is:

  • First, accept the fact that a good nonfiction narrative is a limited record of the characters and events it portrays. As Kidder and Todd note, “We know that as soon as writers begin to tell a story they shape experiences and that stories are always, at best, partial versions of reality.”
  • Recognize the limits of the record you have available to work with.  “…it makes you the one who has to explore the facts, discover what you can of the truth, and find the way to express that truth in prose.”
  • The result will be similarly limited. You won’t be able to create a completely factual picture of the ancestors about whom you write. “You strive to give the reader an illusion of a real person, and you have to make sure that the illusion is faithful to the truth as you understand it.”

I’m saving this for a reality check when I get on my perfectionist path to nowhere good. Do you ever struggle with thinking you need to have more information before you can tell your family stories? How do you cope with this challenge?

Writing Challenge: day 42

Another day of chatting with my Dad in The Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge. They are heading back to Idaho on Wednesday so this was my best chance to talk before they head home. I really prefer talking in person to over the phone. We spent most of our time helping me understand the basics of how the Underwater Swimmer School functioned. It started with me wanting to understand what it was like as the students arrived. There was so much about the basic functioning of the Navy that I didn’t know. Now I have a better understanding from the letters behind their names to their daily uniforms to duty. Hopefully I have a better grasp of the basics now.

It is interesting to learn this stuff. I wasn’t in school yet when he retired and he just hasn’t ever really talked about his experiences until recently. The aging process seems to bring out a different side to my Dad. It is a good thing. I was talking to one of my nieces last week and she has noticed that he is sharing more about things with her too. They are thinking of moving to Seattle and my Dad commented to her how he really missed the sun during the year we lived in Seattle. She felt an openness to the conversation that she hadn’t felt before. My mom seems the opposite, she is sharing less. I wonder if aging tends to send us in one direction or the other. I think sharing more is the best approach. Have you noticed this in relatives as they grow old?

Writing Challenge: day 41

December 1955 - Key West, Florida

December 1955 – Key West, Florida

Day 12 was my assignment for today in The Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge. Just two more assignments and I’ll be half through. Today’s lesson was about scenes versus narrative and making sure the scenes help tell the story you are trying to tell. Lynn gave 10 ways a scene serves a story:

  1. They must deliver a primary piece of information about your story.
  2. That information must move the story forward.
  3. The information is revealed through action, or dialogue or narrative.
  4. The beginning of your scene should be interesting and compelling.
  5. Your scene must bring tension and stakes to the story.
  6. It should deliver an experience and an emotion to the reader.
  7. It should demonstrate something about the character either through the scene itself or how the character reacts to the information revealed in the scene.
  8. A scene should get us inside your ancestor’s head.
  9. Avoid writing one scene without knowing the next scene; as each scene should set up the next.
  10. Each scene should end with suspense that compels the reader to turn the page and read the next scene.

The writing exercise for today was to pick a photo, write a narrative about it and then write a scene. I picked the photo above of my Dad directing some students on how to take care of some rope. I wrote about half a page just describing the photo and then realized that isn’t narrative so started again trying to do narrative. I’m not even good at narrative let alone scenes but I’m trying. I got about a page of narrative done and then worked on trying to write a scene. It filled up a couple of pages but I did it. At least I tried to write a scene.

I have so much to learn. I’m chatting with a writing mentor tomorrow and hoping that I can hire her to help me learn the skills I need to really make this history the best that it can be and get it done before I’m 80 years old. I’ll let you know how it goes, next week.

Writing Challenge: day 40

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/90697 Photographer: McDonald, Cory, 1946-

The Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge is on hold again today since I had a chance to talk with my Dad. I showed him the photo above and it does show the pool they started the students in and the Bachelor Officers Quarters and then to the left of that the building where the Underwater Swimmers School was located. He wants me to make a large print of it so that he can take it with him to the reunion next year.

We spent the rest of our time together going through photos from Florida Memory, where I found the photo above. It was interesting to hear him talk about his memory. I got more memories from his first time in Key West in about 1948 but that is for another part of the series of his Navy experience. It is interesting that Florida Memory has a big hole in their photos for the 1950’s. I’ve found a similar thing in written histories for Key West. It was after the scaled down after World War II and it seems not too much of interest happened there from a larger perspective.

By the time we got through the 700+ photos my Dad was done for the day. He has peripheral neuropathy and since he spent the day yesterday working at their cabin his feet were hurting way up his legs and he need to rest them. My mom was worn out too. She is seven years older than my Dad and really showing her age these days. So they plan to go over the lessons in the workbook will wait until another day.

Writing Challenge: day 39

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/90697 Photographer: McDonald, Cory, 1946-

For the Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge today, I did some prep work for meeting with my Dad again tomorrow. After printing out a copy of the classroom workbook, I did some Google searches for aerial photos of Key West in the 1950’s. I found a few but this one is my favorite. On the far left edge in about the middle of the photo you can see what might be the building for the Underwater Swimmers School. If not it is just off the image. Below that you can see part of the swimming pool they used and to the right of that the baseball field where they did exercises. I think this will help jog my Dad’s memories and it really helps me to visualize things better.

I’m a little off from following the Writing Challenge this week, but I’ll get back to it soon. The purpose of following the challenge is to help me write this history and I’m working on that. The good thing is talking to my Dad and learning more about his experiences. I’ll get back on the lessons in the challenge when he isn’t so available or willing.

Writing Challenge: day 38

For the Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge today, I spent a couple of hour talking with my Dad. We went over the maps of Key West and I have a better idea where the key places are. I’d made a list of all the settings I could think of for this story that we went through. He is a visual person like I am. I didn’t realize that until Saturday when he told me that most of his memories of the Navy are visual images of places. We are getting together again either tomorrow or Thursday and start working through just how they taught each of the lessons plans for the Underwater Swimmers School. (The day depends on if the battery he needs to take up to the cabin comes in tomorrow or not.)

We are exploring the idea of hiring a mentor or writing coach for this project. He really wants it to be good since he is taking it to the next U/WSS reunion in May. And I just don’t have the knowledge and skills to do it on my own. We talked about just hiring someone else to write it but with 17 more years of Navy history to do, it makes more sense to help me to gain the skills and then it will have a more consistent voice through the whole project. Have any of you ever worked with a writing coach?