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.
So many little counties and Bergs have historical societies. And the “tails” they can tattle are often rather TITILLATING and odd…OK, these two are frankly disgusting and weird!
Rather attention getting to say the least...
I’ve done the lightest bit of poking around trying to figure this one out. It was an advertisement and promotion that ran some time in the 1940s in a newspaper near my hometown.
Somebody must have had a rodent problem, a really big rodent problem!
Or, were the kitties doomed for wartime experimental lab work?
Were they returned after Saturday?
Was Cruella DeVil’s feline-favoring sister married to one of the Hortons?
Too many questions whipping around in the autumnal air!
The Boone County Historical Society recently reprinted the following story from 1894 (which I believe was an archivists’ selection and retelling that the newspaper ran in the early 1960s). The man with the byline–Ralph Stark– had a regular feature something akin to our “Throw back Thursdays.” Ralph’s reprint appears below in its entirety. I was amazed when this came up on my Facebook feed about 120 years after the occurrence.
All stuff like this might be lost forever if it weren’t for the digging that Ralph did to find it for us in the 70’s and the lovely volunteers at the local Historical Society who make the effort to re-find and share these unbelievable stories today.
Some day I would love to run down all the “rest of the story” on both the cat herding and the rather bizarre tale that follows. You don’t have to read the newspaper story I’ve copied and pasted here,
…but if you enjoy a good accounting of what it was like to be in the middle of a 19th century lynch mob, it would be well worth your time.
I would have loved to known what these reporters were thinking as they watched this story unfold and then typed it up this for the highly divided readers around town. And how the heck did all these people find out about this so quickly? This happened long before the county had telephone service in homes, let alone CNN or Twitter.
Right now there isn’t the time for me to go chasing it though.
Who knows, Maybe someone else has already written it down…
Common Sense of a Few Lebanon Citizens Saves Suspect From LynchingBy Ralph W. Stark
Indeed, had it not been for the good common sense and the unflagging courage of some eighteen or twenty of the town’s sturdiest pillars who stood like hard granite columns throughout the long day against the lawlessness and disorder engendered by a bloodthirsty, vengeful gang of howling hoodlums, the evening sun might have set on the blackest period in all of Lebanon’s history.
Late in the night of the Saturday preceding Lebanon’s day of tumult and rioting, Frank Hall, a negro, forced his way into the home of the widowed Mrs. Mary Akers, living four miles east of town, and, after driving the children from the room, raped the white woman, so it was alleged. On leaving, the rapist trudged through the snow to the house of his stepfather, Levi Hall with whom he lived, about a mile distant from the Akers place. Early Sunday morning, Boone County Sheriff John M. Troutman and other officers, having been sent for, followed the footprints from the Akers home to that of Levi Hall’s, placed Frank Hall under arrest, and soon had him locked up in the county hostile.
News of the crime spread like wildfire, reaching far out into the county, and by noon the swelling crowd and the muttered threats against the prisoner so alarmed Sheriff Troutman that he took the man by train to Indianapolis, lodging him in the Marion County jail for safekeeping overnight, pending his being returned here on Monday morning for an appearance before Judge Stephen Neal in the Boone Circuit Court at 9 o’clock.
Hall was brought back at an early morning hour, but because of the incensed and unruly rabble milling around the jail, growing larger and more voluble and obstreperous with each passing minute, the hearing was postponed until 2 o’clock in the afternoon.
By midday, the excited throng numbered nearly a thousand persons, most of whom were merely spectators gathered about the hard-core mob composed of some fifty men and a few women. At the noon hour, ministers of several of the Lebanon churches, including the Rev. H. L. Kindig, Methodist, the Rev. J. A. Pollock, Presbyterian, the Rev. J. A. Knowlton, Baptist, and the Rev. Father H. A. Hellhake, Catholic, made impassioned speeches urging the aroused citizens to return to their homes. Earlier, Prosecutor Patrick H. Dutch had implored the people to desist from their lawless purpose.
These pleas, however, fell upon deaf ears. Promptly at 2 o’clock, in the custody of Sheriff Troutman, Marshal Charles N. Oden, Policeman James Caldwell, Deputy Sheriff Frank Daily, and others, Hall was brought out of the jail to be taken to the courtroom.
The little band and its prisoner was immediately surrounded by the mob, in the midst of which was a Mrs. Taylor, better known as Mrs. Van Benthuysen, who was aptly nicknamed, “The Vengence,” by newspaper reporters, because she carried a length of rope and kept up a continuous screaming of “Let’s hang him! Let’s hang him!”
Taking the prisoner from the jail to the north entrance of the courthouse turned into a battle royal. Sheriff Troutman’s drawn revolver was snatched from his hand and several attempts were made to knife the terrified Hall. Despite the fact that the small coterie of officers had been reinforced by George W. Norwood, C. F. S. Neal, W. H. Moler, and a dozen other men, the journey was a physical struggle every inch of the way.
Three times the ugly noose was slipped over the head of the prisoner, once over both his and Marshal Oden’s heads, but always some ready hand deftly flipped it off. On three other occasions the rope was drawn taut about the man’s neck, once on tightly that his eyes bulged and his tongue protruded, but each time a guard cut the hemp before serious injury resulted.
At last the interior of the courthouse was gained and with every entrance guarded by men with ready guns, the culprit was hustled into the courtroom. There, before Judge Neal, he dropped his protestations of innocence, and pleading guilty to the charge, was sentenced to a term of twenty one years in the Indiana state prison.
While the prisoner was held under guard in Judge Neal’s chambers, the Judge, Prosecutor Dutch, Judge Joshua J. Adams, and Mike Keefe addressed the rowdy mobsters, pleading with them to disperse. Some of the more weary followed the advice given, but enough remained to cause Sheriff Troutman continuing concern.
He quickly deputized a hundred of the calmer citizens, and late in the afternoon these men formed a compact hollow square at the west door of the courthouse and with Hall in the center, marched out into Lebanon Street and south to the Big Four Railroad depot.
Without further incidence, Sheriff Troutman and his prisoner, accompanied by a detail of twelve deputies, boarded the evening train bound for Indianapolis where Hall was to be kept in jail until he could be taken to Michigan City. The deputies were thought necessary because it was rumored that a delegation was waiting at Whitestown for the purpose of taking Hall off the train and hanging him there.
Unfounded though the rumor proved to be, it is needless to say that the engineer yanked the throttle wide open to roar through the Worth Township metropolis at top speed while the lawmen nervously fingered the triggers of their shotguns and revolvers. The trip terminated without further trouble and within a few days Hall was occupying a cell in the Northern Prison, as it was then called.
And so ended what was surely Lebanon’s most exciting, and at the sametime, most shameful day. Although law and order had triumphed and peace again reigned in the town and the adjacent countryside, the stirring several hours were not quickly forgotten, furnishing the basis for the recital of countless true accounts and innumerable tall stories for many following years. While the odious affair was in progress, Indianapolis papers and press associations rushed representatives to the scene, and Lebanon was bathed throughout state and the mid-west in the limelight of unwelcome embarrassing notoriety that papers later carried editorials congratulating the community its narrow escape from the adjudication of mob law and commending those citizens bravery and clear thinking kept the town’s good name and reputation from being and blackened by a lynch mob.
There may be one or two venerable Lebanonites reading this story who will recall as youngsters on that eventful day sixty eight years ago there were among the motley small boys and older youths coping ringside seats in branches of the maple trees on the courthouse lawn, witness to the stupid and hideous behavior of their elders. In his Lebanon Patriot February 8th, 1894, Strange Cragun editorially commented: “mob law is no law, and where it is indulged there is no safety for the property or lives of the people of Boone County, by the good sense of the best citizens, has decided that it shall not get a footing on our soil.”
Did you know that each time you sit down to write a story you’re using “Point of View?” Well of course you knew that…but nobody really likes to think about it much because it gets confusing–and all like “high school English-classy”
That was about to get really boring…
I like to explain the various usages and approaches as hats. Yes, hats. And I believe that if you become proficient in changing hats from time to time, you’ll become a better writer for it. And while we’re at it, let’s throw in movies too. So, today we’ll think about Point of View, Hats and Movies. Yes, a little something for everyone!
Writing to describe the life and times of an Ancestor is a work of the heart. It takes at least a general historical frame of reference, some psychic channeling, a bit of nuttiness and a heavy dose of serious research and documentation. With all the electronic helpers available to us for spelling corrections, word use and plagiarism checks, you really don’t have to be a scholarly type to get the words into a sensible and readable string known as a sentence.
To make your hard work into enjoyable and treasured stories though, you have to employ some artful touches from the world of the writer.
And that Dearest Darlings, Dumplings, and Word-Cobblers to the Stars of Days Gone Past, is what the Point of View with Hats and Movies is all about.
There are Three basic hats to fixate on. You may choose the movie that you feel best suits the time and place of the tale. If somethings get too hard to speak of wearing a certain hat, time-outs and trade ins are totally acceptable–but you must go back to the beginning and start over. No mid-story switcheroos are allowed. That’s a storyteller’s Cardinal sin, and Cardinal hats are not up for grabs!
Hat #1. Conveniently, this is also known as 1st Person Point of View. In choosing this story hat, you are basically saying to your readers…Huddle up now, I’m going to tell you a story I know…
This is a great one for relating stories about people who you have or had a direct personal interaction. I like to pretend that I’m wearing a Mother Goose Bonnet if I am telling this story to my (mostly imaginary) grandchildren about growing up in the 1970s in rural Indiana. I think I like the bonnet because images of Holly Hobby Kids, the Bicentennial and such are linked vividly into my head from those times. My sentences often begin with “I” or “We” or “Our.” Movie-wise, I relate to the kids and events portrayed in “Stand by Me” and the female version of the same “Now and Then.” An example could look something like this…
Our home was built on a county road amid a big stretch of farm fields. When giving someone directions we always made sure to say that our house was the one between the two bridges. We never needed to say whether it was on the right or the left, just that we lived in the only house between the bridges (the only two on the long road).
Hat #2. By now you will notice that you’ve been duped by the hats and movies into playing along for the sake of the grammar lesson! Wearing this hat puts you into the action via 2nd person point of view. You’ll recognize it as the one your teachers tried to beat out of you when you first started learning to write reports and essays. They tried pretty hard to get you to write with totally artificial (to a kid) phrases like–“One would think that having a pet is all fun and games.” When really, all you wanted to say in your paper about “How to Train a Puppy” was that you had to be patient and be prepared to wipe up a lot of pee-pee accidents.
The stories told in Number 2, are great when you are writing about the person who will be reading the words (telling a child about the day they were born) or when you would like to tell the story wearing the hat and seeing life through the eyes of a child. or as a more intimate conversational setting with the reader. Wearing my favorite childhood baseball cap ( you’d probably guess that Mom was a bit of an enigma~ a prissy Tomboy)you would tell the story above while thinking about scenes from Little House on the Prairie–technically not a movie, but a picture filled simpatico motivation and mood-setter–like this:
You could easily figure out which house you were looking for. Dad put us right between the only two bridges on the whole road. All you had to do was find Shepardtown Road from either end, and you could find our house if you just kept going. If you passed a bridge no matter what direction you came from, you were about there. If you kept going and saw another bridge, you just missed it. If you never saw a bridge, either you weren’t lookin, or you were on the wrong road.
It’s the same info, given via a totally different style and effect. Second person helps lend a more colloquial flair to whatever you’re saying. Colloquial is a fancy way of saying “down-home and local-like.”
Hat #3 should be the go-to. This is the Narrative 3rd person voice. The slightly remote, detached and ace reporter style is one that’s suits most situations and reading audiences.
This is the one to be done wearing a ball cap, front bill popped up, with a “press” pass pinned to it. Or, maybe see-thru green visor hat, worn with a vest and rolled sleeve dress shirt. One could expect to be surrounded by overflowing ashtrays as the writer two-fingers their way toward a column deadline on a shiny black Underwood. Detective films Noir starring a Sam Spade character work well as background. However, a period romance, musical or Sci-Fi fantasy, or contemporary drama could serve equally well for inspired writing. Take note of the difference:
The house between the bridges stood alone without neighbors on Shepardtown Road. Built in 1965 by Francine and Armand Pukismell, it was surrounded only by large rolling farm fields, along a segment of the road accented via the fork of Whitelick Creek causing the need for more than one bridge. A 20 year veteran of the US Postal Service drove out six days a week to bring mail addressed using only a surname and “RR#1” on the envelopes. Outsiders, such as appliance deliverymen, had to be given concise directions to find the home without becoming lost on the old country back roads.
This hat delivers the information in a very different manner. The reader generally has no curiosity about the author, and rarely wonders about who they are, or why they are telling the story.
So play around with the Point of View, Hats and Movies available to you as you write! I highly recommend switching POV when you’re feeling a bit “stuck” in a story. Sometimes, this simple switching of the way you’re seeing something in your head can make all the difference you’re seeking. Just like the examples above, there’s a huge array of styles and viewpoints…don’t let the same ol’ movie run on continuous loop!
No matter which hat you choose, we both know there’s so much to say. So~
Maybe someone should write that down…
So aptly crooned by John, Paul, George and Ringo.
~ Yes, It’s been stuck in my head for days
~ You’re welcome.
Are you humming?
I am as I type……la la la laaaaa hum hum hummm….
Sometimes the most powerful memories and attachments our families hold on to are of places. The places are the event hosts, the welcoming port in a storm, the elevator music of our lives. These certain spots grasp time and happenings in a way that we mortals can never wipe clean. A place is not always a house, it could be another building~ like a church or school or business. Those are almost a given, but “place” can also be an intersection of two roads, a lake shore, or an event not precisely plot-able on the maps in our head. How about the time you spent the day with cousins at a little carnival and lost all of your hard earned grass cutting money on baseball throws at milk bottles? Maybe you do remember where the carnival set up, or maybe you just remember the carnival and it’s mesmerizing midway lights as the place. Which version of “place” is more important to your story? Which was more important to you while it was happening?
My husband’s Grandfather “Estal” was “something else” a real…how should I put it?…”character.” At family gatherings and holiday get-togethers he always managed to sneak his way into the nearest liquor cabinet in search of some “Wild Turkey.” Shortly after bagging his “Turkey” or whatever else he could find, it was not uncommon to find him rummaging through women’s purses looking for unattended cigarettes. Once he and the scavenged cigarette were both sufficiently “lit” the stories of places would begin. One of his favorites was about “Little Rock Arkansas.” There were other places he liked to talk about too, all with rather lurid and inappropriate recounts of escapades of the “young Estal.” Mercifully, Grandma Lydia’s ears would usually perk up from two rooms away, and she would come zooming to the rescue and shut him down before he could get too far into the uncomfortably intimate details. Not always, but most of the time. Ew.
The point being, although these tales were coming from the whiskey inspired lips of an old, half-senile geezer, with little to no social filter, “place” was always the starting point of his dissertation. That is of course if you skip the pre-storytelling preparations of Turkey hunts and cigarette foraging.
In my own family places are christened with names that are verbal shorthand for addresses, or the occupants, or incidents. They are referred to in ways like “White Avenue, the Old Man’s, The County Line, Perry, 104, the Farm, the Cabin and the New House. There are also references to places in ways they relate to time like “during the War,in the Flood, and under the Highway.” Place can be a pretty big deal in our stories. Often, it is like an extra character because the setting can make an enormous difference as we describe it (or ignore it).
I personally, love using descriptions of places or settings in my own writing. Sometimes just seeing a photo of a place will elicit the starting point for the telling of a story you’ve never heard before. As relatives reminisce about a picture or event listen to the “place-chat” closely. And, if you write in a style similar to mine (I try to use the voice of the person I am writing about as much as possible), be careful to also annotate the actual address or name of the place if you can! “Out at the farm” is a very clear description for my current day readers, but when someone picks this up to read in 20, 50 or 100 years will they have a sense of where you’re writing about? The advent of Google Maps and especially Google Streetview has made this describing and locating from afar thing a whole lot easier! Don’t hesitate to tuck in a printed out page to help future generations relate to the story you’re writing today!
So try throwing in the location any time you get a chance. Yes, you may have the info from Ancestory.com that a family was living in Louisville during the Great Depression just by finding their info pop up on a census. But look closely in the margin on the left and you can find their street name and house number. Imagine finding the same home today on Zillow or Trulia and seeing photos from the curb, and even the front parlor! How cool would that be? And if it’s not too far away, maybe a weekend road trip would be worthwhile to snap a photo of the fancy entrance gates to the new housing addition that is going up in the middle of Great Grandpa’s cow pasture :).
Every step we take now to deepen and anchor these stories will bring us and future generations closer together through time. That’s a pretty cool thing to think about when you’re getting tired of writing… or, when a song is stuck in your head…or you feel like none of it amounts to much…or when your own Estal starts Turkey hunting.
I always feel so tingly when a story is told and I hear someone whisper~
Maybe someone should write that down
ps…….Here’s a link to an extra cool website that we have here in Indianapolis, hopefully you will be blessed enough to have something similar available for your most researched city or town. If you don’t, maybe you should take a cue from this one and start your own! See it at http://historicindianapolis.com/