google-site-verification: google65e716d80989ba07.html The Armchair Genealogist: February 2015

Choices in Publishing Your Family History Book

Today's post is courtesy of our guest author Biff Barnes from Stories to Tell. 

As you near completion of the manuscript of your family history book some of your focus shifts to the next step in the process:

How do I transform the finished draft into a bookstore-quality book?
Very few family histories will appeal to a large audience, so most of us will not find a traditional publisher ready to offer to pay us for the privilege of publishing our book. So we need to explore other options for getting our books into print. You might begin with the question:

How much help will I need?
The first thing to realize is that two important steps follow writing a book – editing the manuscript and designing the books interior layout and cover. A traditional publisher takes care of them as a part of the publishing process. When you don’t have a traditional publisher you have to take care of them yourself.

Many novice authors think of editing as checking the punctuation and spelling before moving on to publication, but editing is much more than that. Editors can offer three different kinds of advice to improve your manuscript:
  • Developmental editing focuses on improving the content and organization of a manuscript by suggesting where to add detail, delete redundancies, or move text to make it more effective.
  • Content editing polishes your writing style by improving its clarity, cohesiveness, and effectiveness.
  • Copy editing, sometimes called proof-reading, focuses on sentence-level correctness in syntax and mechanics.
All are essential to producing a quality book.

Once the manuscript is ready it’s time to design the book. Professionally designed books are usually created in Adobe Creative Suite using InDesignIllustratorPhotoShop, and Bridge. These tools are used to layout the text in fonts and styles that will enhance readability, prepare photos, charts, graphics and other illustrations, and create a striking cover to grab your reader. The final step in the design process is to create a PDF suitable for the digital press that will print the book. The PDF most of us have in Adobe Reader is not capable of doing this. You’ll need Adobe Acrobat, and you’ll need to know the printer’s specifications for the PDF that will be suitable for his use.

If editing and design sound complicated, they are. Unfortunately, many self-publishing authors think self-publishing means DIY. They have a few friends “edit” their books, try to design it in Microsoft Word, and think they are good to go. When a printer rejects their file, or they see an amateurish book when they look at the proof copy, they’re frustrated and disappointed.

Before going ahead to edit and design your book on your own consider whether you or the friends you’ll ask to help you truly have the skills, experience and software tools to do a quality job.

Best-selling author Guy Kawasaki in his book on self-publishing, Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur: How to Publish a Book, advised, “Unless you’re a professional, hire a professional.”

Whether you decide to do your own editing and design, to have friends with skills in those areas help you, or hire professionals to do them for you:

When you complete the design of the book, who should publish it?
If you enter self-publishing into your browser’s search bar a number of large corporations – Author Solutions, Author House, Xlibris, and Outskirts Press among others – will dominate the results. These publishing companies offer packages including editing, design, cover, publishing, and marketing. It looks like a simple way to get your book published, but before you hit the buy button, take time to look a little more deeply at two questions.

Who will own the rights to the book? One of the most important considerations when publishing a family history book is making sure that you own the rights to your book. If you check copyright law you will see that a copyright is established as soon as you create the manuscript. A legal copyright registration is important only if there is ever a dispute over the ownership of the rights to the book.

However, when some publishing companies design your book the contract you sign with them states that while you own the copyright, the company owns the book file. If for any reason, you were unhappy with your relationship with the company and wanted to republish your book elsewhere, the company would not release the file to you, or it might require you to pay a significant fee to buy back the file that you paid to create in the first place!

We always advise Stories To Tell clients to make sure that the rights to their books and book files remain securely in their possession when they choose who should print them.

How much will printing the book cost? Authors almost always talk about publishing their book, but when you self-publish a family history what you really need is a printer, not a publisher. What’s the difference?

A publisher prints your book, provides opportunities for inclusion in catalogues from which bookstores or libraries may order copies, makes the book available online through portals like, promotes and publicizes the book and charges you for doing so by retaining a percentage of the sale price of each copy of your book. If you are saying, I don’t need those things, my book is only intended for a limited audience of family and friends, you don’t need a publisher.

A printer, on the other hand, charges you only the cost of actually printing the book. You don’t pay for publicity and marketing services you neither want nor need.

Most family historians are on a budget when they publish their book, so they are concerned with a final question:

How can I control my costs? 
Begin by doing as much of the work as you can yourself. You may hire a professional designer, but there are things you can do to reduce costs. For example, if your book has photographs, do your own scanning. If you need images for the cover, find them yourself rather than paying the designer to do it. Talk with your designer about other things you can do to reduce costs.

You can make publishing choices that will help control costs. The principal factors to consider in the cost of printing a book are:
  • Hardback or soft cover
  • Color or black and white
  • Trim size of the book
  • Number of pages
If you have a large number of photographs or want to include extensive pedigree charts or family group sheets, or a number of documents, this additional content can increase production costs. Inserting a CD inside the back cover or creating a website which will allow readers to access content can save you a significant amount of money.

Look for ways to share costs with relatives who will want copies of the book. Two methods that have worked very well for family historians are:
  • Presell the book – Work with your printer and designer to establish what it will cost to print the book. Consider you costs in creating the book such as hiring professional help. Establish a price for the book and send out a letter or email announcing that it will be available by a particular date (family reunions are great for this) and allow recipients to pre-order it from you. This will give you some cash to use to print the books, and it will give you a pretty good idea of how many you’ll want to print. Always order a few extra for those people who didn’t order one and decide they have to have it once they see it.
  • Offer online distribution utilizing print-on-demand – When you make a book available through an online bookstore like, the author doesn’t pay for production of the book. The person who orders the book does. The book isn’t printed until someone hits the buy button. The second benefit is that whenever someone orders your book, you receive a royalty. While the royalties from a family history book with a limited audience will hardly make you rich, they will help to defray some of the costs you incurred in creating the book.
We’ve only provided an overview here of the issues faced by a family historian who wants to get her book into print. If you have questions about the process, contact us at Stories To Tell. We specialize in helping family historians get their books published. We’ll be happy to answer your questions.

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

Meet My New Editor - Grammarly

I write a lot. You would think that would make me an expert when it comes editing my work. Ha!  Nothing could be further from the truth.   

When I write, I turn off my internal editor, a skill I learned early on. Therefore, before I share any work it needs a good edit, often several. I find myself too close to the work. I see the content and have a hard time switching my mind to see the punctuation and grammar.

Most of us will turn to Spell Check in Word to edit our work. That’s a good place to start, but I have never found it to be enough. Of course, authors and publishers will tell you to invest in having your work edited by a professional, and I completely agree. This is great if you’re publishing commercially and making a living at it. However, for those of us self-publishing, writing blogs or producing a family history book for the family, the cost of a professional editor is just unrealistic. We have to rely on other means, sometimes that’s a family member or friend. I have a few teacher friends I lean on. But they have lives, so I needed some extra help.

Recently, I decided to invest in grammar software. I felt it would close the gap between Spell Check and a professional editor. I felt the amount of writing I was doing warranted the small investment. I chose Grammarly for Microsoft Office Suite.

I downloaded the program and it quickly and easily integrated with my Microsoft Office programs. It now works with Word and with my email through Outlook to correct grammar and spelling errors. Grammarly watchs for punctuation, sentence structure, style, spelling and grammar. I love that it offers you a thesaurus. If you’re overusing a word, it suggests some alternatives. It will also check your work for plagiarism. You can also choose the kind of document you are writing, such as a blog post, creative non-fiction, essay, report or research results are a few of the options.

I love that Grammarly offers grammar explanations with examples. It becomes a teaching tool. I find myself actually catching my mistakes now before I look at Grammarly for the explanation. Maybe there is hope for me.

If you’re like me and like to write distraction free including turning off that internal editor, you have the option with Grammarly. You can disable Grammarly and write focusing on the content and creativity of a piece. Enable Grammarly and edit away. Grammarly opens in a window alongside your Word document. It does not change your text. It highlights the errors it sees and makes suggestions. It keeps you in control as you decide the changes you wish to make to the document.

Grammarly is a great tool for those who aren’t quite in the position that warrants the price of a professional edit. It’s ideal for bloggers and family history writers. It’s another set of eyes and has become my first line of defense in my editing process.

Grammarly approached me to do this review and offered me a 1-month subscription. I was already a happy user and thrilled to be offering my readers a chance to win a one-month subscription to Grammarly.  Fill in the ballot below for a chance to win.  

Re-Visioning and Editing Your Family History Narrative

Today's post is courtesy of our guest author by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, MFA, CG

As a writer, you should look upon the act of revising not as unavoidable drudgery, but instead as a blessing, a luxury…. Most people look at revision as “fixing” mistakes. For them revising is not a luxury; it’s a pain. But when you believe in what you are writing, when you’re interested and invested in the words you put down, … revision is no longer punitive.
—Ralph L. Wahlstrom, The Tao of Writing: Imagine. Create. Flow.

In my graduate course on creative nonfiction writing, many of my students dread the final assignment: Substantially revise one of the essays they’ve written for the class. I tell them that the idea is to tighten and focus, while improving with new material, new structure, new shape, or new or deeper meaningYes, it’s a challenge, and that’s what I love about revision. But many think that revision is editing, or editing is revision. These are actually two unique and important processes.

Editing vs. Revision
When you edit, you are checking for proper capitalization, word usage, punctuation, and spelling: the mechanics of the writing. While it’s beneficial to learn how to be a good self-editor, this is a task that should also be delegated to another pair of eyes. We’re too close to the text, so it’s a wise idea to have someone with good editing skills review your manuscript. But revision, ah, that’s all up to you!

The word “revision” literally means to “to see again,” to “re-vision” your work. When you revise, you’re adding sentences and words, but you’re also removing unnecessary sentences and words. You’re moving and changing the placement of sentences or words. And you might be completely restructuring your narrative from say a chronological, this-happened-then-that-happened arrangement to something more interesting and creative.

Where to Begin Your Revision
Like writing, revision is also an art. Or, as Michelangelo allegedly said about sculptures, “You take a rock and chip away all the parts that aren’t the statue.” You take your writing and delete all the parts that aren’t part of the family history’s focus. What could be simpler?
Stephen King’s formula for revision, as he says in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is “2nd Draft equals 1st Draft minus 10%.”

Or, here’s advice from Dinty Moore, author of many creative nonfiction writing guides and editor of Brevity, from an interview he did for The Fourth  River

Here is what to eliminate: anything that doesn’t make your essay better, or anything that you’ve said elsewhere in the essay in a better way. You know you are done when you can read the entire essay aloud to yourself and not stumble over a single sentence or idea; when you read it all the way through and honestly feel a completeness.

Granted, he’s talking about essays here, but can you do the same thing with each chapter of your family history.

Here are two additional ideas to help you determine how and what to revise:
  1. Write the back cover copy. Imagine your family history is going to include a summary on the back cover that tells readers what the book is about. This summary should be no more than 150 words.
  2. Now cull down the summary even further—into one sentence! Imagine your book is going to be listed in the New York Times Bestseller listing. What is the book about? What is the main point or theme?
Let’s look at an example from Rebecca McClanahan’s The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013). Here is the back cover copy. It’s 134 words.

Are we responsible for, and to, those forces that have formed us—our families, friends, and communities? Where do we leave off and others begin? In The Tribal Knot, Rebecca McClanahan looks for answers in the history of her family. Poring over letters, artifacts, and documents that span more than a century, she discovers a tribe of hardscrabble Midwest farmers, hunters, trappers, and laborers struggling to hold tight to the ties that bind them, through poverty, war, political upheavals, illness and accident, filicide and suicide, economic depressions, personal crises, and global disasters. Like the practitioners of Victorian “hair art” who wove strands of family members’ hair into a single design, McClanahan braids her ancestors’ stories into a single intimate narrative of her search to understand herself and her place in the family’s complex past.

Based on that description, do you have a good idea of the family history’s focus? Now here’s a one-sentence blurb from Kirkus Review:

The account of a writer’s quest to understand her place in the grand generational scheme of her family.

While not as in-depth of course, this one sentence sums up the main idea of the family history.

Once you’ve summarized your family history, then reread your entire manuscript. Keep referring to your summary and one-sentence blub. Now revise to ensure everything points to your primary theme and focus.

Naturally, one of the most difficult parts of family history writing is the temptation to include everything. This is why I suggest to my clients and students to write a two-part family history with the narrative story as part one and the compiled genealogy as part two. By having a compiled genealogy that records everything, you won’t feel as driven to include every fact and every person in the narrative. You can focus the narrative, or story, more tightly.

As Rebecca McClanahan said in an interview I did with her, which will appear in the March 2015 issue of Writer’s Chronicle and will be available to read on my website,, after the print issue is out:

Though I labored to stay true to fact—by citing precise dates, census records, historical events, interview responses, specific documents, or artifacts—my first allegiance was always to the larger story, the journey of the family tribe, which I suspect is the journey of other families, other communities. To stay true to the larger story, I had to exclude most of the facts I’d gathered.

Those facts can all go into the compiled genealogy of your book, so you, too, can stay true to the larger story of your ancestors. Keep the focus of the larger story in mind as you revise your manuscript.

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.

— Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Additional Reading
For more on editing your family history, here are two helpful articles:
For more on revising your family history, you may find these articles helpful:

Sharon CROPPEDb (2)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 NonfictionBrevitySteinbeck ReviewPortland ReviewHippocampus 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,

Five Fabulous Digital Tools To Power Your Life Story

Today's article is courtesy of our guest author Lisa Alzo, with special thanks from Legacy Family
Tree for allowing us to reprint this article.

Does the thought of writing your life story scare you? Even just a little bit? Perhaps you struggle to find the right words, don't know where to begin, or worry that nobody will want to read your finished product. Often, just the very idea of sharing intimate moments through memoir can stop us before we even put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. As genealogists, we often focus our efforts on chronicling the lives of our ancestors, leaving our own stories to wait until another time.

So if the thought of writing freezes you with fear, or conjures up a litany of excuses (it’s too difficult, not enough time, unsure of where to begin, etc.), here are five fabulous digital tools to help you get your story out there.

1. Day One Journal (Mac App $9.99; iPhone/iPad $4.99). Many writers like to keep a diary or journal, and the entries often serve as the outline, or even the meat of the memoir. The Day One Journal takes the diary/journal concept virtual. This app is easy to use, and works well for ideas or making thatmemory list. The bonus of keeping a digital journal with Day One is that, at any point, you can effortlessly search through your entries, email them, or sync through Dropbox. The app also supports tags, photo uploads, and more. The convenience of this handy app is a great step to move your memoir forward, and makes it easy to turn your notes into a book. [Note: Android users might like Day Journalor one of these alternatives]. [Note: this app is a personal favorite of mine.]

2. Dragon. (Windows, Mac, and App versions-cost varies from free - $199.99). Some writers find it easier to dictate a story than type it. Dragon turns what you say into text. While there is a bit of work required to set it up to recognize your speech, and results will vary, this program is quite useful when you are unable or don’t want to type. Whether you choose the full computer version of Dragon, or its mobile apps for Android, iPhone/iPad, this tool gives you a way to tell your story like you are sitting across from your best friend or a favorite relative.

3. Saving Memories Forever (iPhone/iPad; Android. Free, and premium versions). Many writers turn to writing prompts to help jumpstart a story. The Saving Memories Forever App works like a series of writing prompts–only with audio. Start by creating a free account and adding yourself as a storyteller. Use the prompts (Childhood, Teenage Years, Adult, etc.) to record your story in your voice, and then start writing from your answers. There is a new feature called theaudio diary (perfect for memoirs). You can record stories with a free account, but if you want to attach pictures and text files you’ll need to go premium.

4. Vine (free iOS, Android, Windows). Vine is a mobile service that lets you create and share short looping videos. Download the app, then set up your profile (or use your Twitter account) and your posted videos will appear there for others to follow, or you can share via Twitter or Facebook, or you can opt to protect your posts until you are ready to let the world view them. Vine videos are short and sweet—a great way to practice saying what you want in less words. This app is great for capturing current life moments (in very short segments) as they happen. You could also use it to reminisce on a trip back to see your childhood home, or record memories about a favorite toy, family vacation, etc. Search for “memoir” to see how others have used this tool.

5. Voyzee (iPhone/iPad, Android; free). Voyzee is an all-in-one mobile storyteller that lets you combine your photos and movies, and even your own voice into one shareable story. Voyzee’s tag line is: “Your Story. Your voice.” What could be better for the Memoirist? In the simplest of terms, a memoir is really an album of the many snapshots of our lives. You can use Voyzee to take those snapshots to storyboard your memoir, combining voice-over narration, photos, videos, captions, filters, and more to create a full story, a beginning, middle, and end. Voyzee even has its own social network where you can share your movies, and follow other users, or you can share via Twitter, Facebook, email, etc. Watch this cute Voyzee video to see you are never too young to start writing your memoir!

As always, users should carefully read the Terms of Service (TOS) for any online app or tool before signing up or using it.

Once you find the right digital tool(s), you can jumpstart your memories by downloading a copy of my free Life Stories Writing Guide (— this handy guide contains questions you can use document your own life story and/or to interview others about significant life events to gather, preserve and share precious memories, or to leave a legacy for future generations.

Remember: All of the technology in the world can’t replace creativity. You still have to write your memoir. While these digital tools and apps should not be used in place of writing, they can certainly jumpstart the process, and hopefully help you to overcome your fears of what to write, or how to say it, and provide new ways for you to get it done!

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 publishedAncestry 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.

Capturing Family History with Email

I was thrilled to hear that this year’s winner of the Innovator’s Challenge at Rootstech 2015 is StoryWorth.  I’m all about collecting and preserving stories so when a company who is dedicated to doing just that takes centre stage, it thrills me. I love the idea that we are looking for more convenient ways to capture our families stories.  

How StoryWorth Works

StoryWorth primarily uses email to help you capture your family history stories. It's a brilliant idea. I enlist the use of email in my own family history interviews and offer it as an option in my ebook, The Complete Guide to the Family History Interview. However, StoryWorth has taken the email interivew one step further. Each week, StoryWorth will email an interview question to your loved one. All your relative has to do is answer the question via email, or if writing is not their thing, they can respond to the question by telephone, recording their answer. Their reply to the question is uploaded to your personal page at StoryWorth. Very simple.

You can let StoryWorth send the question or you can select the question from their library of 600 questions. If you want more control, you can edit and write your own questions. You invite a family member to be a storyteller and an unlimited number of people to read the stories. You can also upload pictures and audio files to accompany those stories on your StoryWorth page. You can save and edit all your stories on the StoryWorth website, as well download a copy of all your stories at any time.

If you want to turn your stories into a print book, StoryWorth can handle that for you at an additional cost.

Here’s how I can see family historians taking advantage of this in their own lives.

Interviewing Family

Family historians can use it as a means of interviewing relatives particularly long distant relatives. While interviewing in person is always preferable, it's not always possible. StoryWorth is utilizing email as great tool to capture stories. It works because it’s not intrusive and your relative has time to answer the question at their own pace. Currently, I’m working on my mother’s book, and I think this might be the perfect way to interview her and her sisters. StoryWorth let’s me interview up 6 storytellers at a time. I know my mother would welcome an email each week on her iPad that she could answer and reminisce about her life. It’s just the right pace to hold her interest but not so much as to overwhelm her.

Write A Memoir

Family Historians can capture their own life story and write a memoir, or help a parent or grandparent to write their memoir.  While we understand the importance of a documented life, we family historians often are the last people to do so. StoryWorth is a perfect opportunity to start. If you have an aging parent or grandparent this is an excellent process for getting those memories recorded.  

Digital Journal

I love the idea of using StoryWorth as a personal digital journal. You can use the questions StoryWorth provides or you can insert your own questions.  Since you can keep your StoryWorth page completely private, you don’t have to worry about sharing your writing with the world. Everything is private by default, you control who sees your stories. No stories are published publicly. They do not post stories to Facebook or other social networks. 

Create a Writing Habit

For the beginner writer, StoryWorth is the perfect way to establish a weekly habit of writing. Writing a family history or memoir can be an overwhelming task. Often family historians come to writing their stories with little or no writing experience. StoryWorth is the perfect opportunity to make writing a weekly part of your life, before you take on a large project like a family history book. Think of it like a weekly writing prompt. 

You can sign up for free for a month, no credit card required. There are two levels of pricing. If you wish to only pay by the month, the cost is $12.49 per month. However, sign up for a year, and the price drops considerably to only $6.49 a month, a one-time payment of $77.88.

Upon signing up you are prompted to invite a storyteller, and then schedule when they receive their email, you can adjust from weekly, to bi-weekly to monthly. You are also asked to identify their relationship to you and write a personal invite. If you have a lot of interviews to conduct, they also have larger plans for up to 15 Storytellers.

I think StoryWorth is a brilliant concept. I can let it handle capturing my families stories and saving them for me while I continue to do my research. 

Note: If you use the links in this post to sign up for StoryWorth, you'll receive a 10% discount. 

StoryWorth is co-founded by Nick and Krista Baum. Here’s a small video by Nick with his story and the thoughts behind his mission of StoryWorth. 

Military Memories - Writing Our World War II Stories

Yesterday, we welcomed Jennifer Holik to The Family History Writing Challenge. She offered us some great advice on writing about our military ancestors and we're sharing that advice here today with the rest of the Armchair Genealogist community. Please welcome Jennifer Holik. 

 Writing the stories of our World War II relatives may be a concept many have not considered. After all, “All the military records burned.” And, “I can’t find anything about my soldier online.” Right?


Anyone who has ever considered World War II research has been conditioned to think all the records burned and you will find everything you need online. This is due to a lack of education and materials explaining current records access, available records, and how to navigate and analyze the records. If we do not understand how to locate and use the records, how could we possibly write a story?

To help remedy these problems, I will soon release two volumes of a new book series called Stories from the World War II Battlefield in which you will learn how to begin researching, analyzing records, and start writing the stories of your soldiers. Volume 1 will cover the Army, Air Corps, and National Guard. Volume 2 will cover the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marines. With this foundation you can research and write your stories.

Instead of waiting for the books before you start writing, here are several tips to get you started.

Tips for Writing World War II Stories

      1. Is there a family story you heard about the soldier? Is the veteran still alive so you could interview them? Have you heard conflicting stories? Write them all down. Every family story is a starting point and has grains of truth within. It is important to remember that over time, memories fade and people, places, and events can become merged into one. Veteran stories told 40-50-60 -70 years after the fact may have to be sorted out using the records even if your favorite grandpa told you the story. Write them down anyway.

Case in point. I recently conducted research for a client on the 92nd Chemical Battalion. A veteran had written a letter to a friend in the mid-1980s and stated he entered with the 92nd on D-Day (6 June) attached to the First Division. According to the WWII Order of Battle, the 92nd did not enter France until 27 June.  I had the 92nd Morning Reports which showed 27 June. I discovered from my NPRC researcher, this veteran wasn’t placed into the 92nd until 1 Jan 1945. It is likely he was with another Chemical Battalion attached to the First Division, wounded, and put into a Replacement Depot before entering the 92nd from a Replacement Depot months later. Moral of the story: We must use the records to sort out the facts even when our favorite grandpa is telling the story.

2. Organize your research materials and any memorabilia, letters, and photographs you have for your soldier. Use those to create a timeline of service. Be sure to source each fact you list so you can reference it later. Once you have a sourced timeline created, you are well on your way to a completed story.

3. Obtain the OMPF or Official Military Personnel File from the National Personnel Records Center. If your soldier was in the Army, Air Corps, or National Guard, hire a researcher to pull Morning Reports to trace service. These are an excellent resource especially if the file did burn. If your soldier was any other branch, search and for Muster Rolls, Crew Lists, and associated records to trace service. Add those to your timeline. Read the entries carefully because they almost always have a record of the day’s events so you know what was happening with your soldier.

Review these files with a fine tooth comb and do it again when you receive new records. You will discover new connections between the records each time.

4. Go beyond the individual and research the unit level histories. Search online for a website for the Division in which your soldier served. Often the historians have scanned and placed some higher level materials online. All of these materials provide historical context in which you can place your soldier.

5. Use your timeline and notes from the records you currently have plus the overall histories to start writing the story. There will be gaps and errors, but as you locate additional records, and learn more about the Theater of War in which your soldier fought, the specific battles, and locations he or she served, you will more quickly sort out the errors and flesh out the story.

Unsure you are ready to start with a timeline because of lack of information? Need some help getting started? You can use my Military Memories: 31 Prompts to Celebrate Your Military Stories to get the creative writing juices flowing. Choose any prompt and start writing. See where it takes you. These can also be foundations for stories within the overall soldier story and lead you down new research paths.

My final piece of advice… matter where you start in the writing process, know the research can take months and years to complete. Patience and persistence are important. With each step along the way, the story grows, and in the end, the soldier is not forgotten. Their legacy and life lives on through your words. 

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

Family History Writing Challenge - Week 1 Recap

The first week of the 2015 Family History Writing Challenge is behind us and we’ve had a very busy week. However, there are still 3 solid weeks of great information still to come and it’s full steam ahead.

We have over 1000 members this year. WOW!! We’ve come a long way in 5 years from a dozen genealogists who got together to focus on writing their family history stories.

Members of The Challenge are exercising their creative brains and formatting nonfiction stories, others are using the challenge to write up their research in narrative summaries and essays, some are working on memoirs,  while others are turning to historical fiction based on their family history to get their stories out. We have a wide diverse group and everyone is welcome.

The Daily Dose this year has been focused around the components of story and how to find those components in your research and organize them to frame a story.  Members are also receiving daily tips on how to stay focused on their writing. We’re helping them find a routine, establish time and space to call their own and keeping them motivated.

Here’s are a few of the articles from this week’s Challenge, that you get when you register.

What Kind of Family History Should I Write?

Finding Your Focus

Choosing Your Protagonist Ancestor

How to Begin Your Story

The Family History Story Map

There are some great conversations happening in the writer’s forum, many writers are sharing their stories and getting helpful feedback from their peers.

This coming week our first guest author joins us, Jennifer Holik gives us some helpful tips on writing about military ancestors.

We also have many writers who are blogging either their stories or about their writing experiences. I have listed below some of those blogs. They might be new to you and you may want to check them out and follow them along in their journey.

If you want to dip your toes in the writing waters, it’s still not too late to join. Once you’re a member you can catch up on all of last week’s articles in the member’s area. There’s no competition here, everyone works at their own pace, taking what they can from the each day’s emails based on where they are in the journey.

We loved to have you with us. You can register here.

Here’s some of our Challenge Bloggers.