Best-selling author, Frank McCourt, at age 66, penned Angela’s Ashes, which he dubbed the “third act” in the ongoing story of his life. It also led to a Pulitzer Prize. In a 2008 Parade Magazine article, after commenting about writing personal histories, he shared this advice,
“No matter how long you live, you have stories to tell, and nestling in each one there may be a nugget of wisdom.”
Sydney Poitier, a noted Oscar winning actor, now 86, still sits down every day in his den and writes stories that often become books. It’s part of his daily routine. He shared his feelings about it in a review in the October 2008 issue of AARP Magazine,
“Unfortunately, I came from a culture in which nothing was written down, and I had to depend on whatever the oral history was. A comment here, a comment there. I don’t think we tell our stories enough, and I think it is absolutely essential that we do – to keep the pace of doing it as frequently as we can. When we die, we are going to be taking with us to the grave an enormous amount of information, experience, points of view, positions, attitudes. We should leave some of those parts of ourselves behind.”
The point is that age should never get in the way of writing your memoirs or ancestral histories. No matter your age, young or old, there’s never been a better moment than now to generate a story about one or more of your ancestors. Start by assembling the various parts they trailed behind them and do your best to bring them to life.
CREATE A COLORFUL WORD SALAD
For those of you who haven’t tried writing recently but would really like to, you may feel a bit rusty concerning sentence structure, tense, voice and perhaps punctuation. That’s pretty normal. I actually had a former high school English teacher attend my class who began her memoirs tentatively with a few butterflies in her stomach. I encouraged her to just start writing about something I’d assigned, to stay focused and soon the butterflies would be flying in formation. She did and it worked! The words will eventually cascade onto the page as the story takes shape. Expect a few starts, bumps and stops, rearranging of information, revising whole paragraphs and even starting again, but I can promise you, you won’t stay in that mode. Don’t get discouraged, eventually every writing effort becomes part of your learning curve. In the beginning, try to realize that you’re garnering experience at the craft of writing and that takes the passing of time to whip it into a viable story. It’s like creating a beautiful salad with all kinds of ingredients, but there’s a lot of slicing and dicing that has to take place before you toss it together. Each type of salad is different depending on what you put into it and how you garnish it. In this case, the ingredients are the words with which you choose to color and flavor your story.
Let me encourage you to create a consistent format for your pages that will bring about a professional look to your story. I’m assuming you’re using a computer if you’re working in Ancestry.com. Set up your page for 8.5 x 11 white paper in portrait mode. Printing on any color other than white paper will not photo copy well later on. You have no way of knowing how your story will be passed on. In today’s world it’s easy and convenient to scan and save things electronically but a paper copy may be the only source available somewhere in the future. I use Microsoft Word and set one-inch margins on all four sides of my page but, no matter what, never allow less than a .75 inch margin around. Pick a font size of 12 or 14 pica using a common font style such as Times New Roman, Arial or Calibri and stay with it throughout your story. Insert page numbers using your Insert/Page Number from your menu picks. For my students, I recommend that page numbers be placed at the center bottom. There are other choices. Also, you can omit the default double-space between paragraphs by going into Home/Line and Paragraph Spacing and choose “Remove Space After Paragraph”. Always include a title in the center of the top of the page in all bold caps. Your title should be catchy or humorous and entice the reader to want to read the story. Place your name just below the title using caps/lower case but don’t bold it. Normally the words of the title of the first page of a story is begun about 1/3 of the way down the page. After that, the writing would start at the top of the following page as the story continues. I urge the practice of indenting each new paragraph because it shows a definite separation of thoughts or change of direction. One other practice is using the justifying symbol found at the Home/Justify which makes both the left and right sides of the words line up straight. However, this only adds an orderly eye appeal and is not a requirement. In any case, always use left hand justify. Okay, so much for formatting and titles.
CONNECTING A FEW WRITING TIPS
Hopefully, by now, you’ve created a timeline from what you know about your subject and you’ve produced a list of questions that will lead you through the times in which your ancestor lived. Also, that you’ve done your homework regarding the parallel social history, politics, prevailing philosophies and a dozen other inputs that will help build a setting as your story moves along. After a few tidbits are thrown into your ancestral salad, it will soon become obvious how important these bits and pieces can be to your writing. Keep in mind to answer the who, what, where, when, why and how as you create an ancestral history.
There are some things to keep in mind, such as your audience. In this case, family or others, some of whom may be writing about the same era but with a different set of characters. Your opening paragraph should be written in a way that grabs the reader’s attention. Spend some time molding it to say exactly what you want it to say. Even opening with a quote or perhaps an appropriate antidotal story could accomplish that. Your goal is to not only inform but to entertain and enlighten as well. Humor is always welcome, but use it sparingly. I urge my students many times over to “write fast, ignore spelling and grammar in the beginning”. Get the story down first. If you catch yourself using the same trite phrases repeatedly, find another way to express yourself. Once the story is done, you can go back and edit at your leisure. This is where a Thesaurus comes in handy.
Keep your sentences short. A long sentence with a lot of information crammed together is hard to follow. If you create a sentence longer than 20-25 words, break it into two sentences. Shorter sentences allow the reader’s mind to digest what you just told them and then rest for a second or two before going on. Avoid incomplete sentences unless it happens to be appropriate to your story by moving it along. Also, avoid using clichés. They are too easy to lean on. Find a way to convey the same thought using a different group of words. It will add originality to your story. We tend to talk in clichés and it is rarely noticed, but in writing, you can do better. It’s best to keep the language fairly simple but not boring.
IMAGINE SURROUNDINGS THROUGH YOUR SENSES
There’s an old expression that says, ”People see but they don’t observe”. But our memory records a whole lot more than we give it credit for. In writing about someone else’s experience, you will need to be their eyes and ears and use a lot of imagination to bring them to life. Describing surroundings, smells and sounds is an art. Even inanimate objects deserve equal consideration. Depending on the times in which your story takes place, liberal use of verbs, adverbs, adjectives and other types of modifiers can fire up the mind of the reader. Also, comparing one thing to another will enhance the reader’s perspective. Suppose you learn that main character sometimes fed his family by fishing in a nearby stream. As he approaches the bank of the stream you might write, “He looked at the beautiful flowing stream.” That’s a minimal description. But suppose you gave it a little more pizzazz with the following, “He stood there taking in the white frothy mountain waters swirling in and around hundreds of jagged rocks, creating momentary reflections like a million diamonds dancing together in the sunlight.” It’s the same scene but much easier to visualize. But, I think you get the drift. As you fill in details of what the setting must have been like, feel at liberty to add details as you would imagine them if you were there. Keep your five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch in mind. Add color whenever possible like red, yellow and gold fall leaves. Include the sounds of doves or screeching owls plus smells like wet sawdust. Turn on the eye in the middle of your mind at every opportunity. Perhaps you may choose to speculate on what your main character might be feeling emotionally when engaged in war or having to pack up and move his whole family. Fill in as much detail as you think is appropriate and realize too, that not everything needs modifying.
Words are powerful tools. Choose precise words and bring in as many other characters as you can to put flesh on your story. People’s names are important so use them whenever possible. Throw in facts like what people ate, how they usually dressed, how they socialized, what a cow was worth, and numerous other interesting facts as you research the times.
Finally, always remember that every age, just like our own, has dealt with numerous changes, social upheavals, happiness, unhappiness, and a plethora of individual struggles. By making those times sound real, you are paying your respects to the past by leaving a written legacy for the future which will one day find its way into someone’s permanent genealogy record. How special is that?
About Earl Armstrong
Earl spent the first nine years of his life growing up in Oklahoma City. His family moved several times after that and they spent time living in California, New Mexico, Kansas and Arkansas before returning to Oklahoma. As a teen, he moved to Dallas, Texas and then back to Oklahoma where he graduated from high school in 1959. He wrote for his high school newspaper and created cartoons. In 1960, he joined the U.S. Air Force and trained as a weather observer at Chanute AFB in Illinois. The last thirteen months of his Air Force enlistment was in Seoul, Korea. After mustering out, he tried different occupations and finally settled on being a draftsman. Eventually, he became a supervisor for a design department and eventually earned a degree in Industry and Technology from East Texas State University and three years later his Master’s degree. He began a rewarding career as a mechanical design engineer and ended his formal working days as a supervisor for a major pharmaceutical company where he was responsible for company-wide document distribution, software storage. He retired in 2000. Along the way, he wrote numerous short articles for various small publications. Earl and his wife, Pat, have traveled to every state in the U.S. and have visited several areas of the country doing genealogy searches. She is an avid user of Ancestry. He’s a published author in several genres including children’s stories, newspaper articles, a short booklet on spider webs, a book on cellular health issues, and recently authored a personal history and biography for a retired surgeon plus many other miscellaneous writings. For over five years, he has taught a very popular senior education class on memoir and life story writing at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth. In addition, he also periodically teaches a class on weather.