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.


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.


True stories to encourage the spirit at Easter

The world needs more uplifting stories to encourage people, and author Joyce Kocinski’s new book does just that.

More Than a Coincidence Cover ThumbnailMore Than a Coincidence: True Stories of Divine Intervention is a anthology of 30 stories about faith, God, angels and souls who look over us that Kocinski experienced herself and collected from others. It is hopeful, optimistic and filled with meaning.

“Did you ever feel a time in your life when things just fell into place as part of some Divine plan?” Kocinski writes in the introduction.

“How many events can happen by ‘chance’ until we realize there is a path we must follow? When will we recognize that sometimes there are angels watching over us? I hope the stories you are about to read will inspire you to notice the miracles around you that happen every day.”

Each story is like a little faith memoir — beautiful testimonies just in time to appreciate at Easter.

I helped Kocinski bring this book to print. Modern book publishing is amazing. No longer do authors have to acquire a publisher or self-publish with an investment in 2,000 copies that may languish in the garage. With the right know-how or a small amount of money to pay someone else for the service, anyone can self-publish to Amazon. If you have a story and the rights to tell it, Clickago Storywerks can format it and upload it so that is available nearly worldwide.

Kocinski collected and edited the stories and then handed them off to me. I arranged the stories in order, designed the cover and formatted the ebook and paperback interior. I also contributed a story about my brother, who died 15 years ago but continues to play a role in my life.

Kocinski is also the author of Letters From Mom: A Daughter’s Journal of Healing. Both books are available as paperbacks or on Kindle.

More Than a Coincidence is $4.99 on Kindle and $11.95 on Amazon.

Turn your unpublished manuscript into a book, e-book available worldwide

Do you or a loved one have a manuscript like this lying around the house?

grandma original

Author Marilyn Gould, 81, wrote this book recently, and I got to help her introduce it to the world. Gould wrote a book of memories and advice about grandparenting. America’s Greatest Asset: Grandparents, We Are Not Yet Finished shares the valuable lessons she learned growing up in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood on the South Side in the 1940s and early ’50s and visiting her grandparents’ farm in Indiana’s Lake County. It’s filled with memories of her grandparents, ideas for thought-provoking activities grandparents can do with their grandchildren, words of wisdom and even a few recipes.

One of my services is publication help. I help people self-publish their book to Amazon so the world can enjoy it. I can help with manuscript editing, formatting of printed and ebooks, book cover design and creation of sales portals.

Gould got farther by herself than most authors. She actually wrote the book; so many would-be authors leave their ideas bouncing around in their heads, never making it to paper. She had her manuscript typed up and enlisted the help of a couple of family members to edit it. That’s another thing too many self-published editors skip: An editor.

As you can see, she even had a few copies bound at a copy store. She had a functional product but it was not yet commercially viable. That’s when I entered the picture.

First and foremost, Gould wanted an e-book so I converted her Microsoft Word document to Kindle- and Nook-friendly documents and uploaded them to the appropriate websites. But we couldn’t sell an e-book without a cover, so I designed one for her using stock photography:

Gouldcover_Layout 1.qxd


Gould liked the e-book so much, she wanted a paperback so I tweaked the file, created a back cover and published it via Createspace, Amazon’s marketplace for paperback self-publishing. Thanks to the vast reach of Amazon and Barnes & Noble, Gould’s book is now available worldwide. Check it out here and here to read the first few pages and see if it’s a book for you.

Naturally, Gould wanted the world to know about her book so I drafted a press release we shared with various print publications, including her local newspapers and her alma maters.

“The accumulated experience and wisdom of rational, healthy, and wise grandparents is the greatest asset we have as a society,” author Marilyn Gould said. “Grandparents have been there, done that, sometimes with success, sometimes not, but they’ve learned valuable lessons in either case.”

It is gratifying to help authors create the book they imagine, and I’m honored to have been part of Gould’s team.


Self-publishing helps woman share story about Mom

Sometimes a story to tell needs to be shared with the world.

And Amazon is a great stage.

I recently helped a client publish her story to Amazon, and it’s available now. There are two avenues to publishing directly with Amazon: CreateSpace publishes paperbacks through a POD process (Print On Demand, aka one at a time) and Kindle Direct Publishing publishes ebooks.

Modern book publishing is amazing. No longer do authors have to acquire a publisher or self-publish with an investment in 2,000 copies that may languish in the garage. With the right know-how or a small amount of money to pay someone else for the service, anyone can self-publish to Amazon. If you have a story and the rights to tell it, Clickago Storywerks can format it and upload it so that is available nearly worldwide.

Letters From Mom: A Daughter's Journal of Healing

Joyce Madeline Kocinski’s “Letters From Mom: A Daughter’s Journal of Healing” is available as a paperback or on Kindle. You read a little about Joyce’s story here a few weeks ago when we were collecting opinions on cover design. Her book about how she dealt with her mother’s death reminds me a little of Joan Didion’s “The Year Of Magical Thinking,” a memoir about a New York author about her grief following the sudden death of her husband.

Kocinski’s story combines her journal writing in the year after her mother’s death with her mother’s letters; ultimately she finds comfort in both. Reading it reminded me how much I treasure my own mother who, thank God, is still alive, and I imagine Kocinski’s story would bring hope and comfort to anyone grieving a parent.

This is the second edition of “Letters From Mom.” I redesigned the cover for her so it was more eye-catching online and also formatted the contents for both print and epub.

Form follows function, as it’s said, and good design aids readability. The contents of the second edition look and read so nice with headers, footers, justified type, proper margins and airy leading. Here’s a look at the “before”:


And here’s a screen grab of the “after”:


Click here for the paperback ($8.99).

Click here for the Kindle version ($2.99). It’s free if you’re a Prime member.

Check it out.

Judging a book’s cover

Though it’s said you can’t judge a book by its cover, people do anyway.

I’m working on an exciting new project with an author who wanted a new design for the second edition of her book, “Letters From Mom: A Daughter’s Journal of Healing.”

I met author Joyce Madeline Kocinski at a recent library talk about “Writing About Challenging Life Events.” Joyce had already accomplished the hardest part — the writing. Hers is a daughter’s story of grappling with the death of a mother and how faith and her mother’s own words comforted her in her bereavement. It’s really quite beautiful and a moving tribute to her mother.

Joyce published the book a couple of years ago. When we met, she was interested in refreshing it inside and out and offering an e-version as well as a printed one.

original cover

The original cover is functional but not very eye-catching and would be difficult to decipher in the thumbnail for an ebook. Joyce is not only a writer but an artist, too, and she was interested in using one of her own paintings as part of the cover design. I think her work is stunning. Those flowers make you want to sniff the canvas.


We’ve been volleying cover options back and forth all week, and we rejected one option with a “button” on the cover that noted “Second Edition”; we decided that notation didn’t need to be part of the cover. Now we’re interested in the opinions of potential readers: Which font do you like better for the main title?

Here’s one option …

Option 1 features "Letters From Mom" in all-caps Tempus, a font described by some as "punk Roman."

Option 1 features “Letters From Mom” in all-caps Tempus, a font described by some as “punk Roman.”


And here’s another option:

Option 2 features "Letters From Mom" in bold italics Garamond, a well-known font noted for its elegance and readability.

Option 2 features “Letters From Mom” in bold italics Garamond, a well-known font noted for its elegance and readability.


Which one has va va voom for you? Please vote and help Joyce decide.


By the way, if you’re interested in reading Joyce’s book, stay tuned here and I’ll let you know as soon as it’s available.