Writing Challenge: day 52

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:

  • Climax
  • Transformation
  • 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?

Writing Challenge: day 51

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.

Writing Challenge: day 50

Today’s writing challenge from the Armchair Genealogist‘s was by guest author Lisa Alzo. Here are Lisa’s five tips for beating writer’s block:

  1. Start typing
  2. Mind map
  3. Read
  4. Pretend you’re telling the story to a favorite relative or best friend
  5. 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.

Writing Challenge: day 49

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:

  1. Find a trigger to ignite the flashback
  2. Does it advance the story?
  3. Keep it brief
  4. Use in moderation
  5. 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.


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?