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.
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
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?
On to day 21. Wow, just seven days to go after today. Today’s writing challenge from the Armchair Genealogist‘s was about the tone of the story and conveying the right mood. I’ve thought about this some for my Dad’s history in Key West and I know I want to convey his personality and the way he likes to tease and his dry sense of humor. Not sure how I’m going to do that yet but it feels like a big part of who he is. I think he will like if it isn’t too serious in tone even though a big part of what he did was making sure the students were safe in potentially life threatening situations. And he took his role very seriously and personally. One suggestion Lynn had, was to read styles of writing that you would like to emulate. I’ve got lots of reading ahead of me. I haven’t read any histories yet that have the kind of tone I’m hoping for. Maybe if I look for some military type family stories I might find it. Any suggestions?
Another point in today’s lesson was that it takes time to develop the voice or the mood of a story so don’t worry if it isn’t there on the first few revisions. It takes time for it to come together and then the challenge is making it consistent. So I’ll be referring back to this lesson in the future.
Pretend you’re telling the story to a favorite relative or best friend
Take a break
I haven’t done enough writing to have writer’s block yet but these sound like good tactics to me. You can read more about Lisa on her blog The Accidental Genealogist. More tomorrow, it has been a long day with only the minimum attention given to my writing project.
Today’s topic from the Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge (day 19) was using flashbacks effectively. As usual Lynn has some good points to remember:
Find a trigger to ignite the flashback
Does it advance the story?
Keep it brief
Use in moderation
Find a trigger to bring the character back to the present
The writing exercise was to practice writing a flashback scene from a past memory. I decided to write about our pet dog Shadow and used finding his old sticker brush in the garage a couple of weeks ago when we were cleaning. This stuff is always harder to do than it looks. The trigger wasn’t too hard but I don’t think I really did a flashback, it seemed like more of just reminiscing about Shadow. I’ll have to pay close attention to how authors write flashbacks in the future and learn more about the differences.
With the steady progress I’m making each day, I’ll have the challenge finished before the end of August. Then I’ll have to get really into actually writing this history. But I’m learning things everyday so I think it is worth the time.
Day 18 of the Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge was on descriptive writing and why less is more. Another lesson on showing and not telling. While I intellectually understand this, actually doing it is much harder. Here are Lynn’s tips on descriptive writing:
Use all of your senses
Do not overuse adjectives
Use unusual similes
Use original metaphors
Don’t over do it
Today’s writing exercise was to describe our childhood bedroom. This was a challenge to figure out because my Dad’s Navy career and then going to college had us moving every few years. But I tried to tackle it and ended up writing about my baby blanket. I hadn’t realized that it was a constant through all the moves. It must have been a comfort when home changed from Hawaii, to Maryland, to Odgen to Seattle and finally Rexburg. As a teenager I used that tattered soft flannel quilt as the base for a colorful bedspread. Last time I was in Rexburg, it was still there. I’m sure it still is. My Mom doesn’t through anything out. I doubt anyone else remember that my baby blanket is inside.