google-site-verification: google65e716d80989ba07.html The Armchair Genealogist: January 2014

Finding Time to Write

 We all struggle to find a few minutes in our day to write. Here are a few tips I've assembled in The Companion Guide to the Family History Writing Challenge. I hope it aids you in identifying opportunities in your day to make writing a priority. 
 1. Keep a Journal. For one week keep a notepad jotting down everything you do in the day, all tasks, household chores, work, lunch, making dinner, checking email, watching TV. Record all tasks, large and small for one week. This exercise will help you be conscious of how you currently spend your time. You might me surprised.

2. Identify the time stealers on your list. I’m sure there are plenty. These are items that you’re doing far too frequently with little to show for it. Are you aware how many times you check social media in a day and for how long?

 3. Create a Plan to Minimize Your Time Stealers
 Sleep. I don’t consider sleep a time stealer. However, I’ve always been envious of those who get through life on a minimal amount of sleep. No question the best way to add time to your day is to wake earlier and go to bed later. I have to be realistic, I don’t function on 5 hours of sleep nor can I make the jump from 8 hours of sleep to 7 or even 6 hours of sleep in one effort. I have been trying to wake earlier. Writing in the morning works best for me, but I also need my sleep. Every couple of weeks, I adjust my alarm clock 15 minutes earlier slowly adjusting my wake time and extending my day and writing time by a few more minutes.
Turn off the TV. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been involved in several writing groups and classes and one common characteristic I have found among writers who are getting the work done…they don’t watch TV. Many writers have sworn off television or limit their TV time, instead they spend time with the more productive and rewarding task of writing.

Limit social media and email. Don’t constantly check your email and Facebook and Twitter accounts. Social media is a huge distraction. Identify times in your day when you engage in social media and email and stick to it, set a timer if you have to and shut it down when the timer goes off. When you sit down to write, create a distraction-free zone, no TV, no email, no social media while you are writing.

Set targets. The more you write, the more you write. That’s not a miss-print. When you first start it might take you 45 minutes to write 500 words, but as you progress you’ll be able to crank out 1000 words in 45 minutes becoming more efficient and productive. Set yourself a target, stick to the plan and give yourself a good 30 days to find a groove making writing a new habit in your life. Here's what I liked to do in the early days, when I needed a few minutes of distraction-free writing. I turned off all social media, and phones. I set my timer (a kitchen egg timer-for 30 minutes) and I began to write. Even if the telephone rang, I did not stop to answer it. It's about choosing to make writing a priority! When the timer goes off, I took a 5 minute break, got a drink, stretched, and maybe checked who called. I set the timer and repeated. I used this process regularly when I started writing. I can now write in 5-6 hour stretches in the right conditions with little more than a few breaks and shutting out all distractions. I accomplished a lot using this method. If you have kids it's also a cue to them, when the timer goes off mommy is available. I don't use the timer too often anymore, your needs will change as you begin to develop good habits and it will all become natural. Consider the egg timer to find your distraction-free writing time. Despite whether you use time or a word count as your measurement for daily writing, set a target to help keep you on track and measure your daily success.

Be Proud. Let your family know it’s time to write, that means declaring your intention to them and offering up cues when you mean business. That might mean closing the door to your office, or hanging a sign but without their support you’re fighting an uphill battle. Share your goal and enlist their support. If your family has an awareness of your goals, they are less likely to intrude on your writing time.

Carry your writing with you. I always have my writing with me; it may not be my entire project on my laptop on Scrivener. However, there is always a yellow legal pad on my kitchen counter to capture those thoughts when I’m making dinner. I keep a notebook in my purse and on my smartphone, again readily available to write at a moment’s notice. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t get into some heavy writing in the middle of the doctor’s office but I do on occasion get an idea, a word or a sentence that comes to me out of nowhere. I always have something available to capture it. I know myself and that thought will vanish in seconds if I don’t write it down.

Don’t cheat. Like a diet, it’s a slippery slope if you’ve committed to writing six days a week and suddenly you’re convincing yourself you don’t need to write today…or tomorrow. Before you know it, a week has passed without a written word. I also know that we are human and sometimes life just gets in the way. Don’t beat yourself up but get right back on schedule.

Schedule Your Writing Time. Seems like a frivolous task, marking your calendar with your daily writing time. However, writing is a mental game. You must treat writing as a concern in your life, and adding it to your daily schedule, making it a priority alongside all the other tasks you must accomplish in your day is important to keeping it front and center. If it’s not important enough to mark it on your calendar, it’s easily overlooked and soon will take a backseat to anyone of your other tasks.
Use the above techniques and the Family History Writing Challenge to create new habits you can stick with long-term. 

Our Companion Guide Getting Ready to Write walks you through planning your vision for your family history book, organizing you and your research and outlining your first story. It will prepare you to begin writing on February Feb 1st in the Family History Writing Challenge and help you to sustain your goals when February is finished. 

Family History Writers Share Their Expertise!

Each year during The Family HistoryWriting Challenge, I try to bring participants advice from experts in the field. Authors who know the challenges that are unique to family historians. I attempt to seek out writers who bring a variety of experience and this year is no exception.  Please enjoy a look at our line-up guest authors for this year's challenge. I’m also sharing with each writer's chosen topic for this year. I hope you'll join us in the challenge. 

1. Jean-François de Buren is new to our challenge. He is a passionate family historian who published his first family history in the fall of 2013.  Jean-François is bringing his thoughts and lessons learned in publishing his great-grandfather’s letters, A Voyage Across the Americas - The Journey of Henri de Büren.

Jean-Francois de Buren. Designer, writer, storyteller, historian, and aspiring filmmaker, Jean-François de Buren has been passionate about his family history for as long as he can remember. Over the past 10 years he has actively worked on the story of his Swiss, Argentine & American roots. He is an associate director of market development for KPMG, as well as an advisory board member for the Museum of the Swiss Abroad, in Geneva. Late last year he published the adaptation of his ancestor’s journals “A Voyage Across the Americas - The Journey of Henri de Büren" which traces a two-year expedition through the New World of the 1850s. Jean-François grew up in Northern California and is the father of two amazing girls.

2. Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is back for her third year with us and it is always a pleasure to have her in the house. Sharon brings with her a vast knowledge of family history writing. This year, Sharon is going to help us overcome the mistake of writing your stories in the ever boring, this happened and then that happened format.

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 one of ten essays selected for the Best of Hippocampus, May 2013), 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 in contests for the Bellingham Review’s Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction and in Creative Nonfiction’s True Crime contest, 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 that will debut this summer, Genealogy and Family History Writing.
She can be reached through her website,
3. Julie Cahill Tarr is a very dominant presence in our genealogy online community. Julie brings with her a wonderful understanding of the challenges family historians face in writing. She has inside knowledge of family history writing contests, and their ability to help a new writer gain confidence. She will be sharing her knowledge of writing contests with us.

Julie Cahill Tarr. Genealogy has been a passion of Julie's for several years and she has been a professional writer for as long as she can remember. Helping people write their family stories is a perfect blend of both passions. She provides writing, editing, and design services to assist other genealogists in telling their family stories.  Julie is currently the Quarterly Editor and Education Committee Chair for the Illinois State Genealogical Society.  You can follow Julie on her genealogy blog, Julie’s Genealogy & History Hub, at

4. Lisa Alzo returns for her third year to the challenge. An ever present voice in our writing community, Lisa brings an infinite amount of experience in an always easy to understand manner. Hot off the 2014 Rootstech conference, she will be helping us stay the course when the excitement has diminished and overcoming the always ominous writer’s block.

Lisa Alzo, M.F.A. currently resides in Ithaca,  New York. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 1987 and Master of Fine Arts in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Pittsburgh in 1997.Lisa began writing creatively in the fourth grade with an assignment entitled, “All About Me,” and went on to win several  English/Writing Awards throughout high school and college.  Lisa has published articles in Ancestry Magazine, Discovering Family History, Family Chronicle, Family Tree Magazine, Genealogical Computing, Reunions Magazine, NGSNews Magazine, Western Pennsylvania History Magazine, FEEFHS Journal and Rocenka: Journal of the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International, The Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly. An avid genealogist for 22 years, Lisa currently teaches online genealogy course for Family Tree University and the National Institute for Genealogical Studies. She is the recipient of the 2002 Mary Zirin Prize given by the Association for Women in Slavic Studies to recognize the achievements  of independent scholars, and is a frequent speaker for national conferences, genealogical and historical societies. You can find this busy writer at her website Lisa Alzo  and The Accidental Genealogist.

5. Biff Barnes returns with his expertise in the family history publishing field he has seen more than his share of family history books. He knows what works. Biff will be broaching the topic many of you wonder about, how to write a family history when you can’t know all the facts.

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

6. Linda Gartz returns to the challenge for her second year. She's currently in the editing stages of her own memoir/family history, and I anxiously await its publication. Linda has managed an incredible amount of family history research in preparation of her first draft. She will be sharing with us her lessons learned in acquiring and striving for that first draft.

Linda Gartz is an author and award-winning television documentary producer and writer. 

She’s been digging through more than a century of family letters, diaries, and artifacts, and has shared discoveries on her blog, Family Archaeologist, which can be found at her website, Her second blog, Letters of a World War II Airman, shares original letters to and from her uncle, Frank Ebner Gartz, from 1943-1945, tracing the course of WWII, life on the home front, and the evolution of a neighborhood kid into seasoned airman. Letters are posted on or near the 70th anniversary of the date they were written. You can find the earliest letters on her website, but now all are posted at ChicagoNow, a compendium of Chicago bloggers on wide-ranging topics.

She’s working on a memoir/family history of growing up in her family’s sprawling rooming house on Chicago’s West Side and the impact of wacky tenants, a psychotic grandmother, her traveling Dad’s long absences, and the racial upheavals of the 1960s on her parents’ love and livelihood. 

Her prose has been published in national and local magazines, newspapers, and literary journals, including Heartlands––A Magazine of Midwest Life and ArtThe Chicago Tribune’s Perspective (cover essay), MotorHome Magazine (travel), Bird Watcher's Digest, ChicagoLand Gardening, The Evanston Review, the Evanston RoundTable, and The Austin Weekly News. Online essays have appeared on Persimmon Tree, Rose and Thorn Online Journal, and Extracts: Daily Dose of Lit.

If you wish to have the pleasure of learning from these writers please join us in the challenge. Their articles will arrive in your Daily Dose newsletter throughout the month of February. Along with our guest author's contributions, a few of many posts coming your way during the month of February will include:

1. How to Find the Beginning of Your Story
2. Building Your Ancestors World 
3. Creating Authentic Ancestors
5. Recreation 
6. Show and Tell
7. Revision is Writing

 And many more! I hope you’ll join us in The Family History Writing Challenge.

How to Make Writing a Habit

We all have rituals in our life. Every morning, I wake and make myself a cappuccino, not those want-to-be cappuccinos in those plastic k-cups. I make real Italian coffee in an espresso pot, served in my white cappuccino cup, extra foam and topped with cinnamon. The house is usually still dark; I turn on the light next to my chair. I pull a soft, knitted cream blanket across my lap, with coffee beside me and laptop in hand, I begin to write. It’s a simple routine and may not seem important to the outside observer, but to me it is the ritual that launches me into my writing time. 

My writing time is distraction-free. There is no music playing, the TV is off and I have not opened my email or social media. Depending on my schedule, I may write for 30 minutes, I may write all morning. The practice I perform of pouring that coffee, wrapping myself in a blanket and sitting in my favourite chair is my ritual. Its’ very purpose is to place me in a mindset to write, to be creative.

Why do we want or need to create rituals? Rituals help us to habitulize events in our day, they give us one less thing to think about, one less task to plan.  When we begin any new routine and wish to establish it as a new habit, we usually fight it, we question it. There is usually an element of fear present. We are walking into the unknown and the unknown is fearful. If you’re just beginning to write your family history stories than you are probably experiencing some of that fear. You’re questioning whether you have the time or talent to complete this project. You fear you lack the skills and you fear what others may say about your skills.  It is unknown territory for you and therefore your fear is justified.

By creating a ritual, an environment that welcomes your new habit, and says ok, I’m here and ready to write, it opens the door to being creative, it eliminates the need to ask the question, why am I doing this? I already know, I perform these rituals to prepare myself to write. The ritual allows you to welcome the habit and to stop questioning its existence. The ritual won’t eliminate your fear, but it will help you to create a pattern, and help to keep the fear from disrupting your intent.

We all have rituals in our day. Morning routines, exercise routines, work schedules and bedtime habits are common practice in most people’s lives. Most of these routines develop quite sub-consciously. Think of the customs you created for your children when they were young to prepare them for bed, or naptime, or dinnertime. Rituals are ceremonial acts to prepare you for an event. In order to set up writing as a event in your life, consider creating a few ceremonial practices as your signal to begin.

Be aware of distractions. By allowing distractions in, you are sabotaging your efforts and your fear just maybe the cause. Stand your ground, don’t let fear sideline you with interuptions and excuses. 
Each writer must find the environmental conditions that allow them to be creative. My morning routine is individual to me and me alone. You must find what works for you, what will prepare you and your mind. Rituals offer the signal; this is what I’m doing for the next 30 minutes, 60 minutes or 500 words.  This very rite aids you in creating an environment that is habit-forming.

How do you make writing habit-forming?

  1.  Remove distractions, it clears time and mental space so you can focus on the task at hand.
  2. Identify the writing environment that allows you to be creative. It might take a couple of adjustments to find what works for you, but be aware of your surroundings and how they affect your writing process.  
  3. Develop rituals that prepare the environment for writing and signal your mind it’s time to begin.
  4. Join us in The Family History Writing Challenge. Our 28-day challenge gives you the opportunity to begin writing your family history stories while creating some long-term writing habits. You can learn more about the challenge at our new website where you’ll find articles and resources in our member’s area to help you start today.

Family History: Getting Ready to Write

No doubt writing a family history is a monstrous task, with many components that can overwhelm the most experienced family historians.  A great deal of thought and decisions go in to writing a family history, before you’ve even written your first word. 

First, we want to consider what kind of family history to write; a family history memoir, a narrative, an essay or a life story. Then, we have to think about how much of our family will be included in the story.  Will it be about a single ancestor, one family, 4, 6 or 8 family lines? And how will you organize it all?

Do you have a work-flow? Without an established work-flow, how will you juggle all your research, how will you manage your sources? This is a necessary step so as not to lose your mind in the middle. Will you spend your time shuffling papers and looking for sources or writing?

Finally, understanding how to organize your ancestor’s life into a story format is intimidating.  Shaping the facts so it reads like a compelling story is often where many of us struggle, reverting to dry genealogical narratives.

If you are challenged with any of the above, then I have some help for you. If you are joining us this year in The Family History Writing Challenge or you are in need of some organizational help you may be interested in The Companion Guide- Getting Ready to Write. This guide will walk you through identifying the vision for your family history stories and book. It will help you strategize a format for its' organization. I’ll offer you my advice on creating a work-flow so writing is about writing and not shuffling papers.  And finally, I will help you to shape the events of your ancestor’s life into a story arc, so you can create a compelling story that your family will want to read.

You can find this 60-page guide at The Family History Writing Challenge for $4.99, payable via PayPal.  Get ready to write your family history stories on February 1st. 

The Companion Guide to the Family History Writing Challenge 

Getting Ready to Write
Section 1 - The Vision for Your Book
Chapter 1 - Choosing Your Genre
Chapter 2 - The Scope and Span of Your Book
Chapter 3 - Getting to Know Your Reader
Section 2 - Organizing You and Your Research
Chapter 4 - Creating a Work-Flow
Chapter 5- Declaring the Time and Space
Chapter 6 - Fear and Self-Doubt
Chapter 7 - Organizing with Timelines
Section 3 - Shaping a Life into a Story
Chapter 8 - Frame and Focus
Chapter 9 - The Story Arc
Chapter 10 - Moving Forward

Family History Writing Challenge...Doors Open!

Here we are, year number four, and I couldn’t be more excited to announce registration for the Family History Writing Challenge 2014.  I’ve worked hard over the past year to bring a fresh look to this year’s event. I know a lot of you are returning participants who use February and the challenge as a time for some concentrated writing. Some of you may be joining us for the first time, you have the advantage of some wonderfully experienced writers in our community to help, along with a variety of article archives to inspire you.

What’s New

Well, first our new digs, The Family History Writing Challenge website is brand new, with a membership area that includes a writer’s forum and writer’s resources. I think it will serve us well for future years to come. 

Secondly, we have a new tool for the challenge, a companion guide to help get you ready to write. It will be available for download in a couple of days, I’ll keep you posted.

The Daily Dose returns with fresh new articles to provide inspiration, education and motivation throughout your 28 days. Feel free to let me know your struggles. We'll do our best to help elevate you in your  journey.

Finally, our ever so awesome list of guest authors returns. It’s always wonderful to have such a great array of writers in the house. I try to 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.  Really, 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.

The Family History Writing Challenge is a wonderful opportunity for writers to come together in a very supportive environment. Regardless of whether you are an experienced family history author looking for a little motivation, you’re struggling to finish those stories you started last year, or maybe you’re a first-timer dipping your toe in the writing waters, everyone is welcome. We all share the same passion, to write our stories and give our ancestors a voice in today’s world.

Feel free to pay us a visit at  The Family History Writing Challenge to get all the details and register.  The door is open, we will be there waiting for you. 

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. 

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