Last week, a reader wrote me a lovely letter thanking me for organizing and executing The Family History Writing Challenge. Del joined The Challenge for the month of February and found success, I was privileged to be a small part of Del's story.
He wrote me such a beautiful letter, I asked Del if I could share his letter with my readers, I knew other readers who are struggling to make writing their family history a priority in their life would find inspiration through Del's words.
Thank you so much for offering your help all last month. Your daily encouragement, and the challenge of the Feb. 29 deadline, helped spur me to write my first family history story.
My wife Carol and I have been family history enthusiasts since about 2007. During a long career in the Air Force where many of our "vacations" were centered around visits to our geographically divided families, like a lot of people we heard lots of stories about family but treated that history as something that would always be available, for the asking. We are both in our 60's now and wished we could go back and ask those questions that we didn't back when we could get a living answer. So for the last five years or so we've been collecting lots of history from the few older-timers we still can talk with and have been combing the various records online through ancestry.com and other websites. A few times we even made it to county courthouse vaults, hidden and overgrown cemeteries in the rural South, libraries and funeral homes.
We've reconnected with cousins, aunts and uncles, thankfully my late dad and my mother-in-law, who is now living with us. We really became excited about four years ago when we stumbled upon a previously unknown (to us) branch of Carol's family while looking for her great, great grandfather's tomb in rural southwestern Alabama—about 100 miles away from our own home. Not only did they fill in a lot of blank spots, they invited us to an annual family reunion and turned out to be exceptionally friendly and talented, especially musically. For a Connecticut Yankee like me, enjoying fellowship, home made food, Bluegrass and Gospel music in mid-August in a former country school turned community center . . . is priceless.
I ended up choosing to write about my wife's great great grandfather, Archibald Buie Bartlett. He's the common ancestor for so many nice people we've met on her side of the family—an whose grave was the reason we met so many family members. He was born in an interesting historical time, child of some restless pioneers who moved from Georgia to the territory of West Florida before sinking roots in Alabama. Even though we've never seen a photo of Archibald or his bride, there was plenty of other records to paint a pretty full portrait of the man and his historical time . . . family stories of Indian heritage, fighting through the Civil War, wounded and a prisoner of war, and also a simple farmer who signed his name with an "x".
Our genealogy club president emailed us your website challenge back in January. That was just the encouragement I needed to get organized and do something with all our records, pictures and stuff. I still work full-time—I've been a writer and photojournalist at weekly newspaper for the past 19 years—so I liked the idea of a deadline. It's a goal, a spur to writing even when you'd rather not and an ending. I liked the idea that completing a family history story allows you to pass on a story—rather than boxes of records—to the next generation. Something you wrote about early on was also very appealing—finishing a story on one branch of our family history gives you permission to ease up on the pressure to hunt for ever more detailed records and move on to another branch of our family history, one quite unlike the history Archibald lived.
I started outlining Archibald's story about a week before January ended and wrote in spurts. On the days when I worked longer hours— covering local government meetings for the paper, for example—I tried to meet my daily "quota" by at least thinking about what direction I wanted to go, what records, photos or maps I could use to support the story, or what research became obvious that I still needed. Your suggestions about a hook, humor and fleshing out characters spurred some revising, thoughts about how and what to write and to expand my audience. (My grandkids, ages 21 to 10, were the primary audience I
Some of your other bloggers were very helpful, just reading their blogs and other links they posted. I didn't think I had enough time to participate in the online forums, but will try to do so the next time I tackle a family history story. Other family history writers are so creative. I recommended your blog to some other genealogists and writers I know. One lady is writing historical fiction.
I ended up with a thrice revised draft of about 30 pages. I printed out your blog about editing and beta readers which I thought contained excellent advice, especially about the beta writers. I'm still working on how to best provide readers the source records, photos and maps that help tell Archibald's story. Besides just attaching them to the story, I'm learning how to incorporate hyperlinks into the story so readers can just read the story or click on the link to review the source documents.
Again, thanks for your encouragements and tips. They were just the challenge I needed.