There is storytelling, and then there is telling a story that makes sense (even years into the future–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 just know that it will “never do.” Unfortunately, this is how so many of us give up before we ever really start. So here’s my 10-step remedy for such situations. Follow along, and you’ll be writing up a storm of concise, pithy, and entertaining stories in no time!
- Start writing. Don’t worry about nerves, editing or accuracy. Just think about a person or branch of the family or an event you would like to tell a story about and jump in.
- Keep writing. Write everything you know via family lore, genealogical and historical research. Throw in the dates and stats and census info with both hands.
- 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 to this beautiful and unruly monster of a piece.
- Write a bit more about how you came to discover/know/guess some or all of the details surrounding this 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 James.
- 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 James) mentioned in the story? Do they matter? Is the setting of the tale interesting in itself? 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? Did someone die of “Consumption?” What the heck is Consumption? Is there back-story here that needs to be built into the telling 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. What does “traded in” mean? Can you map the town–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 abandoned? Was their small town situated in a place 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 too laborious to read.
- Now take your time. Choose a circle of red ink. Relax. Simply tell the story of that singular snippet. Make the story fragment into a stand alone piece. Give it all the care and attention that you would give a larger essay. Try out steps 1-7 on this new work. Slowly tease out any extraneous info. Squirrel away the discards for potential use in another paragraph or chapter. Don’t allow yourself to worry about weaving together the bigger story at this point in the writing process.
- As a luxurious bonus, if you have a kind friend who knows little-to-nothing about your subject matter, ask if you may read a completed story to them. Have your listener 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.
- This method will work equally well with pieces already written. Look over an older story and put it to the test using this exercise. See if anything about it cries out for the red pen treatment! You may find yourself with an additional batch of stories that will add to the richness of your work.
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.
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Boone County, Images of America $21.99 Mix-or-Match $17.50 (Save $4.49 on this title)
Boone County is an image laden, “History in Hand” book containing 200+ old photos with captions. Published in 2016 by Arcadia Publishing to coincide with Indiana’s Bicentennial Celebration
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Mix-or-Match 2 or more books 17.50
The State of Boone $18.99 Mix-or-Match $15.50 (Save $3.49 on this one)
The State of Boone is 150 pages of stories, facts, and explorations of people, places and events that molded a frog infested swampland into the lovely place we call home. This is the storyteller’s version of Boone County
Single Book 18.99
Any 2 or More books (Mix-or-Match) 15.50
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One of my favorite topics to write about when I’m doing a family remembrance, is Food. Almost any significant life event that’s already occurred (or will eventually) within any sect of my family ends up revolving around the table. We feast at weddings, on birthdays and anniversaries (of anyone or anything), even after funerals.
Holidays are a traditional food-centric “thing” for us. Picnics and barbecues are the celebration of eating–for the sake of celebrating eating.
Across my family, each generation, and each cook reigns supreme over one item or another. And, depending on the “current relations and temperaments” at any given time, some of these recipes will be passed down the generational line, others will be lifted only to the “Great Cookbook in the Sky” for retirement.
Some cooks are/were generous with the sharing of secret methods and gastronomical magic–others are down-right stingy. Why? I couldn’t tell you, I’d probably be poisoned at the next big “occasion.” Some of these recipe withholding food fights can smolder for years…slowly escalating to a boil…just like a perfect stew or trick for frying up a perfect batch of peppers and onions…
For years my Dad harped at my Mom about the way her “peppers and onions” tasted different from the peppers and onions that his Mom made.
Maybe this was because my Mother’s Mom never made “peppers and onions.” That faction of the fam didn’t really believe in those two vegetables as foods suitable for cooking.
“Call Mom and ask her before you cook these next time,” was the proclamation I recall hearing after every “peppers and onions” incident. In fairness, I think my mom did call her Mother-in-law, once, about “peppers and onions.” I also think she got the complete stonewall treatment. Because she (Grandma) wasn’t a huge fan of her (my Mom)–follow?
Well, followed or not, take my advice and stay clear of the middle
When my own husband experienced the famed and authentic “peppers and onions” at Grandma’s one day, he gave Grams a hug, a little peck on the cheek, and the next thing you know, he was cooking up those “peppers and onions” the same way my Dad remembered them as a kid.
In our family, it’s all about how you approach the Bear. Some people are just better about laying the honey on nice and thick when it counts
So throw whoever you can into that ring of wild beasts (the women who cook and tightly guard their “special secrets.”). See if they can schmooze a little and find a way to preserve the best ones. I still want Aunt Helen’s potato salad recipe, but at least I’m privy to the family sugar cookies.
They are to-die-for–especially if you let loose a single crumb of the secret recipe!
And check this out–My hubby actually turned over the peppers and onions secret!
Hmmm. Glad he wrote that down..
Most of the United States was still a wide open wilderness when the Great War between the states broke out. Young men who knew little about life beyond the borders of their own farm’s fence rail were suddenly far from home and doing what was previously unthinkable.
While some boys came home with doctoring skills, others brought home the lucrative specialty title “Embalming Surgeon.” Those who were willing to abandon their post (and could stomach it) were hired away from the armies of both sides by the booming embalming service businesses.
Field embalming could be completed in about two hours, with a minimal investment in chemicals. These gruesome entrepreneurs followed behind active battles with their tents and supplies. They employed men as “pickers” to glean blood soaked fields in search of freshly dead and mostly intact men.
“Runners” were used to contact the agents whose territory included the deadmen’s hometown. With such a streamlined system in place, the embalmer’s agents often delivered the grievous news before the official Army telegrams were dispatched. No time was wasted in the rush to sell devastated loved ones services for preservation and shipping of their soldier’s remains.
By railroad rules, only embalmed corpses would be accepted for transport. No spoiled (foul smelling) cargo of any kind was allowed. At the beginning of the great conflict between the states, bodies were packed and crated in straw and ice. However, as the war continued, delays and detours became common, and iced corpses could putrefy beside other cargo before reaching home.
When Pickers ran out onto a new battlefield, officers’ remains were favored over enlisted men. Their families were likely to be wealthier. With fees around $50 for an officer, and $25 for an enlisted man ($2500 and $1250 in today’s money) there were fortunes to be made. The service’s price included packing the remains in crudely made wood transport coffins lined with zinc against leakage.
Of course there were some Agents who were just plain cheats. These swindlers set a price upon seeing the dead soldier’s home; sometimes demanding outrageous fees at large homes with the threat of discarding the body; effectively ransoming the corpse to loved ones.
After President Lincoln’s body made its fourteen day farewell tour by train, the public in all parts of the country embraced the previously rare practice of routine embalming. Still, the market for Embalming Surgeons quickly evaporated. Undertakers at home were already set up with profitable furniture and coffin making shops. They had digging crews and fancied-up funeral hacks called “hearses” to tote the departed in.
For hometown undertakers, adding this service was an easy moneymaker. Some Embalming Surgeons found work with established undertakers; most turned to farming or whatever trade they’d left off with before the war.
Can’t find an old photo of an event relevant to your Family History? Check out the Library of Congress Image Collection. You can search by collection, events, or key words. In most cases, usage availability is noted. A few will suggest a search before using the image for publication or display (like on a blog or publication). Their cache of available photos and other forms of imagery is incredible–make it a part of your writing and researching toolbox!
Before you head out to visit a cemetery for some genealogy or family history seeking, be sure to read over Mom’s list.
Here’s a little sample chapter of one of the two books that will be on shelves this month written by “Moi.” Since the summer days are long, the weekends are right for road trips, and maybe you have the kids captive and can load them up with a little family history education–I thought this would be a good preview to share.
Kids love this stuff–right?
From the upcoming “The State of Boone,” companion to “Boone County” enjoy this little “How-To” for Visiting the Relatives…
My family tree has many branches, both living and dead… but all equally important. I cherish the memories that make its roots run deep.” (Lynda I Fisher)
For me, visiting relatives usually means getting down and dirty. I think cemeteries are a tranquil, fascinating place. So many lives, so many stories untold–so much history we might otherwise miss! As a Family Historian, going relative hunting is one of my favorite adventures.
I’ve done this grave hunting thing all over the place. On vacations I’ve traipsed around above-ground crypts built inside below-sea-level cemeteries in the “Big Easy”– New Orleans. In old Louisville, I plopped down on the jutting-up exposed ends of vaults because it was the closest thing to a level spot around. Closer to home, I once spent a long snowy afternoon chatting with a gentle herd of cows while traversing acres of laid-over winter wheat. The cows were searching for leisurely snacks; I was seeking a lonely little plot.
There is little I love more than crisp autumn colors next to bleached-out marble. Except, maybe a majestic lawn of showy statuary at a big beautiful graveyard on a sunny day.
Nope, it doesn’t creep me out.
Yes, I guess that’s a little nutty.
The point is–I’ve done a lot of field-stalking for the graves of my forefathers, and I’ve learned some good tips and tricks. Sure there are lots more “do’s and don’ts” but this is my standard list of rules, go-to methods, and stuff to drag along.
Finding an old grave can be a challenge, but if you hang with it, you’re bound to make a discovery or two worth your while.
So here are my “rules” for visiting, and some handy-to-have stuff to take along. I hope you’ll take time to try some hunting yourself, and then let me know how it panned out for you and your kin!
- MANY cemeteries are on private property; especially the defunct ones. Some are even in people’s yards–very close to their house. Often, these properties are owned by seniors. No matter who lives there, be respectful.
- For visits on private property with no public right of way, drop a courtesy note in the mailbox of the occupant well in advance of your site visit. State your business, and ask for permission to come by at their convenience to take a look. Respect their wishes. Please describe your vehicle, ask before photographing, and give them all of your contact information.
- Do not stomp up next to someone’s home and start taking pictures of a little plot sectioned-off with some pretty iron fencing. Not cool.
- Take notes of your visits. Record the who, what, when, why, how and what I should do next time. Be sure to carry your notes at all times.
STUFF to TAKE — THINGS to DO
Here are my best tips for a successful trip to any cemetery for ancestor hunting. These can be especially important to heed if you’re setting off for a very old, defunct, or out-of-the-way location.
- Make a list of who you are looking for, and where they are buried ahead of time. You can use the spaces next to cemetery names in this book to jot down some notes, or make your own dedicated notebook. Most places (remember to check for additional names when more than one is noted) can be found with the mapping or GPS feature online at Find A Grave. This is a free site and a great resource when searching.
- Whenever possible, take a companion. This is good advice anytime you start an adventure.
- Also take along a bag with a large towel or heavy blanket, a flashlight, your notebook and pen, any emergency medications you might need (inhaler, nitro tablets, Epi-pen etc), a spray bottle filled with distilled water, a few old toothbrushes, some sturdy gloves, a small roll of aluminum foil, some kitchen shears heavy enough to cut through vines. Oh, and personally I do love a super sturdy trash bag to put between me and nature as I sit and kneel in the mud, bugs, and weedy grass.
- Always make a note of where your car is parked in your records during each trip (what entry point did you use?). No, I don’t think you’ll get lost, but it will be of use to you later when you are mapping sites and recording the position of certain graves.
- Never step out of your car without taking along a fully charged cellphone. In case of emergency–and lots of emergencies can happen–this simple tool can really save you!
- Have your camera on hand and ready. Carry spare batteries or be sure it is fully charged. If you will be using your cell phone’s camera, be sure you have it set for high performance with the automatic flash turned off. If you don’t know how to set up your phone to do its best picture taking, stop by a retailer and have a sales tech do it for you. Digital photos are the best tool for reading old stones.
- When possible, take a large stick with you. Though you may not have to fight back bears, you may stumble upon a snake or other critter. I’d rather shoo away a curious groundhog with a long stick than my camera bag any day! Also, uneven ground is a given–especially in the graveyards with the oldest interments. Count on them to be riddled with animal burrows, large roots, broken off stones and sunken spots. All of these can easily cause a fall or a broken bone. Use your stick as a “leading leg” to test the ground before you. Although it may seem awkward at first, one you get the hang of it, you’ll wonder how you ever hiked around without one.
- Be sure to keep your eyes and ears keen to your surroundings. Be on the look-out for feisty Hobos or thieves. Be sure to lock your car. Also, hornets, or ground bees, seem to adore living in old cemeteries. If you hear their hum, just steer clear of them and you will all have a better day.
- Wear a hat if you’d like, but be sure to remove it, or turn it backward before taking photos. The shade of the brim or bill can affect the automatic light level detection on today’s cameras and cause a lesser quality image.
- Long pants, boots or sturdy shoes, bug spray and long-sleeved shirts are a great defense against ticks and biting insects and poison ivy rashes.
- Once you’ve found who you’re looking for (especially in large graveyards) make yourself a little map. Remember how you noted where you left the car? Now is the time to use that. Photograph the grave marker so the name and shape are clear. Then, stand at the grave with your back to your parked vehicle (make a habit of beginning from this position). At eye level, take a photo. Make a quarter turn, and do the same. Keep going until you have an image of what you see in all four directions when you are standing graveside. Digital photography rocks! This 4-way-shot of the site will help lead you easily back to your ancestor next time.
- Visually inspect the stone/marker for signs of dangerous deterioration. Inspect each one closely before touching it. Watch for chipping, cracks, breaks, previous repairs, crumbling, or any open grainy or sandy looking spots. Be warned that even the thinnest upright markers can be very heavy and cause some serious damage if they “snap” while you’re nicely wiping moss away. Safety first!
- If you encounter old, very faded stones that are not quite legible, then a companion’s extra set of hands will come in really handy. Using the blanket or large towel to shade the tombstone, prop your flashlight onto the bottom edge of the grave-marker. Without a flash, take a close photo while under the shade of the cloth. Then try shining the flashlight downward on the faint markings (while still keeping it and the camera shaded from sunlight). The results may not be immediately apparent, but at home with some simple editing features found on most cameras and phones, you might be amazed.
- Do check (and photograph) the sides, back and top edge of each stone as well as the front. Often you will find a little surprise like a fraternal emblem or an ornamental symbol carved in the stone. Compare any findings like these to the exhaustive list available on the AGS website (address below). These may lead you to a previously unsuspected clue about your relative’s “earthly” interests.
- If the surface is obscured by weeds or dirt, cut away the vegetation with your kitchen shears. Mud and dirt deposits, along with any grass overgrowth on flat stones should be peeled off by hand (use the gloves if you’d like). Lichens and moss often plague markers in shady areas. Use a dry toothbrush to scrub them away. If you need a little something more, spray the area with water and allow it to soften the crud before wiping it away with a towel or toothbrush.
- Spritzing the face of a stone with water is another trick for reading barely-there etching. Be sure to try photographing the tough to read ones both wet and dry.
- Occasionally, you can get a good result by laying aluminum foil (shiny side down works best) over the epitaph and lightly rubbing it to conform with your hands. Once you’ve done your best, photo the stone again while the foil is still in place, and then carefully set the sheet aside to reexamine at home.
- Think you have a great idea for how to clean/read/repair a gravestone? Check in with the AGS website first (the Association for Gravestone Studies). These folks know their stuff and are up-to-date on what does and does not cause harm to these precious relics. Find their fascinating, info-rich website at https://gravestonestudies.org/
- And, Indiana-Boone-Jones, if you think you’ve found a previously undocumented grave site, be sure to contact the county health department to inform them of your discovery.
You’ll probably make the papers!