I realized this morning that we are almost half way through the first month of the new year. Feels like I’m not getting enough done each day. How about you? After taking a long break from working on my Dad’s Key West history I need to get back into it. I’m thinking Lynn Palermo’s Family History Writing Challenge might be just the perfect motivator. If you’ve done it before jump on board again this year. February is just around the corner. If not check out her website, register and then get set to more writing done this year.
We had a breakthrough in the last week on the route my Dad took to Key West. He had 30 days leave after finishing instructors school in San Diego. I assumed he spent that time with his parents. But this last week my Dad remembered that he went to the Bay area to visit a friend and her family. We are pretty sure that he drove from there to Key West not from San Diego. We also think that he picked up his car in San Francisco. His transfer orders show him flying from Barbers Point in Hawaii to Moffett Field in the Bay area to San Diego and then checking in at the Naval Training Center in San Diego.
He remembers taking a train from San Francisco to Palo Alto where his friend Pat lived and a couple of outings while there. So he must have picked up his car there. He remembers once picking up a car and having to replace the battery. This time makes the most sense because of how long it would have been since he had driven it. You had to turn the car in a couple of weeks before your departure. Then it would have come by boat and sat waiting for him for at least 4 weeks. That would have been 6 weeks and maybe two more weeks of his leave before he picked it up.
Yesterday we got together and plotted his most probable route and likely cities he might have stopped in each night. Her remembered a couple of things along the route. He drove near a small town in Arizona where Pat’s family used to live. He wondered if he had taken the now famous historic route 66. He knows he didn’t drive through New Orléans until a few years later after my parents were married. He also remember taking what was then known as route 41 down through Florida. Adding all of that together we are pretty sure of most of the route.
We know he arrived two days early. He had 13 days for travel. So assuming he left 13 days before he was due in Key West we figure he made it in 11 days. I thought it was his first time really driving cross-country by him self but I found out that when he was in Key West before he drove his motorcycle from Key West to Chicago where his parents were living at the time. On that trip he rain into some cold wet weather. So even though this trip was hot (being early September) it must have been much easier physically than a couple thousand mile road trip on a motorcycle in March.
Here are our current guesses at his stops each night and the number of miles it takes to get there on today’s roads:
- Bakerfields, California (261 miles) 29 August
- Needles, California (272 miles) 30 August
- Holbrook, Arizona (298 miles) 31 August
- Silver City, New Mexico (230 miles) 1 September
- Pecos, Texas (364 miles) 2 September
- Cisco, Texas (239 miles) 3 September
- Shreveport, Louisiana (323 miles) 4 September
- Meridian, Mississippi (306 miles) 5 September
- Albany, Georgia (336 miles) 6 September
- Lakeland, Florida (340 miles) 7 September
- Miami, Florida (279 miles) – 8 September
- Key West, Florida (156 miles) – 9 September
This is pure speculation of course and we ended up with one more day than we think it took him but also a theory on why. My Dad check in at 0915 on September 9th. There really isn’t any place he would have likely stayed past Miami and yet to get from Miami to Key West that early in the morning means he would have to get up really early. So maybe when he got to Miami late he just decided to keep right on going and got to Key West the next morning. Hopefully some more memories will come back to him and we can have more confidence in this trip.
My next task is to look up the historical weather data for the days we think he was in each of these towns so we can use it to flesh out more of what his trip was probably like. I’m really enjoying the time that I get to spend with my Dad working on this project.
I found an introductory SCUBA class. It lasts about an hour and costs $25. Not bad. I think I’d better wait for my seasonal allergies to pass before I jump into the pool. Popping my ears doesn’t work to well when my noses is stuffed. Plus the last week or so my allergies are driving me crazy. Too much time outside one day sets me up for a really bad day the next day.
I’ve had mixed success on writing 500 words per day. I was good last Wednesday, but Thursday and Friday not a word was written. Monday I did my 500 words and worked on a list of possible stories that might be included in the book. On Tuesday I got my 500 words in but it was a late night rush to get it done. I did better today having just finished my writing along with some research on the building of the railroad into Key West and the Castro revolution.
One thing I found helpful this week, that I finally did last time I chatted with my Dad about Key West. I used my phone to record the conversation so I could refer back to it and not worry about taking notes. I also took a short video clip with my camera of how to clear the water out of your face mask. I highly recommend it. Both have been helpful. With today’s technology it is super easy to do.
The last day of the Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge has finally come. Kind of unbelievable. At times I wondered if I’d ever get through it but I was determined, no mater how long it took me to complete this. One of my goals with the challenge was to make a regular habit of doing something toward my Dad’s Key West history. For the most part I’ve accomplished that. I’ve also learned how much I still have to learn about writing creative non-fiction. But I have a plan for continuing to move forward with the history and improving my writing skills. Here are highlights of Lynn’s advice on the last day of her 28 day family history writing challenge:
- Take a lesson from this challenge and enlist the help of others.
- Continue to improve your craft.
- Find your ideal time.
- Plan your writing.
- Seek deadlines and accountability.
- Believe you are a writer.
The last one hit me the hardest. I don’t know how many times I’ve said, “I’m not a writer.” I am now vowing to never utter those words again. I certainly won’t become a writing if I keep saying that. To accomplish my goals I need to become a writing. The other one that needs some attention is finding an ideal time to write. While I’ve gotten this done almost everyday during the challenge, I haven’t been consistent with the time. So I’m setting a goal to figure out when that is and try it and adjust until I really do find the best time to write everyday.
Thanks to all of you who have stuck with me through this challenge. I think I’ll do at least weekly updates on how the Key West history is doing.
Second to the last day of the Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge! And fittingly today’s topic is about last lines. I’ve honestly never thought about this topic before. At least not consciously. Just another example of how much I have learned and still have to learn about writing. Here are the things that Lynn suggested to consider in writing great last lines in a family story:
- Your last lines certainly need to bring a sense of finality to your story.
- Your last line should resonate with your theme.
- Your last line should be about your main ancestor and his final thoughts. If you’re writing a memoir, then your final thoughts should be expressed in those last sentences.
- Your last lines should demonstrate your ancestor’s growth or your growth through your family history journey.
- Your last lines should slow the pace of your story down and ease the reader to the end.
- Your last lines can teach a lesson or moral (of course without being preachy).
- Your last lines should leave your reader with an understanding of how your ancestor’s life proceeded after the story is over.
- Your last lines should be uplifting and hopeful.
Lynn also talked about writing the ending in advance. It helps in plotting the story to come full circle to the ending you want. She also has four formats to try in writing the last line.
- As a line of description
- Demonstrating your ancestor’s actions
- As a line of dialogue by your ancestor
- As an internal monologue by your ancestor or a thought or feeling by you the narrator.
Another excellent lesson by Lynn Palermo!
“Reading Like a Writer” is the topic for today in the Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge Day 26. Just two days to finish. I’ve loved reading since the 5th grade when my teacher taught me to read for the enjoyment not so I could write a book report. Most of my reading in the last few years has been audio books that I listen to while I make dinner and do the dishes etc. Since starting this challenge I’ve noticed some of the tools authors use to tell their story that I’ve never noticed before. From reading the list below I see there are still more ways I can learn from my reading. Here are Lynn’s suggestions on how reading can help us to become better writers:
- Concentrate on reading books in your genre but don’t limit yourself. Read a wide range of books in a wide range of genres.
- Just like writing make reading a habit – a daily habit.
- Set a reading goal, I try to read 3 books a month. I wish it could be more. Set a goal based on your own schedule. Join a book club; this is one of the best ways to make sure you’re reading on a regular basis and exposes you to a variety of books that others are choosing for you.
- Carry your reading with you; make the most of every opportunity to read.
- Read for enjoyment but also analyze character, plot and theme when reading.
- If a book resonates with you, read it a second time focusing on the more specifics of the story structure, the writer’s style and choices.
- Pay attention to the words, the preferences the writer makes and the organization and flow of those words.
- Don’t be afraid to take notes. It deepens your learning, gives you time to absorb what you’ve read and provides a resource for future reference.
- Write a review of a book you read, this provides you the opportunity to share some lessons you learned or explore some of the ideas it brought up for you.
- Read a wide range of writers from great writers, classic writers to current writers and unknown writers. There is a writing lesson in every book.
- Don’t waste time reading a book you don’t enjoy or understand. There are too many books in the world, put it down and move on to the next.
- Take cues from other writers. Experiment with concepts you see other writers doing, then take it one step further and manipulate it and make it your own.
It is my 55th day in the Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge but it is her 25th day and the topic is “Improving Your Story Through Feedback”. Lynn gives some consideration in finding a group to give valuable in improving the quality of our family stories. Here they are:
- Critique groups and writing groups are not necessarily the same thing.
- In-Person or Online Groups. There are pros and cons to both in-person and online groups.
- In-person groups can be more restrictive.
- On-line Groups offer flexibility.
- Open and closed groups.
- Genre-based groups.
- Consider a single critique partner.
- Don’t be discouraged if your first group doesn’t work out.
I’m glad that we have a writing coach to work with on this project. I think her teaching will really help me progress faster and get a better story in the end. Today writing exercise was to take one sentence in which you are “telling” and revise it into a “showing” sentence. Here is my original sentence:
Ray started the 2600 miles journey across the southern United States on Labor Day weekend.
Here is my attempt at showing:
The warm air flowed across the drop of sweat that trickled down the side of his check as Ray crossed into Arizona. At 60 miles per hour the telephone poles clicked by at an amazing speed and flags fluttered on many of the houses that he passed by.
I still feel really clueless even though I’ve learned lots in the last couple of months. So much more to applying these principles but at least I have some awareness of them now. “One day at a time,” I keep telling myself.
Day 24 of the Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge featured guest author Jean-Francois de Buren. He gave an excellent list of things to think about while working on a family story project. Lots of great food for thought here:
- The story must be personally resonant. The story must be meaningful to you first and foremost. If you are not moved by it, do not proceed, it will simply be too difficult, and the result will be lackluster. While you might be writing your family story to ultimately share with other family members, this cannot be your primary motivation. If you write for others in the hope of receiving praise for your efforts, you will never receive the level of acclaim you desire, no matter how effusive it is.
- Start modestly. Start small and see where it the story takes you. It does not need to be a multi-generational epic to have impact.
- It should feel original to you. While any great story will have timeless themes, the story should still feel real to your family. What you write will inspire others to be sure, but in ways that you can never predict, nor should you try. Authenticity is key here. If you do not believe in what you are writing it will come through.
- Be forthright. Don’t be afraid to search for and tell the truth. Family stories are often embellished over time, and the stories we choose to tell say something about us. What really happened can often times be more interesting than the stories that were handed down. If you don’t know what “really” happened, feel free to offer open-ended questions that will leave the reader thinking. Have a point-of-view.
- Think about milieu. Historical context is critically important. Your ancestors certainly did not leave their home countries on a whim. What was the social, religious, racial tenor of the time?
- It should have drama. It is easy to fall into the trap of focusing on facts and figures when it comes to family history, but that alone does not make for great storytelling. Wade into the emotions of your ancestral protagonists. If you were in their shoes, what would you have felt, what would you have done?
- Trust yourself. This is critical. The story that you will tell has waited for you to tell it—own that fact. Once you get into the story and feel the emotional power, it will take you where you need to go.
- Give yourself a deadline. The process cannot be fully open-ended. A goal is key. It could be a deadline to finish the first chapter, the first 20 pages or the first draft. If you are committed to the process, the muse will marshall the resources to assist you. Showing up matters.
- Revise and edit. Once you feel it is exactly where you want it to be, let two people whom you trust to look at it. Take a deep breath and know that the comments are there to make your work better. Their tasks are different, so chose wisely. One is looking at the story from a macro level. Is the story compelling? Does it have drama? Would someone who does not know me or my family want to read it? The other is looking at the story from a micro level. Checking grammar, spelling, syntax and sentence structure.
- Enjoy the process. Let go of the fear of failure, the final product is already within you simply waiting to be expressed. Take the plunge.
Here are two of Jean-Francois de Buren’s projects that you might be interested in. He wrote about his literary journey with his ancestor http://www.common-place.org/vol-13/no-04/tales/ and an adaptation of his ancestor’s journals can be found on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Voyage-Across-Americas-Journey-Henri/dp/2940531021/
Today, day 23 of the Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge was about revisions. Since my writing experience is very limited I hadn’t really thought about the differences between revisions, editing and proof reading. I learned recently about content editing and editing for grammar etc. I like the term proof reading. My mom is a good proof reader but she isn’t much help in editing content or revisions. At 91 even proof reading is getting hard for her. Lynn explains that revising is about the big picture of the story, editing is on a sentence level and proof reading the last step to catch grammatical and punctuation errors as well as spelling mistakes. It takes dozens of rewrites to get to the editing stage. Here are Lynn’s suggestions on what to look at in the early stages of revision:
- Does each scene serve the story?
- What is the real subject of this story? Is the theme visible to the reader?
- Where does the story ring out?
- What seems superfluous and does not enhance the story?
- Does your back story get to the point, is it necessary to the story, or does it arrive too early?
- Is the beginning, the ending?
- Is the beginning deadweight, does your story start several hundred or thousands of words in?
- Are your characterizations strong and does your ancestor act with purpose?
- Does your plot make sense? Does everything lead to the climax?
- Are the stakes clear, do they create tension and hold the readers interest to the end.
Another tip she gave was when it is hard to cut some favorite part that really needs to go, put it into a file for future reference. She suggests calling this file, “Fragments” or “Bits and Pieces” or “Story Starters.”
Today’s free writing exercise was to write about a small incident in an ancestors life that shows their courage and kindness. Not sure if I ended up with the right kind of incident but too late now. My Dad doesn’t show much emotion but I think he is more sentimental than he realizes. The first time he met my Mom she through some corn kernels at him. He picked them up and put them in his pocket. That night when he should have thrown them away he kept them. After they were engaged he decided to save them and then plant them someday and tell his children the story about the corn. When I was 5 or 6 they planted that corn. I don’t remember the corn planting but I love the story. With lots of revisions etc. it could make a really good story. Maybe it would work to start the story on the day he is planting the corn and flashback 10 years to the day they met. Maybe I’m starting to think like a writer. Not sure but I’ve never thought about it that way before.
Day 22 of the Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge was titled “The Beginning of the End. Lynn included lots of tips on how to think about the end of your family story from the start. The end answers the questions that were asked in the beginning. A good ending contains most of the following elements:
- Faces Antagonist for the Final Time
- Conflict and Tension Fades
- Full Circle
- Falling Action
- Unanswered Questions
- Does the conflict or opposition re-emerge for your ancestor?
Today’s free writing exercise was about exploring conflict. The assignment was to write about a tense situation I’ve been in or witnessed. The idea is that in writing about our own conflicts and reactions to conflict we can gain insight into our ancestor’s conflicts. I decided to write about an interaction with my oldest sister. She is an untreated paranoid schizophrenic. (I can’t believe I spelled that right the first try.) This makes interactions with her very difficult at times. Last week I actually responded to her in a way that diffused the situation. I want to remember that tactic and try it again in the future and thought writing about it might help. I tried to use some dialogue but didn’t get much descriptive stuff in there. Our family culture is about avoiding conflict but with this sister old rules no longer apply. How does your family culture handle conflict?