Family historian turns dry documents into compelling story—and becomes an author

If you attended a family reunion this summer, you probably saw one those family history documents—a sheaf of 8-and-a-half-by-11 typewritten documents with a lot of birth dates and wedding dates. Maybe it included a few beat-up newspaper clippings documenting the obituaries of your ancestors.

Ho-hum.

Maybe you picked up it, paged through it looking for your mother’s name or your grandparents wedding date (to compare to the birth date of their first child? You minx, you), but then you spied the whipped-cream covered strawberry pie your aunt brought to the potluck, and that tired old family tree was history in your mind. Literally and figuratively.

Thumbnail of coverBut what if you could read a story about your great-uncle that looked like a book with a cover like this and began with these lines:

Today, as I was seated at my 14th story window in my Florida condominium and I began to write a story about my “forgotten” Uncle Duane Blair, I saw this little 4-by-6-inch white piece of paper. … As I turned it over—it was a picture of my grandfather William Blair and my grandmother Nina Emily (Shilston) Blair! I thought to myself on a sunny and glorious Florida day that I should be heading to the beach or I should be outside riding my bicycle! But no! As I looked into my grandparent’s eyes they seemed to say: “Thank you, Grandson, for what you are doing!”

Makes you want to read on, doesn’t it?

That’s the way to tell a story of family history. My husband’s uncle, Allen Leroy Blair, pulled together a few photos, a pile of dry military documents and the contents of a “crusty, old, brown wallet” to tell a compelling story of his uncle who died a sudden death at the age of only 23. Very few family members had even met Duane, let alone knew anything about him.

Uncle Al asked me to look at the writing, and I was blown away. It wasn’t the dry retelling of who begat whom. Instead, it was the story of Duane’s short life and the story of Allen’s discovery. How Uncle Al tracked down’s Duane’s military records. How he came to be the owner of Duane’s wallet, unopened since the day he died. How he came to write it all down for posterity. His writing reminded me a little of John Muir, the great 19th century naturalist, who could write about a tree or mountain in such a detailed and exciting way that it inspires people still today to visit a sequoia tree or climb a mountain. Contagious enthusiasm!

 

sample page

A sample page

Uncle Al’s writing deserved better presentation than a pile of copy paper. So I designed the 11,000-word manuscript into a 6-by-9-inch book, complete with dedication, table of contents and a page about the author (Uncle Al had already collected, scanned and inserted the few black-and-white photos of Duane that existed). I used a slightly larger than normal type to ease reading for some of our older family members. Then I designed the front and back covers in full, beautiful color. I uploaded the whole works to Createspace, which is Amazon’s on-demand publishing and distribution house. (By the way, Clickago Storywerks is available for hire to do these tasks for any author or family historian.)

 

A single professional printed copy of Duane’s life story costs only a few dollars (almost less than it costs to print at the copy shop) and it can be shipped anywhere in the United States. Uncle Al plans to have several copies available for signing at the Blair family reunion this fall. Plus, now Duane’s story is available not just for the Blair family to digest but for the whole country to read because it’s for sale on Amazon.

And for family historians who know him or not, Duane Reuben Blair’s story is an excellent example of how to turn dry genealogical documents into compelling reading.

If you’re interested in seeing more, check out the book here. Be sure to “Look inside” and “Flip to back” to help you imagine how amazing your family story might look in book form. And start planning your own book signing at the next family reunion.

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The Percussionist's WifeBefore Clickago Storywerks, Monica Lee was The Percussionist’s Wife, the story of a marriage that crumbles when a drum line instructor is caught with one of his students. I tell the whole story–every sordid detail–in my memoir, which I published five years ago this week. To celebrate the milestone, the Kindle version of the book is free this week. Fans of memoir and true crime might agree with reviewers who’ve called it “remarkable,” “candid” and “compelling,” and more than one “couldn’t put it down”; “it reads like a thriller!” See for yourself. Download it here for free until midnight Friday.

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Good cell phone photo hygiene

To be clear, if hygiene makes you think of germs, then yes, you need to clean your cell phone regularly. (If you’re looking for tips for that, use a 50/50 mixture of water and alcohol and a microfiber cloth. Use a cotton swab for the crevices.)

But this post isn’t about germs. It’s about the photos on your phone that seem to multiply like bacteria.

Do you have thousands of photos on your cell phone?

Are you paying monthly fees to back up your phone photos even though you never look at the backup and have no idea what photos are being stored?

Do you struggle to find a particular photo on your phone when you want to show someone?

Well, this post is for you. It’s time to clean up your photo routine. No rubber gloves necessary.

Here are four tips for better phone photo hygiene.

Delete liberally.

Just because you took the picture doesn’t mean you need to keep it. We are no longer living in the film age where we got double prints of every camera click. You need to go through your digital images periodically and click the trash can icon at least half as many times as you clicked the “take picture” button. Face it: Most digital images are junk. You tried different lighting, or you turned your phone sideways, or you took a close up, or you snapped a shot of an item you wanted to buy (and now you’ve purchased it), or you just accidentally took extra pictures. Delete the ones that don’t matter. Yes, right now. Or at least take a few minutes at regular intervals (the first of every month or every Sunday night or while you’re waiting for your hair stylist/doctor/oil change) to delete mercilessly.

Backup.

Backup the photos on your phone either with a cloud service or by saving to your computer or thumb drive. If you’re not sure how to save photos to your computer, check how this post on how to find your DCIM and move photos from your phone to your computer.

After backing up your photos, consider deleting them off your phone. Blasphemy? OK, you don’t have to delete all of them (though I do because I absolutely hate showing people photos on my tiny phone screen), but you can delete older ones and ones you no longer want to show other people. If you have photos on your phone you want to show off, check out this next tip.

Create albums.

If you have an iPhone, you can tag photos so they appear in different albums. Your phone will do this automatically for some photos, but if you want to show off photos of your kids or your new house, you can segregate those photos into an album so they’re easy to find. Here’s how:

  1. Click on the Photos icon.
  2. Click on “Albums” on the bottom right.
  3. Click the + sign in the top left.
  4. Name your new album (i.e., “Kids,” “New House,” “Biggest Fish”). Click save.
  5. Now tap the photos you want to save in that album. Scroll up and down to see all you have on your phone.
  6. Click Done in the top right.

Now when you want to show someone these particular photos, click the Photos icon, then Albums and find the one you want. Voila.

Print.

Many photo print shops offer apps just for this purpose including SnapFish, Shutterfly, CVS and Walgreens (search “print photos” in the App store). To make this work, you actually have to use the app and print some photos. In many cases, you can print items other than simply photographs, like photo books and other tchotchkes. Listen, if the photo was important enough to take and save, then it might be worth printing and enjoying in real life inside of only virtually.

There, now your phone is lighter, at least in terms of  memory use, and you can better enjoy the photos you’ve decided to keep. Nice work.

Now you can clean up the germy parts.

Good luck!

Good family history requires documentation

An entire wall at the Columbia River Gorge Interpretive Center Museum near Stevenson, Washington, features family photos of residents of the area. The grand building on the Columbia River is filled with historical information about the residents through time.

Why include family photos along side artifacts of the area’s Native Americans, historical images of Mount St. Helens, interesting tidbits about the Oregon Trail and facts about the historic visit by explorers Lewis and Clark?

Because “regular” people are part of the fabric of history, too.

labeled family photo

I fell in love with this image of the Bevans-Moore family from 1936. Why? I appreciated the symmetry of the composition, I suppose, with the kids and grandkids surrounding the matriarch. But I really loved the smiles. Sometimes historic photos lack personality, but this one has tons. After reading about the sorrows on the Oregon Trail and the calamity of Mount St. Helens’ eruption in 1980 (compelling, sure, but not exactly uplifting), the Bevans and Moores made me smile. It reminded me of why people live in Stevenson, Washington.

What can the “regular” family historian learn from this photo?

Labeling matters.

If it had not been labeled with name, date and location, it probably would not have been added to the interpretive center’s collection.

So if you aspire to add a photograph of your family to the local historical society’s archives, take the time to label your photos with basic information.

How? First of all, if it’s a digital image, print it out. Someone might display your digital image in some high-tech museum, but I wouldn’t count on it. Use a No. 2 pencil or photo-safe pencil on the back (so you don’t indent the photo), or write the details in the margin on the front with a photo-safe pen. Or preserve the photo in a photo sleeve, and write the details on the sleeve.

Now, someday when a museum curator runs across your photo, your family can be a part of documented history, too.

The end of paper

If Facebook is good for anything (and this could be argued either way), it’s good for reminding a blogger of her previous brilliance. Today I was reminded of this piece in my “memories on this day,” penned three years ago, and I thought it might be appropriate here. Enjoy.

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The end of paper is coming, and even the dinosaurs have to admit it.

I was a denier for a long time. My argument was that as long as we have hands and eyes, we’ll have paper. The tactile appeal would overwhelm the power of the computer, I maintained adamantly.

Then came along the iPad. No longer do I have to sit in front of my computer. I can bring my iPad anywhere and read it in any position. Tablets are getting slimmer, and it won’t be long until they’re as light and versatile as, well, as a piece of paper.

For an interview earlier this week, my potential client requested I bring my portfolio.

“Portfolio”? Huh? I haven’t had a portfolio for 20 years. I pulled all the news stories I wrote while working at my college newspaper out of the binder I used to get my first and second jobs and then refilled the binder with printouts of blog posts and e-newsletters I’ve created. I put a paper version of my resume (how positively ancient) in the front.

I used to write in my diary. Now I write blog posts. Memos are now emails. Love notes have been replaced by text messages. Insurance forms are PDFs. Cookbooks have been replaced by Google. Even dollar bills and checks are so yesterday, unceremoniously replaced by plastic.

On NPR’s Science Friday [recently], Verge reporter Ellis Hamburger predicted monthly bank and credit card statements someday will be replaced with something else that is not so much “monthly” or “statement” as it is “instant” and “app.”

It’s weird, frankly, to be a paperphile in this strange new world.

I literally have made my living in paper. I used to work for newspapers. Now I read my newspaper on my iPad. I once worked for a scrapbooking company. Now no one prints out their photos anymore. I write books (and I love my bookshelves of paperbacks). But now I write ebooks, too.

I’m still making my living on paper: Among other feats of wonder, I organize people’s old printed photographs in boxes. But I do this so people can scan those photos to save and share them digitally.

I think writers and editors will be around for the foreseeable future. But I’m not sure. Facebook, for one example, does a pretty good job of culling all the news of interest to me and presenting it on my personalized Newsfeed.

What will I do with all my manila folders? My shelves of photo albums? My backache from lugging books everywhere I go?

What a brave, new world.

It’s free, it’s fun, it’s filtered!

Today I’m thankful for photo filters. A smartphone with a photo filter app makes me look like an amazing photographer.

My latest obsession: Prisma.

This app, available for FREE! (another thing to be thankful for) on both Droid and Apple phones, transforms your photos into works of art using styles of famous artists. Here’s a look.

First, the original image, unfiltered.

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My husband bought me an autumn bouquet of flowers at Costco (because he’s thoughtful and cost conscious like that). Honestly, it’s beautiful in all its naked glory. But check it out when it’s filtered with Prisma:

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Tokyo

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Gothic

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Surf

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Illegal Beauty

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Thota Vaikuntam

The Prisma filter automatically converts your photo to a square and gives you the option to upload directly to Facebook and Instagram. Or you can email the image to yourself in a variety of sizes. If you want to get really clever, you can split the image to see the before and after together — half and half in one image.

I can imagine creating some very cool personal images to use on gifts for the holidays — cups, mousepads, framed images and the like.

I love it so much, I used Prisma’s Mosaic app (my favorite, I must confess) to create a new profile image for me on Facebook:

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Happy Thanksgiving from me to you!

What’s right and what may be wrong with high-speed photo scanning

Is a high-speed scanner right for your photos?

If you have a large collection of photos that you’d like to digitize either to better enjoy them (i.e., by creating photo books) or back them up, high-speed scanning is probably your most affordable option since it requires the least amount of human intervention with the right photos.

Right photos?

There are right photos and wrong photos when it comes to high-speed scanning.

A high-speed scanner draws photos into it with rollers to scan one at a time in quick succession. It’s called bulk scanning, and this is handy when the photos are the same size and thickness.

When the photos are oddly sized, unevenly cropped or of varying thicknesses, bulk scanning gets tricky. Your photos may have to be hand-fed into the scanner and even then they may damaged by the rollers. This could mean disaster if your photos are delicate and precious. In this situation, flat-bed scanners may be a better choice.

If you’re shopping around for a scanner or a scanning service to digitize your photos and your photos are more weird than uniform, ask about how the scanner or service handles them.

I have found the Flip-Pal mobile scanner to be a useful and affordable option. It is a small flat-bed to scan images — one at a time — at 300 dots per inch or 600 dpi in sizes up to 5-by-7 inches. Oddly cropped? Thin? Thick? Two-by-2 right after 5-by-7? No problem. If your photo is bigger than 5-by-7, you can use the included software to knit together scans of parts of the large photo. Handy and safe for your photos.

How to best preserve the headlines about recent historic events

It’s been kind of an historic week around Clickago Storywerks. First, the Cubs won the World Series. I can still hardly believe I can say that. And then Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. That feels similarly strange coming out of my mouth.

To fans of the Cleveland Indians and Hillary Clinton, I offer my condolences. But this post is not about baseball or politics (or Apple pie or Chevrolet for that matter). It’s about preserving memorabilia.

Now — not 10 years from now — is the perfect time to take steps toward preserving those valuable newspaper pages, jerseys, campaign buttons and, yes, photos of these historic campaigns, be they baseball or otherwise.

The Chicago Tribune printed something on the lines of two and half times its normal circulation the day the Cubs won the World Series. The newspaper didn’t do this because people wanted to know the score. They did this because you can’t put a Facebook post in a box to remember history forever. But you can save a front page. For human beings with hands and eyes, the newspaper is a tactile chronicle of defining historic events.

Unfortunately, newspaper is designed to be cheap and recyclable so it’s not long for this world if you don’t take steps to store it properly. Heat and light are enemies of all kinds of paper, news or otherwise. Proper storage means:

  • Cool and dry. Basements, garages and attics are probably not the best choices.
  • Acid-free environment.
  • Dark and free of dust or other contaminants (think: bugs). So whatever it is, it needs a cover.
LegacyBox

Legacy & Memorabilia Box

Need a lead? How about this box? The Memorabilia box, for $55 available from any member of the Association of Personal Photo Organizers, is an ideal home for your important artifacts. Measuring 16 inches wide, 13.5 inches long and six inches deep, it’s a beautiful, archival box made of acid free, lignin-free materials to keep odd size, bulky memorabilia and documents safe. Plenty of room for the newspaper, event tickets and your World Series T-shirt (or your Trump hat or Clinton-esque pantsuit).

envelope

accordion envelope

The box comes with two large envelopes also made of archival materials to save newspaper clips or categorize documents and large photos.

Even properly stored, your newspaper will probably last 50 years or less. The acids in the paper will yellow it even with proper storage. So if the news is important enough to keep for your great-grandchildren’s grandchildren, you might want to digitize it or take a picture. But hey, while you’re at it, why not take a picture of you holding the newspaper — and then post it on Facebook. Best of both worlds!