Writing Challenge: day 48

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
  • Avoid clichés
  • Use original metaphors
  • Be original
  • 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.

Writing Challenge: day 47

How to format dialogue was the topic for Day 17 of the Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge. Lynn gave seven tips that I’ll need to refer back to as I’m writing my Dad’s history about Key West. Here they are:

1. Each time a new conversation or speech begins, you start a new paragraph. Additionally, every time there is a new speaker in a conversation, there is a new line. You do not include multiple speakers in one paragraph, so if one person asks a questions and another person responds, the question and the answer must be on two different lines. The use of this technique allows your reader to keep straight who is speaking.

For example:

Victoria asked, “When is Adam leaving for America?”

“On Thursday,” Grandpa replied.

2. Learn to use single and double quotation marks. Double quotation marks are used to indicate dialogue unless it is a quote within a quote, in which case single quotation marks are employed.

3.  Understand the placement of quotation marks. Tradition dictates that punctuation falls inside the quotation marks. You may find some editors and professionals who are changing this practice but I would encourage you to stick with tradition.

4.  Use commas before dialogue tags, for instance:

“I don’t want to go to Grandma’s house,” Helen said.

5.  Dialogue Tags are the he said/she said of quotations. Don’t use these as forms of descriptions.

For example:

“I don’t want to leave,” Adam whimpered.

Instead of telling the reader he whimpered, spend your time describing the scene so we can see the image of Adam whimpering.  It is perfectly acceptable to use he said/she said multiple times or not at all. The idea is your tags should be invisible and the focus should be on the dialogue.

6.  With that being said use dialogue tags sparingly. You don’t want a string of he said, she said, he said, she said cluttering your story. If you know your characters and have given them a distinct voice, your reader will know from the dialogue who is saying what.

7.  Capitalize only the first word of a dialogue sentence. If your dialogue is interrupted by a dialogue tag or description, you do not need to capitalize the second part of the sentence.

Today’s free writing exercise was to write a conversation and practice formatting it correctly. I tried to remember the details of the conversation I’d had with my Dad not long before but I could only remember a couple of exchanges about the weather. We also talked about the history but I couldn’t remember the words that we used. So I went to Facebook looking for a short video and I found this one.

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Here is the dialogue I wrote from the video. Feel free to let me know where I’ve messed up on formatting.
Walking across the deck, Dad follows the carefully laid out string to where it ends at Jimmy’s tooth. He can’t help but let out a little laugh as he looks at Jimmy’s face but he puts on his serious face and says, “Hi Jimmy.”
“Hi,” Jimmy replies with the string hanging out of his mouth.
“What are you doing? Huh.”
“I’m just getting my tooth out,” Jimmy says.
“And how are you going to do that,” Dad prompts.
“Gonna fire a rocket.”
“You’re going to fire a rocket? And it’s tied to your tooth?” Dad asks.
“Yeah,” says Jimmy.
“All right. Are you ready for this? Yeah? You gotta push that button real hard until that lights up,” are Dad’s final instructions. “You ready?” Jimmy gives a slight nod.
Jimmy focuses on the control box then up at the rocket and back again several times. His face finches. For a moment nothing happens. Suddenly Jimmy smiles and touches the empty spot in his gum. It worked!
This was a good exercise and one I’ll use in lots of places. I’ve wondered about how to format dialogue before and just pretended I knew what I was doing. I was also reminded that my memory isn’t as good as it used to be. Not sure it was ever that good at remember things like conversations though. Did you learn anything new from Lynn’s 7 tips or did you know them all already?

Writing Challenge: day 46

Day 16 of the Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge: Back Story – Integrating Your Ancestor’s Past. The gist of today’s lesson was only include things from before your current story if it actually helps to tell the story. Here are the criteria that Lynn suggested:

  • Demonstrates the Stakes
  • Reveals Motivation
  • Reveals Inner Fears
  • Reveals Obstacles

Not sure how all this will apply to my Dad’s history about his time at the Underwater Swimmers School yet. I’m sure I don’t want to include too much back story but I can see that depending on how I end up approaching the story the back story could include the process it took to actually get him to Key West from the letter announcing the formation of the school to the weeks in San Diego at Instructors School. How much more personal back story I’ll be included remains to be seen. I will keep the list above handy as I come to area where back story might be appropriate.

Today’s free writing exercise was to practice writing about a back story from my life. Lynn suggested looking at events in the past influence my current motivations, fears and obstacles. I decided to write about why I’m a puppy raiser and how our pet dog, Shadow’s cancer lead me down the road to be a puppy raiser.

Have you struggled with how much back story to use in your histories? What thoughts have helped you?

Writing Challenge: day 45

Today subject in The Armchair Genealogist‘s writing challenge was very fitting since day 15 puts me over the hump, it is about what’s in the middle of a family history. The middle has lots of important things in it that are essential to a successful story. Here is what Lynn had to say:

  1. In the middle, you reveal for your reader a deeper understanding of your ancestor’s problem that propels them toward the ending, hinting of coming changes. The middle adds depth to your story, it shows what it all means, or otherwise your story is nothing more than your ancestors acting out the events of their life.
  2. In the middle, you reveal the obstacles, the plot points facing your ancestor, each one escalating to a crisis point, creating tension keeping your reader moving forward. Things become harder and harder for your ancestor, they overcome obstacles but these victories are short lived as the next struggle is quickly facing them. Tension must be at its peak through the middle keeping the reader engaged and moving forward.
  3. In the middle, your ancestor begins to take charge of the situation and find new ways to reach his goal. The middle will demonstrate the growth your ancestor is going through as he looks for new ways to overcome his obstacles and are no longer reacting to the situation but taking matters into his own hands to change the situation.
  4. Your ancestor begins an internal journey, developing deeper relationships with family or friends or revealing his own self development. Not all the obstacles your ancestor faced were physical obstacles but emotional obstacles as well. Your middle story should demonstrate an internal change in your ancestor as well.
  5. The middle of your story should foreshadow the final crisis; the greatest obstacle your ancestor faces. However, by the end of the middle your ancestor should face his greatest obstacle, the crisis point.

Today’s writing exercise was about creating tension through a secret. The idea is to find a secret from my life or an ancestors life. Here are the questions that Lynn suggests to explore a family secret:

  • What is the secret?
  • Who is keeping the secret?
  • From whom is the secret being kept?
  •  Who are the people involved?
  •  Why does it need to kept?
  • What will happen if it is uncovered?
  • What happens when the secret is found out?
  • What is the risk of and rewards of keeping the secret or letting it out?

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.