google-site-verification: google65e716d80989ba07.html The Armchair Genealogist

Guest Authors Share Their Expertise

In 10 days we launch into our 5th annual Family History Writing Challenge. I am thrilled to announce our line-up of guest authors joining us this year. They bring a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge and I'm always honoured that they take the time out of their busy schedules to share their expertise with us.

Returning for her 4th year with us, Sharon Debartolo Carmack was a constant guide for me in my early days of learning to write family history stories. I often referenced her book as I learned to write my family history stories. This year Sharon is going to teach us about creating tension in our family history stories. Keeping our readers on the edge of their seats. 

 Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is a Certified Genealogist with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing. She is the author of eighteen books and hundreds of articles, essays, columns, and reviews that have appeared in nearly every major genealogical journal and publication. Some of her books include You Can Write Your Family History, Carmack’s Guide to Copyright & Contracts: A Primer for Genealogists, Writers & Researchers, and Your Guide to Cemetery Research.
Sharon’s work has also appeared in numerous literary publications: Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Steinbeck Review, Portland Review, Hippocampus Magazine (where her essay, “Switched at Midlife” won “Most Memorable” and was selected for the Best of Hippocampus, May 2013), and Phoebe: A Journal of Literature and Art (where her essay received Honorable Mention in the 2012 Creative Nonfiction Contest). Sharon’s essays have also been finalists in contests for the Bellingham Review’s Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction and in Creative Nonfiction’s True Crime contest (“The Ghoul of the Queen City”), and for publication in River Teeth and Calyx.
Sharon teaches graduate courses in Creative Nonfiction Writing for Southern New Hampshire University’s MA in English and Creative Writing Program. She is also part of the adjunct English faculty for Ashford University, and she teaches personal essay and memoir writing online for Writer’s Digest University. Additionally, for Family Tree University, she teaches Irish genealogical research, and for Salt Lake Community College’s online Certificate in Genealogy program, she teaches the Immigrant Origins course and a new course in Genealogy and Family History Writing.
She can be reached through her website,

Lisa Alzo is well known in genealogy circles for her writing expertise. She shares openly and her love of writing is apparent in all her endeavours. She's been a good friend to The Family History Writing Challenge these past five years. This year,  Lisa is going to share tools for writing your life story. 

 Lisa A. Alzo, M.F.A., is a freelance writer, instructor, and internationally recognized lecturer, specializing in Slovak/Eastern European genealogical research, writing your family history, and using the Internet to trace female and immigrant ancestors. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 1987 and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Pittsburgh in 1997. Lisa is the author of nine books, including the award-winning Three Slovak Women, and hundreds of magazine articles.  She has published Ancestry Magazine, Discovering Family History Magazine, Family Chronicle, Family Tree Magazine, Internet Genealogy, Reunions Magazine, NGSNews Magazine, Western Pennsylvania History Magazine, and The Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly. Lisa is a contributing editor for Family Tree Magazine, and teaches online courses for Family Tree University and The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. She is frequently invited speaker for national conferences, genealogical and historical societies, and webinars. An avid genealogist for 25 years, Lisa also chronicles her family history adventures on her blog, The Accidental Genealogist <>. Visit <> for more information.

This is Jennifer Holik's first time writing for the Challenge. Her passion for writing is a bright beacon in our online community. Jennifer loves to write military stories, so I've asked her to share with us some tips around this particular topic. I'm looking forward to learning from her.  

Jennifer Holik is a Chicago-based military and genealogical researcher, speaker, and author. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in History in 1999 from the Missouri University of Science and Technology. Jennifer has published articles in the National Genealogical Society Magazine, the Czech and Slovak Genealogical Society of Illinois Journal, the Utah Genealogical Society’s Quarterly Crossroads, and writes a monthly column for The In-Depth Genealogist magazine. She focuses her research and writing on the records of World War II across all branches: Army, Air Corps, National Guard, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marines and is a member of the staff of the World War II History Network ( She lectures on researching and writing the stories of World War II soldiers. Her blog provides weekly insights into World War II records and issues not discussed related to the war, the missing, and the dead. She is the author of several books including Stories of the Lost, The Tiger’s Widow, Stories from the Battlefield: A Beginning Guide to World War II Research, and a series of genealogy teaching books entitled, Branching Out. In 2015 she will release a new series called Stories from the World War II Battlefield which will provide an in-depth look at how to begin World War II research across all branches, where to find records, and explore the most commonly used records. She will explain how to reconstruct a service file and explore issues related to the records and war. On her website you can visit her World War II Toolbox (, learn more about her services, purchase her books, schedule an author presentation, and sign up for her newsletter. Her website is

Our final guest author has also been a great supporter of the Challenge over the years. Biff Barnes, our resident publisher is going to impart on us some advice in the choices we face in publishing our family history. 
Biff Barnes is a writer, educator, and historian who has published extensively about San Francisco. He was a William Robertson Coe Fellow in American History at Stanford University. His experience with historical research, oral history, and academic writing is invaluable to family history authors as they plan and organize their books. Biff Barnes is part of the Stories To Tell team of editors and book designers who help authors to create memoirs and family history books. They have worked with hundreds of authors to develop their fiction, non-fiction, and creative non-fiction books. As an editor, he helps to plan the book's content, edits text and images, and design a professional, unique book for his clients. Biff offers great writing advice in his Stories to Tell Blog.

There you have it, our four guest authors. You'll receive their articles along with 24 other articles on writing family history when you join us for The Family History Writing Challenge, Feb 1st-Feb 28th. 

5 Reasons You Should Be Writing Your Family History

Family historians are often contemplating what they will do with the copious amounts of research they have accumulated over the years. No question, writing stories is often the end goal. However, by the time most genealogists begin thinking about writing they are completely overwhelmed by the size of the task. Too many times I've heard the words..."maybe some day."

If this sounds like you then consider joining me in The Family History Writing Challenge, we can overcome this obstacle and all the other excuses that are preventing you from beginning.   

1. There’s never going to be the perfect time.

There will always be obstacles. Life will get in the way and waiting for the perfect time will never happen. The Family History Writing Challenge will help you to structure writing to be a regular part of your life.

You can wait for the perfect time, when there are no distractions. But, let’s be honest that will never occur. However, by investing in as little as 15 minutes a day or by setting a daily word count, like 500 words a day you can meet your goals. Can you find 15 minutes in your schedule? I’m certain you can.

2. There is so much to learn from the journey.

Often family historians are reluctant to make the transition because they don’t consider themselves writers. No one is born a writer. Writing is a process, a learned skill that improves with practice. By diving in, you learn the habits and the environment that is conducive to helping you write, along with the necessary skills.

Regardless of whether it is creative nonfiction that we cover in The Challenge or another genre you care to write about, you can’t learn, understand and perfect these skills without practicing them...that means writing.

3. You can research and write at the same time.

Taking up the task of writing your family history doesn’t mean your research comes to an end. Throw out that excuse because we all know that your research will never be done, and you can’t wait until it is to start. There are many great stories waiting within your research right now. Start with one ancestor, one story, start small and simple.

Schedule your research and writing as two separate tasks. When you write a story you’ll find opportunities when perhaps a little more research is required. That's great. Make a note and keep writing. During your designated research time, turn to your list. Don’t allow your research and writing time to cross.

4. You want to write engaging stories.

The Family History Writing Challenge focuses on the tools of creative nonfiction. Turn your dry narratives into engaging stories that your family wants to read. The Daily Dose newsletter is delivered to your inbox for 28 days through the month of February. You’ll learn characterization, plotting, showing and telling, turning facts into scenes and description and detail. You’ll discover all the elements which make an entertaining nonfiction narrative. 

5. You can find growth in a short amount of time.

In the 28-days of The Challenge, you’ll find your focus. You’ll make writing a priority in your life, and the knowledge and inspiration you'll learn during our month together, will result in a growth experience in a short amount of time. We also have expert authors joining us to add their depth of knowledge. If you venture into the Writer’s Forum, you'll also learn to give and receive critique and elevate your writing to a new level. 

Your excuses are gone. Join us for The Family History Writing Challenge, February 1st-28th. Sign up today. 

New Year. New Goals. Same Awesome Challenge.

 It’s that time. You've welcomed in the New Year. You've set your goals and one of those goals is to start writing your family history stories.  Now it’s time to put a plan into action, to acquire the tools necessary to make your objectives a reality.

It's time for The Family History Challenge. 

Can you believe it, were celebrating our fifth year at The Family History Writing Challenge. For the past four years we’ve gathered together each February for 28 days to committ to writing our family history stories. This year promises to bring you all the things you love about the challenge and more.

First, some things are still tried and true.  Our website, The Family History Writing Challenge is now open for you to register. If you registered with us last year,  you do not have to register again, you move to the front of the line.  Once you register you get access to our members area, with great articles to help you write your stories.

Getting Ready to Write

You’ll find an archive of articles to help you get ready to write including the Companion Guide to The Family History Writing Challenge. I’ve written my family history, I know it can be overwhelming in getting started. We've got plenty of resources to get you organized and started.

The Writer’s Forum
The Writer’s Forum is reset for this year’s participants, come stop by and introduce yourself. There is no better learning environment than joining a writing community. In the Writer’s Forum you’ll find motivation and inspiration from fellow writers who understand your struggles. 

The Daily Dose
The Daily Dose returns with fresh new articles to provide inspiration, education and motivation throughout the 28 days of February. Feel free to let me know your struggles. We'll do our best to help elevate you in your journey. Email me at with your most pressing writing problems or stop by the forum and leave us a note.

Guest Authors
Finally, our ever awesome list of guest authors returns. It’s always wonderful to have such a vast array of writers in the house. I enlist the help of writers who are at varying stages of their writing journey, from those with years of experience, some in the throes of their first book and a one or two newly published writers. They all bring something wonderful to the table. It is just as much a treat for me as it is for you to have them with us. Stay tuned, for the announcement of guest authors line up in the next couple of weeks. We may have one or two new faces in the crowd.

What’s New

Authentic Ancestors Ebook

We’ve added a new workbook to our line-up. Authentic Ancestors is a 100-page ebook designed to help you discover your ancestor’s character so that you can bring them to life in your stories.  In this workbook, you’ll learn all about the creative nonfiction tool of characterization and how you can apply it to your family history stories. It’s pack full of information, tips, tools and worksheets you can use over and again each time you write about an ancestor. It's ready for download now.

The Family History Writing Challenge is an excellent opportunity for writers to come together in a supportive environment. If you are an experienced family history author looking for a little motivation, our writer’s forum may be the place you need. Find your motivation and offer your experience in our writing community.  If you’re struggling to finish those stories you started last year, come join us, let’s get you refocused and back on track. If  you’re a first-timer dipping your toe into the writing waters, then this is the place to start. In The Challenge, there is a place for everyone.

 We all share the same goal, a passion to write stories that give our ancestors a voice, stories that engage our readers and carry an emotional connection to their history.  Join The Family History Writing Challenge, let us help you achiveve your writing goals. 

 Feel free to pay us a visit at  The Family History Writing Challenge to get all the details and register.  The doors are open; we’re there waiting for you. 

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll offer a couple of pre-challenge posts to help you focus and stay on track during these 28 days. I’ve also got a big announcement at the end of The Challenge. Yup, it’s that big; you have to wait until the last week of the challenge.

You can also follow The Family History Writing Challenge on Twitter #fhwc2015. 

Feel free to post our badge, let your readers know you joined The Challenge, and you’re proud to be writing your family history stories.

Grab the Family History Writing Challenge Badge

Whether you're a participant in this year's challenge or you're on the sidelines cheering us on please feel free to support our endeavours by displaying The Family History Writing Challenge Badge in the sidebar of your blog.

It's time to get loud and proud about writing our ancestor's stories.

Copy and paste the html code into an html widget on your blog. It's that simple. The badge links to The Family History Writing Challenge Website.

<center><a href="" target="_blank" title="Family History Writing Challenge"><img alt="Family History Writing Challenge"\ src=" <a href="" target="_blank"><img src="" border="0" alt=" photo FHWC14-290p_zpse0310b87.jpg"/></a>

Christmas Gift Guide 2014 - The Family History Writer

This gift guide is near and dear to my heart. If your favourite family historian is considering writing a family history story in 2015 or if they plan on joining us for The Family History Writing Challenge this coming February then this list was designed with them in mind. 

1. Scrivener - This writing program will always be on my writer's list. It is by far the best program for managing family history writing projects. I've have videos to help family historians get started. It is the best investment for the family history writer.

2. Grammarly- A great investment for the genealogist about to embark on a writing journey.  A good grammar software program is a wonderful investment in your family history writer.  Grammarly is an automated proofreader and grammar coach that will catch more than your average word spell checker program. 

3.  Internet-blocking software A computer program that blocks the internet on your computer seems like a waste of money. Really you could just not open your browser. But it works.  You can block out your Internet and all social media, surfing and researching while you focus your attentions on writing.  We all know how much more writers could get done with a few less distractions. Check out Freedom, only $10. 

4. On Writing - A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King - One of my favourite inspirational writing books. It doesn't matter what kind of writing your genealogist has planned, this part memoir, part writing instructional book is pure inspiration. 

5. The Elements of Style by William Skunk- I keep this on my desk and reference it often. A staple for any beginning writer. 

6. You Can't Make this Stuff Up: A Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind. - The cornerstone of compelling family history narratives is learning the art of creative nonfiction. This book is a must read. 

7. You Can Write Your Family History by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack. Sharon's book is where I started many years ago and I recommend it to anyone wishing to write their family history stories. 

8. Moleskin Notebooks and Pens and Journals to capture all those ideas. Every writer should keep a journal to help them practice their writing skills, jot down ideas and observations. 

9. Family History Writing Ebooks - if you'll excuse the self-plug, the ebook Getting Ready to Write and our new ebook coming out in January, Authentic Ancestors, Bringing Your Ancestors to Life through Characterization are both great tools in helping family historians write their family history stories. You can download Getting Ready to Write and put it on a jumpstick to give as a gift. Authentic Ancestors will arrive on January 7th, you can pre-order it today. 

10. Dragon NaturallySpeaking Software- if your favourite family historian is not sure where to start with writing, consider speaking software. Talking your book is a great way to get started. It can help a beginner get organized and get their  thoughts and ideas sorted out. 

You'll find easy links to most of these products below. 

Christmas Gift Guide 2014 - The Organized Genealogist

I don't know a genealogist who doesn't have a love affair with their office supplies. Keeping things organized is instrumental when researching your family history. Getting organized and staying organized can be a full time task. Here's my top 10 gifts for the organized genealogist on your shopping list or the disorganized genealogist who is in need of some help.

1. Sentry Safe Guardian Storage Box - I introduced genealogists to this fantastic product back in October, with my post Reality Check . It makes an ideal gift for your favourite genealogist. Part file box, part fire and water protection, this is the best protection on the market for your primary documents.

2. Labeller - Ok, I know this was on the Tech Toys list, but really I'm not lying when I say we all want a labeller.

3. Evernote Premium Subscription- Because Evernote is hot, hot, hot as the go to digital file system for genealogists. A premium subscription with all its bells and whistles would be a the bomb.

4. Whiteboard - Why a whiteboard? A great visual tool for mapping out family lines, thinking through analysis and brainstorming brickwalls. It also works well in storyboarding your family history stories.

5. Dry erase markers and post it notes - in lots of colours to go with that whiteboard.

6. Moleskin Journals - because pen and paper is always in vogue and when you buy an Evernote Moleskin Journal you get the Evernote Premium subscription free for 3 months.

7. Field notes - love these little notebooks to carry with you when you're out on an archival field trip or family history travels. They make a great stocking stuffer.

8. Archival sheet protectors and binders- you can never have enough of these to organize your primary documents and pictures.

9. Business cards - if your genealogist is setting up shop, give them a gift certificate for business cards, especially if their attending Rootstech in 2015.

10. Wall organizer - this is a great visual tool to organize your current research and writing projects. It just might help clear up some of the piles on the desk.

You'll find links to all these great gift ideas below. If you're a genealogist be sure to pin this post to your Christmas wish list board.