An important consideration when you are writing, and this is pretty much across the board in any writing, is to think about your “Audience.” Who are you writing this for? What are you trying to say to them? What’s the best way to convey that message?
I am not an organized, methodical writer. I do it the hard way. I am what is known with guarded affection as a “pantser.” Meaning, I write by the seat of my pants.
My method is to put butt in chair, pencil to paper and go! This end result is a rather daunting pile of pages with sentences and dangling participles and nonsensical scribbles standing in for punctuation marks. When I’m hot on a story I really don’t care how it looks to an observer. It’s my mess, they’re my pants, I’ll clean it up before sending it out into the world.
This results in a hideous amount of rewriting and editing. But, believe it or not, what I do have in mind while I am sweating out this word frenzy is my audience, the reader who will see the finished product. In order to effectively tell a story, it must be written with the reader in mind. A story written for children may need to be much briefer than one for adults. The wording and the descriptions would be very different. If you are writing with the expectation of strangers reading about your important or historically significant Grandmother, the first female gaffer on a Hollywood set, you would describe her life in different words than when you tell about the time you stayed with her for a week and she never once made you comb your hair.
You must decide who your audience is before you get deeply into a project and cause yourself the misery of a complete rewrite. I am of the opinion that there are several ways to properly write the stories of and about one’s family. Here are some examples and the differences that must be honored to be effective:
These are works that are usually intended for publication, whether via mainstream publishing houses, vanity publishers, self publication or one of the newer hybrid co-publishing models. They are written about or for families who have some sort of greater significance within the broader community. Sometimes these are about prominent citizens and are funded by Grants or private, designated gifts to underwrite the expenses associated with producing the work. These should be carefully written, using the highest standards of journalistic fact checking, and full disclosure when something included in the work is merely unsubstantiated hearsay. A good example of something that was a rumor but still widely accepted today as fact is the story of George Washington’s wooden dentures. He didn’t have wooden ones. He was too upper-crust for such things. We now know that his dentures were made from animal teeth, human teeth or some sets carved from ivory. Just makes the wood ones sound better and better doesn’t it?
If you will be submitting your works to high level publications for consideration it would save you a lot of time and agony to learn about and use the Chicago Manuel as your writing companion and source book. Attributable to the University of Chicago Press (first opened in 1891) this method is the long accepted and preferred format among those writing Scholarly Historical works, including direct transcriptions of documents. If you dream of seeing your completed writings in a publication like “American Historical Review,” the gold standard for such articles, you will be required to write and submit in the style of the Chicago Manuel. Currently in it’s 16th edition, there is a quick guide available online free of charge from the publisher. Go to http://www.ChicagoManuelOfStyle.org and look for the “tools” tab where you will find a handy citations guide.
Informal Histories can be published too! There just isn’t the same rigid criteria for footnotes and perfect form citations. I find that if I have done a thorough enough job on the genealogical side of finding, proving, documenting and adding all the redundant authentication that a good genealogist (my sister) does, then I don’t need to have all that stuff in the same volume that I’m telling tales in. I cross reference and note where certain things can be found as of the date of the writing, but I don’t actually footnote and cite sources during the storytelling phase. I do however, take care to note things that are hearsay by prefacing them as family legend when I have never fully verified something. No wooden teeth in my tree!
Written for the audience of close family to have as a keepsake and record of who “was” before them the Informal History is more story-like. They tend to be rich with emotion and the reported events of life, death, celebrations and sorrows and who attended and how it made them feel. I think that I am a bit obvious in my preference to write this way. I don’t have a closet full of Royals or important Statesmen or the first woman gaffer in Hollywood to write about. I have recent immigrants, farmers, carnies, wealthy, dirt poor, orphaned, swindled, imprisoned, crazy, philanthropic, heroic, cowards, ner’do-wells and Saints with a small “s” to write about. I’ll bet you do too.
If writing with descriptive emotion is not your talent try looking at some of the resources available on the website http://www.CreativeNonFiction.com or consider reading some of the newer (non celebrity) memoirs that are popular right now to get a feel for writing true stories, but making them have some depth.
Informal writing doesn’t mean lazy, these pieces should not be written in a sloppy manner. They should be edited, spell checked, and run through a program like Grammarly if possible. Grammarly will help your writing by catching the things that your crabby old English Teacher could smell on your paper before you passed it forward in class. The things that we all hated hearing about like mixed tenses and sentence fragments are things that can and do agitate any reader. The Grammarly program works to find errors but also plagiarism and cliches. It can be a bit annoying because it will tap you every time you use a contraction or shortcut a word (thru for through) but you can sign up to try it free for 7 days and see how you get along. See them at http://www.Grammarly.com for more info.
The Collaborative Informal History is another style growing in popularity. And why not? Everyone likes to get in on this fun! Usually these are done as a team effort, where everyone sort of pitches in with their own special talent showcased. You might like my post “Managing the Help” for an idea of how this works. Click here to see it http://wp.me/p2pmvZ-v
You can also do this sort of writing with children, letting them add pieces in a sort of “book report style” on a part of a story they found interesting. Maybe in hearing about Great Grandma’s school days during the Depression, the owner of a “Kit” American Girl Doll might want to do a little research on Kit and Grandma’s childhoods! Or they may wish to write about something that has already happened in their own lifetime that is worthy of remembrance (the day little brother was born).
All Collaborative is informal and very flexible. You could add video and audio files to add to the writing and thus preserve oral history by those who are no longer comfortable writing , or have lost visual or motor skills. Be sure to transcribe these recordings too, especially where heavy accents or unclear speech is involved. Just remember to write these with dignity and care. Just because they’re meant “just for the family” does not excuse a shoddy presentation. To me, there is “more” need for a good editing because these pieces are written often with a lot of back-story and emotion making any attempt to self-edit an Informal work an open door to missed typos and gross grammatical errors. You and your stories are worth a better product than sub-par!
Get going! And remember to “Write for Your Audience” as you go!