google-site-verification: google65e716d80989ba07.html The Armchair Genealogist: February 2013

Want to Build a Family History Legacy Book

Writing Family History with Author Ryan Littrell

I could think of no better way to close out the last day of The Family History Writing Challenge then to share with my readers this interview with Ryan Littrell. Ryan wrote and self-published his family history memoir Reunion: A Search for Ancestors. He was kind enough to share his writing experience with our challenge members. 

     Lynn:  Welcome Ryan to The Family History Writing Challenge and The Armchair Genealogist, I wonder if you could take a few minutes to tell us your story. How does a lawyer from New York City find himself immersed in family history and then take the plunge into family history writing?

Ryan: Thank you for inviting me!  I grew up in a small town in central Illinois, and moved to New York after law school. I’d never really known much about my ancestors, but that changed when I went back to visit my family in Illinois for Christmas, not long after moving to New York.

A few days into the trip, my mom showed me a letter that she and my aunt Donna had found in an old box. The letter was unsigned, and we had no idea who’d written it, but it gave the names of some of my ancestors, and some dates. And soon I found myself coming home from work and spending the next few hours Googling my ancestors’ names and searching every website I could find for more clues. (Some people might call me crazy, while others might say I’m obsessed. I prefer the term “dedicated.”)

Then, as I uncovered one ancestor after another, I began to wonder about their lives, not just their names and dates and places of burial. Just who were these people, and what were they all about? I realized that I cared more about their stories than their genealogical details, and that’s how I started writing Reunion.

      Lynn:  Did you consider yourself a writer before this venture? What happened that made you decide to make the jump from family historian to family history writer? How did you prepare yourself for writing this book aside from your family history research?

Ryan: Actually, writing this book didn't involve much of a jump; the kinds of things that I jotted down in my notebook while doing genealogical research were the same kinds of things that ended up in the final version of Reunion. Even when I was just beginning to learn about my ancestors, I was already writing about them. And later, as I made progress in writing the book, I still kept up with the research. So for me, at least, the best preparation for writing this book was the search itself.

      Lynn: Many family history writers write for themselves, their families, their future descendants. Why did you decide to write a commercial book? Why take your book public? What was your motivation?

Ryan: When I started writing the book, I didn’t have a particular goal in mind, other than to tell the story as well as I could. But as Reunion developed, and I got a better sense of what the final work would be like, I began to suspect that other people (even strangers) might see a bit of themselves in it. Because this story—a person going on a journey to uncover his origins, and learn where he came from—doesn’t just belong to me, or to any one person. Sure, the details of my story might be different from yours, but the underlying dynamics are so similar. So many of the paths are well-trod.

      Lynn: One of the greatest challenges in writing a family history that you want someone else to read is getting the reader to invest in your ancestors and in the case of Reunion, your personal genealogical journey. How do you feel you achieved this in Reunion? Why do readers feel invested in your story?

  Ryan: Well, I don’t know for sure whether I achieved it—that’s for readers to decide! But if readers do feel invested in this story, it would be because Reunion has managed to tap into something that a lot of us share, as I just mentioned. I certainly hope that when people read this, they don’t come away thinking, “Well, I’m glad for him that he had this life-changing journey, but what’s in it for me?” I hope they almost feel like they’re in my shoes. Hopefully, they’ll see some of their story in mine.

      Lynn: Family historians are fact gathers, when writing our stories we face the arduous task of trying not to include every genealogical fact we have uncovered over our years of research. What methods did you employ to keep your story from becoming too dense with facts?

Ryan: You've highlighted what’s probably the greatest challenge in writing a book like this. On the one hand, every fact matters, and you can never be certain which clue might end up being the one that solves the mystery. On the other hand, a recitation of facts quickly bogs down the narrative.

And, to be honest, I don’t think there’s a hard-and-fast rule to adhere to, or a sure-fire method to employ. I just think it takes work, perhaps a lot of time, and some experience in figuring out where to strike the balance. As I wrote Reunion, I was constantly trying to please the persnickety genealogist in me, while also trying to please the storyteller in me. I don’t think either one is happy, but hopefully they’re both kind of satisfied.

      Lynn: I love the structure of your book. We follow your genealogical journey but you alternate those chapters with the history of the McDonald Clan. Can you tell us a about how the decision came to structure the novel in this manner?

Ryan: Thanks for the compliment! I knew from the beginning that Reunion wouldn't simply be a tale of my own search for ancestors, because that’s just one part of the puzzle. In order to grasp what our ancestors mean to us, we have to understand the broader context in which they lived; their time and place helped to define them just as our time and place help to define us. As I wrote the book, I cared about names and dates and details, but only because I was beginning to get a sense about who these ancestors really were, what their lives were like. Gradually, I came to realize that maybe the best way to capture this dynamic would be to tell my ancestors’ story, interspersed with mine.

      Lynn: Most writers start out with an idea in mind when they begin writing. Rarely do they stick with that vision. Writing is really a process that involves an evolution of not only the story but the evolution of the writer as well. How different does your book look today from when you first conceived it?  Secondly, how has the process of writing your family history story changed you, the writer?

      Ryan: You’re certainly right about how a book can change—this book is very different from what I envisioned when I started. Originally, I wanted to write a book that was more essay-like, a series of reflections about how and why family history matters to people. Over time, though, I began to see how telling a story might shed more light on these things than expository prose could, and so Reunion became more of a novel than an essay. Before writing this book, I saw myself as a nonfiction writer who might someday write a novel, but now I see myself as a novelist who might someday go back to nonfiction.

      Lynn: How long did it take you to write and publish your book, from the idea to holding the final product in your hands? What were your biggest challenges along the way? What sorts of things slowed the process down for you?

Ryan: It took about six years from start to finish, but much of that time was devoted to life outside of writing. The greatest challenge was simply learning how to write a book like this; I didn’t know how to write Reunion until I’d already written it. Like any writer, I had to figure out things as I went along. (And that goes for any profession or skill, from painting to baseball.) You can learn so much from bloggers and other writers—including the participants and guest authors in the Family History Writing Challenge!—and their advice and recommendations are extremely valuable. But ultimately, it’s just you and the computer screen. And your ancestors, of course.

      Lynn:  I believe the two greatest demons a writer faces is making the time to write and beating back those negative voices. How did you personally deal with these demons? What did your writing routine look like? What kind of support group did you have in place?

Ryan: You mean other than my local chapter of Genealogy Addicts Anonymous? More than anything, I was fortunate to have family and friends who were willing to give me honest opinions, and their support often silenced those voices of self-doubt. But in some instances, people pointed out things that could be improved, and that was much more valuable than outright praise. Self-doubt should be kept in check, but it can also prevent you from becoming overconfident—and so it might improve your writing.

For me, in any event, it’s hard to create a writing routine, because there are some days when the words are flowing, and then there are days when I have trouble just finishing a paragraph. There are some writers who can sit down at the computer, at some scheduled time, and write X number of words, and then click Save. These people make me very jealous.

      Lynn: What surprised you the most about the writing and publishing process?  Where there preconceptions or myths about writing and publishing that were dispelled through the journey of this book?

      Ryan: This may not be the most exciting answer, but the truth is that I was most surprised by how time-consuming the basic mechanics were—the steps involved in taking a document on your computer and turning it into a physical book (and a digital file for e-readers). It’s easy for a writer to think that a book is finished once every word has been put in the right place. But there’s so much involved in designing and formatting that text, along with the book cover.

      Lynn: You chose to self-publish Reunion. Why did you choose this route? How did you educate yourself on the publishing industry?

Ryan: For me, independence is very important, and that’s the chief benefit of self-publishing. But self-publishing has its disadvantages, too, and so it may not be the right choice for everyone. Many authors, for instance, place a lot of value on the services that a traditional publisher provides. My decision came after reading a lot of online articles and blogs discussing the pros and cons of self-publishing—and with respect to Reunion, at least, the pros outweighed the cons.

     Lynn: What vehicles are you currently using to promote and market your book?

Ryan: For now, mostly, I try to spread the word through Facebook; I’ve found that a Facebook page is a great way to connect with readers. I’m on Twitter, too, and I know that a lot of authors love it, but I’m just more comfortable with Facebook, at least for the time being.

 Lynn: Did you outsource the editing, design and formatting of your book, or was this a complete DIY project? What advice do you have for other readers who are considering self-publishing?

Ryan: I did some things myself, and outsourced others. I discovered that I was able to design the layout of the print version of the book on my own (with a lot of help from my wife Penny), but I had to rely upon someone else to do the e-book version. And I hired a copy editor, who checked for typos and other errors but didn't do a full, substantive edit.

I’d advise any self-publishing author to at least hire a copy editor, because it’s easy to get so close to your text that you miss little things (such as writing “5” rather than “five”). If you’re not comfortable with programs like InDesign or Quark, I’d also recommend hiring someone to do the layout of the print version of the book. And unless you design e-books for a living, you’ll need to hire someone to do that, as well; formatting an e-book is much more complicated than many people realize.

    Lynn:  I have must ask you about the cover of your book. Usually family history memoirs tend to have pictures of ancestors or ancestral hometowns on the cover. You chose a different route. Can you explain the concept behind the cover of your book?

Ryan: The book cover came about through a collaboration between Penny and our cover designer, David Drummond. Penny came up with the idea of depicting people as figures connected to one another, linked together, in the way that generations on a family tree are. David, then, arranged these figures so that they formed a facial profile of a single person. So I think the cover says something about the connectedness between generations, and how our ancestors might be a part of who we are.

Lynn: Do you have any plans for a future book? Will it be in the family history genre?

Ryan: Yes, I’ve started work on a new book, which I hope to publish by the end of the year. It’s a novel, and very much about family history. I look forward to introducing it to readers!

    Lynn: Do you have any final words of advice for our challenge members or readers whose ultimate goal maybe to write and or publish a family history book?

Ryan: Do it. The worst-case scenario is that somebody, somewhere, criticizes your writing. But why worry about what they think? This is your family, after all, and the story deserves to be told.

Thank you Ryan, I hope readers will grab a copy of your book and  find in it the inspiration to write their own family history stories. 

About the Author

Ryan Littrell grew up in Chatham, Illinois and graduated from Northwestern University, followed by Boston College Law School, where he served as an Executive Editor of the Boston College Law Review. He lives in New York City, and Reunion: A Search for Ancestors is his first book.

Would You Rather Clean the Shower Tile Than Write Your Family History?


     You Don’t Have to Write a Book!

Writing Your Family History as Personal and Memoir Essays


(Once again I am pleased to welcome  Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, MFA, CG to The Armchair Genealogist.) 


Does the thought of writing your family history send you straight back to bed to hide under the covers? Is the grout in your shower tile suddenly in need of cleaning every time you attempt to write your family history? Have you procrastinated so long that the relatives who were bugging you to write The Book have died, and now, instead of feeling relieved that the pressure’s off, you’re feeling guilty and remorseful?

You’re not alone. Most genealogists agree that it’s the research they enjoy and have a true affinity for. The writing part, well, that just conjures up demonic images of matronly English teachers with bloody red correction pens. Have you considered, though, that you don’t have to write a whole book? You can write one, two, three, or many more essays about your ancestors instead.

Before we get started, let’s get rid of the equally unsavory image of the word essay. I’m not talking about English Comp, thesis statement, five-paragraph-type essays here. I’m talking about the genres known as personal essay and memoir essay and how these can be viable alternatives to, or the perfect springboards for, a larger work.

The word essay derives from the French word assay, which means “to try” or “to attempt.” As Dinty Moore (yes, that’s his real name) says in Crafting the Personal Essay, “The essayist does not sit down at her desk already knowing all of the right answers, because if she did, there would be no reason to write” (emphasis his). This is perfect! How many of us know all the answers about our ancestors?

By adding the adjective personal to essay, it means you’ll be writing about something personal to you, such as your parents, your grandparents, your great Aunt Matilda, or your fifth great-grandfather. By adding the adjective memoir to essay, it means you’ll be writing about your memories of a relative. It’s not uncommon to find a little of both within an essay.

Essays can be a few paragraphs or many pages. As a former writing teacher once told me, “Have something to say, and stop when you’ve said it.” The length depends on what you have to say about your relative or ancestor. But what defines personal and memoir essays is the inclusion of you, the writer, in the essay.

Putting yourself into the narrative brings the essay to life for your readers. They might not be able to connect with an ancestor who lived 200 years ago, but they can connect with you, a writer, who’s searching for that ancestor and seeking answers about that person’s life. Or they can relate to your trek to the ancestral homesite to walk the ground your forebear walked. Or they can understand the writer who travels thousands of miles to the Old Country but keeps getting lost when he tries to find the cemetery.

The personal essay is as much about the author’s quest, the attempt, to find and/or understand past lives, as it is about the ancestor. The author doesn't have to have all the answers and doesn't have to reach conclusions. The reader is coming along for the journey, the experience, the sense of discovery the author makes along the way.

The memoir essay, on the other hand, captures a memory, or memories, from the author’s life as it relates to that family member. While a personal essay ponders a question or questions the author is trying to answer, the memoir essay just “is.” The memoir essay relates a memorable event told in story fashion.

The added beauty of personal/memoir essay writing is you aren't obligated to document your sources. You are the source, your memories and your musings. In writing essays, which are always nonfiction, the reader brings to the table the trust that you are being honest and truthful—or as honest and truthful as your recollections and your interpretation of the events can be.

The best way to get a feel for essay writing, to see if it’s for you, is to read several of them. I’ve listed below some essays and a book of collected essays that are about each authors’ families. The list is not inclusive, but it offers a variety of approaches to writing personal and memoir essays about relatives and ancestors. As you read the essays, you will discover that many authors have developed themes or posed questions that most genealogists might not think to write about. But each one explores aspects of family history that resonates with readers.

Now when it comes time to write your family history, and the shower tile grout calls your name, consider writing something shorter and more manageable: a personal or memoir essay about your family.

Suggested Reading

“Aunt Harriet” by Hubert Butler (You can find this essay in the anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate, available at many libraries)

TheClan of One-Breasted Women,” by Terry Tempest Williams (Google the title and author to find the essay online.)

Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan (Google the title and author to find the essay online.)

“Questionnaire for My Grandfather” by Kim Adrian in Gettysburg Review (Winter 2009). (Back issues can be purchased at www.gettysburgreview.com/)

“Reading History to My Mother” by Robin Hemley (Published in the anthology Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present, edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone)

The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings by Rebecca McClanahan (This book is a collection of essays about various relatives in the author’s family.)

“Switched at Midlife” by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, published online at http://www.hippocampusmagazine.com/2012/01/switched-at-midlife-by-sharon-carmack/.

“The Urban Jungle” by Linda Gartz, published online at http://www.roseandthornjournal.com/Fall_2012_Prose_5.html.


About the Author

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack’s passion is writing, and she loves working with writers. She’s a Certified Genealogist with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing. Her twenty-plus years of editing experience includes acquisition, development, and content editing of more than forty books for F+W Media’s Betterway/Family Tree Books, as well as editor and/or mentor for numerous private clients. Sharon serves on the editorial board of Steinbeck Review, is an assistant editor for Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, and a contributing editor for Family Tree Magazine.

Sharon is also a published 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. Her work has also appeared in writing and literary publications: Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Hippocampus Magazine (where her essay, “Switched at Midlife” won “Most Memorable”), Steinbeck Review, Writer’s Digest, and Phoebe: A Journal of Literature and Art (where her essay received Honorable Mention in the annual Creative Nonfiction Contest). Sharon’s essays have also been finalists for the Bellingham Review’s Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction and in Creative Nonfiction’s True Crime contest.

Along with an MFA (with Distinction) in Creative Nonfiction Writing from National University, Sharon holds a BA (summa cum laude) in English from Regis University, and a Diploma in Irish Studies from the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Sharon teaches personal essay writing classes online for Writer’s Digest University and Irish genealogical research classes online for Family Tree University. She is also part of the adjunct genealogy faculty for Salt Lake Community College’s online Certificate in Genealogy program. As an Associate Faculty in the English Department for Ashford University, Sharon teaches English Composition courses.

You can reach Sharon through her website www.NonfictionHelp.com.


Monday Morning Mentions


Monday Morning Mentions is an opportunity to reflect on the events of the week at the Armchair Genealogist and in the blogging and book community. Over my morning cappuccino, I will take the opportunity to share with you some of my favourite blogs posts this week and give a nod to my peers.




You can also find me on Facebook. Stop by and leave a message. I often will link some great finds there as well. You can also follow me on twitter at @LynnPal or my twitter paper The Armchair Genealogist Journal.



At the Armchair Genealogist this week, posts included the following:


by Biff Barnes of  Stories to Tell 


Internet Genealogy – a great genealogy or internet tip that will benefit any armchair genealogist.

This week's mention: 


Certified genealogist Harold Henderson helps us understand the importance of our research notes in his article Keeping Track on The Road to Proof  at Archives.com.

Self-Publishing for The Family Historian, Is It For You?, Julie Cahill from Writing Your Way To The Past provides a round-up of articles across the web to help you with your self-publishing endeavours.

Swapping My Cheek for Deep Ancestry, Leslie Lang from Talk Story Press, shares the beginnnings of her DNA testing with National Geographics Genographic Project. Another DNA project to consider? 

Want to participate in a family history scavenger hunt and win some prizes. Marian at Roots and Rambles gives us all the details of Houstory To Host Online Scavenger Hunt for Genealogy, Family History Fans. Sounds like fun! 

Dick Eastman shared the news that Family Tree DNA now as a $39.00 entry level DNA test. Hard not to jump in at that price. Read Family Tree DNA Unveils $39.00 Test for more details. 

Writing Family History - great advice or information on writing your family history.

This week’s mention:

This one goes out to all my challenge members. Janice Hardy from The Other Side of the Story encourages talking through your scenes with a writing partner. Read The Benefit of Talking Through Your Scenes. 


Family History Writing Challenge.  

Below is list of blogs that posted this week on The Family History Writing Challenge. 


Beyond the Horizon by Midge Frazel
Adventures in Family History Writing  by Deb Newton-Carter
Rambling Along the Ancestral Trail by Deborah A. Carder Mayes
Branching Out Through the Years by Fran Ellsworth
Converging Roots by Kristen Wimbush
Ohana Tree Family Research  by Ami Mulligan
Roots and Stuff by Mary Fox
Rhine Girl   by BettyAnn Schmidt
GenWestUK by Ros
Finding Family by Janet
Freud's Butcher by Edie Jarolim
Rhea/Yeakley Family History by Ann Hinds
Genealogical Musings by The History Chick
Family History Writing Service by Joy Stubbs
Sifting Through the Past by Natalie Parker
My Mother's Family History by Betty Taylor
Kitchen Sink Genealogy by Jane Neff Rollins
Genealogy on the Go by Pamela Wile
Maybe Some One Should Write That Down...by Kassie Ritman
Hoover History by Betty Taylor
Anglers Rest by Julie Goucher
Dr. Bill Tells Ancestor Stories by Bill Smith
Our Ancestories by Miles Meyer
Many Branches One Tree by Linda Huesca Tully
The Life of John Ebbott by Sandra Williamson 
A Sense of Family by Shelley Bishop
Uncovering the Dead by Marianna Craig

If you posted about the challenge this week or posted your stories for the challenge and you're not on the list be sure to leave me a message. I'll be updating this list every Monday throughout the challenge.



Productivity and Motivation for the busy genealogist - we all struggle with juggling family life, research, writing, blogs and on and on. Each week I'll choose a blog post that just might give you that little push you need. 

This Week's mention:

Oh wow, this one really hit home, and I suspect it will for many a genealogist, please read Why You Need to Get Rid of The Digital Crap That Ways You Down by Joan Otto, community manager at Man vs Debt. 


Social Media for the Genealogist - this will include social media advice and learning opportunities from experts both inside and outside of the genealogy industry. 

This week's mention: 

Pat Flynn from Smart Passive Income has always been someone I look to for guidance and inspiration. I encourage you to watch this week's podcast, Pat shares with us his presentation from the New Media Expo conference. For those of you promoting your business online or creating an online business you may find this presentation extremely compelling. How to Use FREE In Your Business to Get More Traffic, Subscribers and Customers

Books that Move and Matter - each week we will feature an ebook or print book with the family historian in mind. It may come as a great source of information, for research or writing or playing to our historical interests, or may just be a great read I think genealogists will love.

A New book to share with you this week. 

Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing 

Amazon Book Description: 
This book provides guidance and insight for women who write about family. Award-winning women writers from all walks of life share their experiences in planning, composing, editing, publishing, teaching, and promoting work in a variety of writing genres. Readers will learn to tackle sensitive family issues and avoid pitfalls in memoir writing, poetry, fiction, and others. Filled with tips, exercises, and anecdotes, this anthology is appropriate for both well-seasoned writers and those just beginning. 



New Genealogy Blog – we will tip our hat to a newcomer who impresses us right out of the box


This Week's Mention: 

Be sure to stop by and welcome  Lynn Broderick from  The Single Leaf. A beautifully designed and well written blog on family history. 


The Webinar Watch - Each week we will list upcoming webinars mostly in genealogy, but occasionally I come across one for writing or social media I think is beneficial, I'll be sure to share it here. 

This week's webinars: 

Annie Moore of Ellis Island: A Case of Historical Identify Theft presented by Megan Smolenyak hosted by Legacy Family Tree. Wednesday Feb 27th. FREE.

Time Travel with Google Earth presented by Lisa Louise Cooke hosted by Southern California Genealogical Society. Saturday Mar 2. FREE.


Other Great Round-ups

You can find more new genealogy bloggers at Thomas' list of New Genealogy Blogs at Geneabloggers.

For other great reads, Randy at Genea-Musings offers the Best of the Genea-Blogs

Read Friday Finds by Julie Cahill at GenBlog

Dan Curtis, Professional Personal Historian always puts together some interesting selections in Monday's Link Round-Up.

British and Irish Genealogy blog offers lots of goodies, This week brings Genealogy News for Feb 22nd.

And Jana Last lists some favorites on Follow Friday -- Fab Finds for Feb 22nd, 2013 by Jana Last on Jana's Genealogy and Family History Blog.

Here's a new round-up to follow, Two Nerdy History Girls offers us a weekly round-up. I think you'll find them fascinating. This week's Breakfast Links: Week of February 18th.

And John at Transylvanian Dutch brings us his Weekly Genealogy Picks.

Have a great genealogy week, keep researching and writing!

Write Your Family History Using the Tools of Creative Nonfiction

(Today Biff Barnes from Stories to Tell joins us to discuss the writing genre of Creative Nonfiction as means of writing our family history stories)

A lot of people think creative nonfiction is an oxymoron.

If you are writing a family history you are writing about things that have already happened. Your job is to recount the facts of those events. Where’s the creativity in that?

Best-selling author Tom Wolfe (The Right StuffBonfire of the Vanities) asked himself a similar question in the early 1960s, when he was a reporter for the New York Herald. He was struck, he said in New York Magazine, by the notion that “…it just might be possible to write journalism that would…read like a novel.”

The idea was to give the full objective description…plus something that readers had always had to go to novels and short stories for: namely, the subjective or emotional life of the characters.

So how do you employ the tools of fiction as a family historian while staying within the bounds of fact, as Wolfe said “…to write accurate nonfiction?”
Let’s look at three techniques that will help you bring your ancestors to life.

Break out of strict chronology.

Events may have happened in a chronological sequence, but they don’t have to be reported that way. Edward Humes, who won a Pulitzer Prize when he was a newspaper reporter and has gone on to write ten books, nonfiction narratives about crime and public issues, explains how he used the technique:

I hated the fact that Bill Leasure, the corrupt LAPD traffic cop in my second book, Murderer with a Badge, chose murder as his first crime. Only later did he segue into stealing a few million dollars worth of yachts. Chronicling events in that order would have been anticlimactic. So I abandoned any pretense of a chronological structure, and started the first chapter with Leasure aboard a stolen boat. The murders unfolded later in the book, in a section that dealt with an earlier period in Leasure’s life. Then the narrative jumped forward again to a time after the yacht thefts, when those unsolved murders were finally linked to Leasure by the police. That kept the tension in the narrative building, though structurally it was kind of messy—like my main character’s life.

One way to grab your readers’ attention is to begin your family history with a dramatic event or turning point. You can look at what led up to that moment and the consequences which followed later in the book.

Create scenes and dialogue

How might you go about writing dialogue for a scene when you have limited knowledge of what the speaker might have said or how he might have said it? If you are fortunate you have journals, diaries or letters that will give you some ideas about what your ancestor would have said and how they might have said it. But even if you don’t you know something about the situation the person is in.

Consider what the person might have been thinking and feeling and you can get a sense of what they might have said.

Let’s look at how Paul David Pope did it in his family history Deeds of My FatherThe scene is a cafĂ© next to a rutted dusty street in a small Italian village.

Generoso, Pope’s grandfather is seated at a table with a well-dressed agent for a shipping company which is offering passage to America. Pope uses narrative summary to supply facts about Italian immigration and the way people in the village might have viewed it. The only dialogue in the scene is as follows:

“How much is the fare for America?” Generoso asked.
“Ten dollars.”
“How old do you have to be?”
“Sixteen.”
“I can’t wait.”
“Look here.” [Generoso shows the agent a letter from his brother-in-law in NY offering to sponsor him when he arrives in America.].
“Would you like to see some pictures of New York?”
“Oh, yes! Very much.”

The scene works effectively at bringing to life this pivotal moment in Generoso’s life. But Pope hasn’t taken any great fictional leaps in creating the dialogue. What boy hoping to get on a ship would not have asked these same questions? He is simply describing the inevitable conversation that must have taken place. The dialogue is in the context of many known facts: the location, the people, and the events.

Speculate about people’s thoughts and feelings

Speculation can be tricky, but if you deal with only what you can infer from known facts and indicate what you are doing to your reader it can be very effective.
Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Stacy Schiff’s recent book Cleopatra: A Life offers a good model of how to do it. Let’s look at how Schiff dealt with the days after Julius Caesar’s assassination. She begins by telling her readers that there is no record of exactly what Cleopatra was thinking at that time, then speculates:

…whether she grieved personally [for Caesar] or not, she had cause for apprehension. Not only was there no one to intervene on her behalf in Rome, but she had now inserted herself dangerously into the blood sport of that city’s politics.
Next Schiff looks at the state of Egypt at that moment.

She returned to a kingdom that was prosperous and at peace…There are no extant records of protests concerning tax collections, no evidence of the kind of revolt that had greeted her father’s return. The temples flourished…”Home is best,” went the Greek adage, and so it must have felt to Cleopatra.

To illustrate that feeling, Schiff returns to facts in the historical record to show that Cleopatra was indeed happy to be home.

“She embarked on an ambitious building program,” says Schiff. “Under Cleopatra, Alexandria enjoyed a robust intellectual revival.” And Cleopatra’s people held her in even greater esteem than she had enjoyed earlier in her rein. As Schiff explains, “If Caesar had returned from Alexandria more royal than before, Cleopatra returned from Rome more godly. She vigorously embraced her role as Isis [the Egyptian goddess Cleopatra was supposed to embody] It did not hurt her that on the first day of 42[B.C.] Caesar was  - in a solemn religious ceremony – declared a god.”

All in all, Schiff provides a pretty good insight into Cleopatra’s likely state of mind.
Employing these simple techniques used by fiction writers to tell your family’s story will create a more interesting and engaging account of your ancestors for your reader. After all, isn’t that the point of creating a family history book?


Biff Barnes
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

Monday Morning Mentions



Monday Morning Mentions is an opportunity to reflect on the events of the week at the Armchair Genealogist and in the blogging and book community. Over my morning cappuccino, I will take the opportunity to share with you some of my favourite blogs posts this week and give a nod to my peers.




You can also find me on Facebook. Stop by and leave a message. I often will link some great finds there as well. You can also follow me on twitter at @LynnPal or my twitter paper The Armchair Genealogist Journal.



At the Armchair Genealogist this week, posts included the following:




Internet Genealogy – a great genealogy or internet tip that will benefit any armchair genealogist.

This week's mention: 

In case you missed it, there's a shiny new digital genealogy magazine to help you with your research. Be sure to check out the premier issue of The In-Depth Genealogist

Kenneth Marks of Ancestor Hunt shares some free newspaper websites and gives us a tour of few in this video, Researching Newspapers for Genealogy for Free

How Do I Decode Slave Records? by Henry Louis Gates Jr.  Gates helps a researcher understand what to look for in antebellum documents. 

Nominate your  favorite genealogy website, tools, software, books, societies, and educational experiences in Kimberly Powell's Reader's Choice Award Nominations at About.com Genealogy


Writing Family History - great advice or information on writing your family history.

This week’s mention:

Trying to make sense of your memoir Biff Barnes at Stories to Tell brings it into focus with Writing a Memoir: The Search for Meaning.  

Family History Writing Challenge.  

Below is list of blogs that posted this week on The Family History Writing Challenge. 


Beyond the Horizon by Midge Frazel
Adventures in Family History Writing  by Deb Newton-Carter
Deborah A. Carder Mayes  Family History by Debbie Mayes
Branching Out Through the Years by Fran Ellsworth
Converging Roots by Kristen Wimbush
Ohana Tree Family Research  by Ami Mulligan
Roots and Stuff by Mary Fox
Rhine Girl   by BettyAnn Schmidt
GenWestUK by Ros
Finding Family by Janet
Freud's Butcher by Edie Jarolim
Rhea/Yeakley Family History by Ann Hinds
Genealogical Musings by The History Chick
Family History Writing Service by Joy Stubbs
Sifting Through the Past by Natalie Parker
My Mother's Family History by Betty Taylor
Kitchen Sink Genealogy by Jane Neff Rollins
Genealogy on the Go by Pamela Wile
Maybe Some One Should Write That Down...by Kassie Ritman
Hoover History by Betty Taylor
Anglers Rest by Julie Goucher
Dr. Bill Tells Ancestor Stories by Bill Smith
Our Ancestories by Miles Meyer
Many Branches One Tree by Linda Huesca Tully
The Life of John Ebbott by Sandra Williamson 
A Sense of Family by Shelley Bishop
Uncovering the Dead by Marianna Craig

If you posted about the challenge this week or posted your stories for the challenge and you're not on the list be sure to leave me a message. I'll be updating this list every Monday throughout the challenge.



Productivity and Motivation for the busy genealogist - we all struggle with juggling family life, research, writing, blogs and on and on. Each week I'll choose a blog post that just might give you that little push you need. 

This Week's mention:

This one every one can benefit from but it specifically goes out to my challenge writers who are busy this month creating new writing habits. Read The 3 Questions That Will Lead to Guaranteed Success by Izzy at Lifehack. 


Social Media for the Genealogist - this will include social media advice and learning opportunities from experts both inside and outside of the genealogy industry. 

This week's mention: 

I have to admit I don't spend a lot of time studying the numbers of my blog. I focus on content and as long as a couple of key numbers are headed in the write direction I'm good. Perhaps it's just because haven't taken the time to understand all the numbers available to us to help  grow our blogs. This article hit home for me this week. 15 Metrics Every Marketing Manager Should be Tracking by Hub Spot. A nice article to help you take your blog numbers to the next level. 

I do some guest posting and I allow guest posts so this article caught my attention and is definitely worth a read if you intend to offer guest posts on your blog. Why Blogs That Allow Guest Posts Will Be Penalized in 2013 by Problogger. 


New Genealogy Blog – we will tip our hat to a newcomer who impresses us right out of the box

This Week's Mention: 

I'm loving all the Polish blogs that have been joining the family history blogging community. Hoping one of these days I find a distant Polish cousin. This week welcome My Polish Roots blog. 


The Webinar Watch - Each week we will list upcoming webinars mostly in genealogy, but occasionally I come across one for writing or social media I think is beneficial, I'll be sure to share it here. 

This week's webinars: 


Family Search Wiki presented by Laura Williams Carter, hosted by Georgia Genealogical Society. Monday February 18th. FREE.

 No Will, No Problem presented by Michael John Neill hosted by Southern California Genealogical Society. Wednesday February 20th. FREE.

Making the Most of Canadian Census Records presented by Kathryn Lake Hogan hosted by Legacy Family Tree. Wednesday February 20th. FREE. 

Doing It Backwards: Finding Descendants First presented by Alice Volkert hosted by Utah Genealogical Society. Thursday February 21st. FREE. 

#Genchat this Friday February 22nd, discussion topic newspapers.

Other Great Round-ups

You can find more new genealogy bloggers at Thomas' list of New Genealogy Blogs at Geneabloggers.

For other great reads, Randy at Genea-Musings offers the Best of the Genea-Blogs

Read Friday Finds by Julie Cahill at GenBlog

Dan Curtis, Professional Personal Historian always puts together some interesting selections in Monday's Link Round-Up.

British and Irish Genealogy blog offers lots of goodies, This week brings Genealogy News for Feb 15th.

And Jana Last lists some favorites on Follow Friday -- Fab Finds for Feb 15th, 2013 by Jana Last on Jana's Genealogy and Family History Blog.

Here's a new round-up to follow, Two Nerdy History Girls offers us a weekly round-up. I think you'll find them fascinating. This week's Breakfast Links: Week of February 4th.

And John at Transylvanian Dutch brings us his Weekly Genealogy Picks.

Have a great genealogy week, keep researching and writing!