Why Bother ?

PD_0163About three years ago when I sat down to start blogging, I positioned myself before an ailing desk-top computer while balancing a hefty copy of “Blogging for Dummies” on my knee.  This is what I ended up writing after hours of tinkering~

I’ve spent years chasing my ancestors through wet cemeteries, musty boxes and up family trees.  I’ve dug around libraries, attics, and read books and webpages galore.  What I have learned from all this is simple…

no one else gives a hoot if they can’t somehow “relate” to those old names and numbers

Truth is, all that detective and scholarly work is really boring on paper.  My family used to roll their eyes when they saw me coming with yet another binder of “genealogy stuff.”

What to do ~what to do?  Let me tell ya…

We’re all connected with our families, not by pedigree or heirlooms, but through our common stories.  Names and dates have no real pull on our heartstrings.  But the joys and struggles of everyday life in another time can fascinate us like a flickering campfire.

Oh and a little tattle-tailing or a dash of dishing-dirt doesn’t hurt either! 

Without stories our family tree efforts are just tidy (for some) stacks of paper with footnotes and a few photos sprinkled in.  I invite you to take the next step with me and you will soon be writing an account of your family’s history to be read , re-read  and actually cherished for many years!

When I originally wrote that about three years ago, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.  All of the wonderful people we have lost (and gained!) in the short life of this blog is both sad and miraculous.  I’m speaking of blogs abandoned or begun as well as losses and gains within my own family.

Telling family stories and even writing our own as “memoir” has become quite a “thing.”  I am seeing this form of writing honored and applauded more and more.  Only a handful of years ago, a Memoir was one of the trappings (or curses) of celebrity or notoriety.  Now, regular people, in common circumstances are writing prolifically about themselves and their “inner circle.”  To this I say–HooRay!

 I would like to add a very important “beware” to those of us who are writing stories to be read years from now.

I’m not talking about identity thieves and computer hacks or natural disasters and copyright laws.  I want to advise you to look over all of your writing in a different way.  You need to read over the pages you have enjoyed and slaved over in order to preserve them as readable and understandable documents…later.

Here’s the important point of this:

 Have people of many generations read over the words you have written.

Have them work separately. Ask them to mark or note any words, phrases or sayings that are not immediately clear to them (ie: is there anything you have questions about/ don’t understand?).

 Take these comments and figure out how to make them clear to “other” generations.  As an example, genealogists are accustomed to seeing the word “nee.” Someone who is looking at a family story for the first time may not know the meaning of that funny word.  Yes, they could look it up (as we all probably had to) but wouldn’t you rather have them enjoy the tale that is spun on the page? Well of course you would!  Other things that some would take as common knowledge are in danger of being lost to time. Like Ration Books and what they were, when, and why they were out there.  How about “no swimming in summer?” 

Now, decide how to work the definitions and explanations into your work.  Below are methods that I have used or seen used to good effect.  Remember you want to tell stories more than to give history tutorials.  Likely, you also want to preserve these people beyond their vital statistics for lots of generations to come!

A mix of these will probably work in your own writing~

1.  Use all the antiquated, colloquial, unusual, foreign, confusing word in italics.  Then use a method similar to footnotes at the bottom of the same page to explain it.  So perhaps you would write a sentence and italicize nee. Then, appearing at the bottom of the same page a note would appear as such:

nee~woman’s surname before marriage.

2.  Work the words into the story and thus describe it (or the phrase etc) as a part of the tale.  An example would be to describe an old, rarely used phrase or slang or other term as such:

Jane grew up in the roaring 20’s when women wore long straight dresses, without bras, and were thus called “flappers” and things        that were new and exciting were referred to as “the bee’s knees.”

3.    Perhaps a bit more complicated sounding (but when working with several family members a work-saver) is the “overview page.”  This is a prelude, preamble or forward to the material you are about to present.  It isn’t uncommon to find your family stories falling into neat categories related to universal events. Listen to conversation around a holiday table and you will likely hear talk of “the war years,” or “during the depression,” or “on White Avenue.”  So, describing that place and time as an overview for all of the stories under the heading will set the tone for everyone’s notable adventure during that family “era.”  You could even combine method 1 and method 2 together italicizing the funky words and noting them, and describing events of the time and the vernacular of speech.  This is a great way to get around a re-write for several finished pieces. It’s sort of backtracking, but getting the work done without overdoing. This one works best when each story is written as a separate event like my post “Honest Abe and Too Many Jimmys” ( click here to see it http://wp.me/p2pmvZ-72 )      perhaps under a heading such as “Myths and Mysteries.”  When the story is a synopsis of someone’s whole life, like my post “Uncle Joe” (see it here http://wp.me/p2pmvZ-bb   ) using only the first or second method would be best.

So what tips and tricks do you have up your sleeve tricky writer?  Share your secret weapons with all of us in the comment box! Then~ Maybe someone should write that down…


The Case for Place in Your Storytelling

PD_0095there are places I remember…all my life Though some have changed.  Some forever not for better. Some have gone and some remain.

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/