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 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.

Your phone is not a photo storage device: How to find your DCIM and manually move your photos to your computer

Trained photo organizers urge photographers to backup their digital images two or three ways.

Unfortunately, some users don’t backup their images even once. Let’s be clear, if you leave all your digital images on the device with which you take them, they’re not backed up. If the disc in your digital camera corrupts or you drop your phone in the toilet, your images will be gone. And you’ll be sorry.

Cloud storage helps some cell phone photographers. If you use cloud storage. And if you’re backing up your phone properly.

I use an iPhone, and I’m not a fan of iCloud. Honestly, I’m not willing to pay for storage space for most of the photos I take with my phone. Why? Well, let’s just call me frugal. Also, I take a lot of junk images which aren’t worth saving, let alone backing up. But the most important reason is because I manually back up my images so I know I’m saving what’s worth saving, and I know where to find the images later.

I recently changed phones and used iTunes as my backup. For reasons I cannot explain (because some things are unfathomable like that), the images I found on my new phone were not the same ones I had on my old phone. If I hadn’t backed them up manually, I would have been very sorry.

If you want to avoid similar sorrow, here’s a quick step-by-step to finding your images on your phone and backing them up manually:

  1. Plug your phone into your computer. [I have an iPhone and a Toshiba computer with Windows 7 (right, I’m not a fan of Windows 10, either) so the screen shots I share here are what I see. No matter what phone or computer you’re using, you’ll see something similar.]

2. Find your phone on your computer. Sometimes, I have to unplug and replug in the phone to see it. You should see a window like this; you can see “Monica’s iPhone” in the left column and under “Portable Devices.”

phone-camera on desktop

3. Double-click to open your phone. Now you’ll see something like this, “Internal Storage.”

phone-internal storage

4. Double-click to open “Internal Storage.” Now you’ll see the DCIM folder. DCIM stands for Digital Camera Images. If you’ve found it, you’ve found gold. This is the designation for almost any digital camera or phone for photo storage.

phone DCIM

5. Double-click to open the DCIM folder. You might see another level of folders, as I do on my iPhone: 100APPLE. If you have a lot of photos on your phone, you might see 100APPLE, 101APPLE and so on (in Apple’s system, there are 1,000 images in each folder). Open each folder to find your digital images, usually jpgs you can view as thumbnails.

phone Apple100

6. Now you can copy the images you see onto your computer (or another drive). I move them to labeled folders such as “2016 blog photos,” “2016 charitable donations” (I always take pictures of donations to Goodwill for tax purposes) and “2016 family photos” (with sub folders labeled by topic such as “Las Vegas” and “Caswell’s Graduation”).

At this point, you may choose to permanently delete images from the DCIM folder, depending on if you want to access them later from your phone. I usually delete them because I am loathe to show people pictures on my tiny phone screen and I prefer to spend my available phone memory on music files, but that’s me.

Now, in a perfect world you’ll back up your computer files on an external hard drive or the cloud (or, optimally, both which give you two backups to the original images).

Good luck!

No. 1 rule for taking better landscape photos

Real fans of landscape photography probably own several types of lenses and pairs of good hiking boots. They already know how to take good landscape photos.

The rest of us tend to take pictures of what we see outside our car window.

Which is why, when I’m winnowing a lifetime of photos for someone, I usually put a lot of landscape photography in the C pile–the trash Can. Most of it is just bad.

So the best tip I can offer you for taking better landscape photos on your next vacation or visit to the county park is this:

Don’t be lazy!

Walk around. Squat to get close. Climb to get a better view. Try a perspective that’s different than the one that’s easiest to get to. Get up early or skip happy hour (sunrise and sunset are great times for landscape photos). Move a little, and you’ll find better shots.

Here are a couple personal examples.

Bad

IMG_6155

Note the power lines. And the fence. And the lack of any sort of anchor. The clouds passing over the dunes are beautiful. But this photo is not.

Better

IMG_6137

This image required me to scramble over two, yes two!, berms. I also had to get up early enough to catch the sun in some position other than overhead; my positioning tells the story of a blindingly bright day in the desert.

I know I can do better so I will continue trying. I know I will be rewarded for s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g a little out of my comfort zone, and I bet you will, too.

Introducing a new photo kit that allows you to store, preserve your 50 best shots

No matter how large your collection of photos, a few of them rise to the top in terms of meaning and value.

I’m super excited to announce I’ve teamed up with a professional organizer to introduce a product to store and preserve those important images compactly and safely. It’s the Simplesizing® Photo Kit …

simplesizing-photo-kit-2

… and it offers a home for 30 to 50 traditional or digital photographs as close as your nearest file drawer.

The kit includes photo-safe materials and file folders, plus instructions for choosing the best photos from a collection and assembling them in the kit.

The idea for the Simplesizing Photo Kit originally came from Jane Carroo, owner of Clutter Coach Company, a professional organizing service in Inverness, Ill.

“I’ve worked with so many clients overwhelmed with their stuff and in many cases, looking for ways to downsize,” said Jane, a Certified Professional Organizer® and Certified Relocation Transition Specialist®. “While I love the concept of photo albums and scrapbooks, they’re not for everyone. I thought it was a shame to leave those most important photos in a box where they couldn’t be enjoyed. The Simplesizing Photo Kit stores those best photos in a way that requires less than a half-inch in a file drawer.”

Carroo enlisted my help. My background in memory preservation over the years led to the Simplesizing Photo Kit which preserves traditional photographic images in a safe way for the long-term.

 

Acid-containing materials, light and dust spell doom for photos, so choosing a method of storage that avoids those things will contribute to longevity of your images. The Simplesizing Photo Kit is dynamic enough to preserve both traditional photos and digital images.

Jane and I are planning to offer webinars with creative ideas for using the Simplesizing Photo Kit. I’ll keep you posted.

To learn more or purchase the Simplesizing Photo Kit, visit www.cluttercoach.com. The Simplesizing Photo Kit is $19.97, including shipping. Cool, huh? The concept is simple enough that you can do this yourself, but if you need help sorting through your collection of photos? I can help with that, too.

What photo should I use for my cell phone cover?

It’s a first-world, 21st century problem, but choosing a single photo — from among thousands — to use on a customized cell phone cover is no easy task.

Use a photo of the cell phone user?

The cell phone user’s spouse?

The cell phone user’s children?

A photo of a place or object important to the user?

A cool, colorful photo of something else?

It’s tricky. When choosing a photo for the customized cover of my new Apple 5s iPhone, I wondered if a picture of me would be narcissistic. I have no (biological) children, and a picture of my husband or stepchildren seemed as weird as using a picture of me. The phone doesn’t belong to and isn’t used by them — why would there be a picture of them on it?

And as long as I was going for a customized image, why use a picture of a pineapple, or a water tower or a flower? I could buy covers with such images without going to the trouble of customizing one.

Finally, I decided an image of me would signify ownership — clearly this iPhone belongs to me. But I found a good shot of me with my husband, taken by my stepson on a recent cruise when we stopped in Cartagena, Colombia, and we took a walk on the stone wall surrounding part of the city:

cell phone cover

By creating a cell phone cover, I can enjoy this photo and the memories of our trip every time I use my phone.

The company I used to create the cover allowed me to include words, so I added part of a quote from Audrey Hepburn that illustrated the photo for me. The full quote doesn’t impart quite the right meaning, but here it is: “The beauty of a woman must be seen from her eyes, because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides.”

I love the new cover, and it makes me happy to see. Isn’t that how your family photos ought to be? In use, visible and making you happy?


 

Need a new cell phone cover for your phone but don’t know where to begin? A photo organizer can help choose one and create a one-of-kind cover for you.