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.

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!

Photographic evidence

Throwback Thursdays are popular among the Facebook crowd. Hipsters post pictures taken pre-Facebook, and all their friends find their baby and wedding pictures awesome and their Prom shots with ruffles and wide lapels to be laughable.

We’re observing Throwback Thursday today with this shot:

35mm film

Remember film cameras? Film? That delicate substance we used to need to create photographs? Back when cameras didn’t have displays?

Not ringing any bells? It’s only been a decade and half since digital cameras became common among consumers, and now they’re only good as paperweights. Even this picture was taken with a, ahem, my cell phone.

A quick check of eBay shows a lot of film cameras for sale, but only the really old ones are actually selling for amounts worth the trouble of an auction. A lot of film cameras listed for 99 cents have zero bids; there is actual 35mm film going for more than that.

The camera above belongs to a distant relative who asked me if I’d like to have it.

Hmm. Hum. Ah.

I couldn’t think of a single reason to take it off her hands. Certain film students and camera enthusiasts might find film cameras useful, but for the rest of us, taking pictures with film is cumbersome, expensive and antiquated.

Now if you have one of these cameras or even if you only find one in your stash with film in it, please note that many commercial outlets that handle digital images (including my favorite, Walgreens) also handle film. So if you have a film camera and know how to use it, it’s probably worth more to you to capture images with than it would be to anyone else.

Or if you’re very creative, it might make an interesting decorator artifact (see also “beaded abacus wall hanging,” “furrow plow as garden accent piece” or “vintage telephone cord belt”).

Otherwise, it’s probably just another relic bound for the trash heap.