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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.

2 comments:

  1. Gee I have a research journal I've kept over years of finding my kin and how I pieced families together and located, maybe I should write a novel on my research. Thinking in Montana; but born and raised in New Jersey! New Jersey, Colony and breadbasket for the colonies at one point in time!!!

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  2. I purchased this book and read it as soon as it came from amazon.ca. As I read, I hummed. (John McDermott's version of "Glencoe.") And I knew then how to start my own family history book, even though it's different from Ryan's, will probably (no, definitely) undergo significant changes before it's through, and will only be offered to my family members. Thanks Lynn and Ryan.

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