There is storytelling, and then there is telling a story that makes sense (even years into the future and long after it’s written). Sometimes as Family Historians, we find that our tales get twisted up into mazes of confusion and backtracking.
It’s frustrating. I’ve been there, and I understand completely.
At times, even while we’re writing a piece we know that it will “never do.” Unfortunately, this is how so many of us give up before we’ve ever really started. So here’s my 10-step remedy for such situations…presented of course with one of Mom’s little soul-baring stories as a side dish…
10 Steps to Writing a Good Story (that makes sense)
The first time I attended a writing workshop I was full of fire! Inside my leather satchel (yes, it’s been that long ago) I had four typed and double spaced pages of pure storytelling genius. Our samples were collected at the door by a teaching assistant, and then whisked away to the copier room to reproduce one set for each attendee.
Back then, I would guess the photocopying and stapling expense comprised about half of the $25 fee for the series.
Over the next three Thursday evenings, we were immersed in technique discussions and submission sample reviews done in alphabetical order by each author’s last name. Until my “time at the table” I was feeling really good about my little story. Dang good. But when “R” time came in the lineup, my confidence faltered. I deflated, melted, and disintegrated into a thin grimy layer of humiliated dust atop my chair.
The teacher was quite nice about “it” –the killing of my pages that is. She could have been much worse I suppose. As she wrapped up the previous story’s glowing critique and announced my piece, she fanned out the four pages, raised them above her head and proclaimed them “a perfect example of a beginner’s error.”
Apparently, in the meager 1000 words I had slavishly typed during lunch breaks on the nice IBM Selectric at work, I had wasted no paper. She briskly lead us through my beloved pages emptying out red pens as she guided us in circling large chunks of my lovely prose.
As it turned out, I had managed to write about five different story fragments in one small essay.
“Yes,” she reiterated to my classmates, “This is a perfect example of the huge mistakes a beginner makes.”
So in an effort to spare you all from making the same classic “beginner’s errors” I offer you my 10 Steps to writing a clean, clearly focused, enduring and easily understood Family History story.
- Start writing. Don’t worry about any of the above. Just think about a person or branch of the family or an event you would like to tell a story about and begin.
- Keep writing. Write everything you know via family lore, genealogical and historical research.
- Gather together all the media (photos, ephemera, source books etc) and check to see if you’ve left anything out. If you find something, add it in to this piece.
- Write a bit more about how you came to discover/know/guess on the details of the subject: “Old Daniel always wore striped overalls, he saved the solid denim set for Sunday Church”–per photos and stories told to me by Aunts Aida and Lily Poindexter and Uncle Les.
- When you simply cannot write any more about this seemingly narrow subject, get out your red pen.
- Begin circling small or large blocks of text that could be made bigger. Who are the other people (neighbors, the mail carrier, a teacher, the Poindexter Aunts and Uncle Les) mentioned in the story? Do they matter? Is the setting of the tale of interest on its own? Did these events take place at a newly built home or on a farm passed through generations, on a steamship or clipper crossing the Atlantic in August? Is there back-story here that needs to be added in so that years from now–when “everyone” doesn’t possess what we currently think of as common knowledge people will “get it?” Would a future reader need to do research to understand or find explanations in order for this tale to hold their attention? Perhaps the small town your relatives “traded in” no longer exists. Can you map it– if no, why not? Was it wiped out in the TVA project? What was the TVA? Was the town on the main road, and suddenly the railroad came through about a mile to the east…killing all the businesses and leaving the area rather abandoned? Is that small town now swallowed up by a larger city and only referred to on maps as a neighborhood? Was your family’s first home on American soil razed to build Slugger Stadium in Louisville (mine was!)?
- Don’t be intimidated. This really is the fun part. This is when you discover that you have a much larger story to tell when you may have thought otherwise. The “trick” is to dissect it in this way so that it doesn’t all get convoluted and become a “perfect example of huge mistakes that beginners make.”
- Now take your time. Go back to each circle of red ink. Relax. Simply tell your reader the story of that solitary snippet. Make it into a stand alone piece. Give it all the care and attention that you’ve given it’s “parent” essay.Try out steps 1-7 on this new work. Worry about weaving together the bigger story later.
- As a luxurious bonus, if you have a kind friend who knows little to nothing about your subject matter, ask them if you may read a completed story to them. Have them stop you anytime they have a question or have no point of reference for what or whom you are storytelling about. This info is gold…it’s just like having a reader from the future sit with you over coffee and ask you questions about the story you are telling.
- Since this method will work equally well with pieces you’ve already written…put them through this exercise and see if anything cries out for the red pen treatment! You may find an additional batch of stories to write adding to the richness of the work you’re doing.
Above all, enjoy your writing and storytelling. Go ahead and tell as many stories as you’d like. But make the events clear, interesting and well thought-out so your readers will stay engaged and keep turning pages and wanting more.
Maybe even throw in a photo of yourself at work on the laptop you used to write it with…imagine what a hoot that’ll be to your great grandchildren seeing dinosaurs of all types!