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.


3 places to find raw material for life story and 3 sources of inspiration

When one thinks of one’s entire life and ponders writing a memoir, the sheer volume of experiences might cause writer’s block. Where to begin?

The didactically chronological will begin with birth, but that’s the long way around. Even writing about a few life changing events can provide yourself and others with insight on living this life. I encourage inexperienced writers to begin there, with a few important moments imbued with great emotion rather than a boring date-by-date list.

Here are three sources of raw material for your life stories that will help get you started and three books to inspire you:

  1. Peruse your old diaries. I’m writing a memoir based on the year I turned 15 and learned to kiss. Entries like this one inspired whole scenes in my work-in-progress book: “Scott (of all people) said I have nice fingernails. Freak my mind away! (That’s Amy’s saying.) We were in science doing some stupid mountains. Wow! Now I have a whole list of guys I like.” As an adult, I can admire and/or lament my simplistic langauge while massaging the content for actual emotion.

2. Copy and paste your Facebook posts. My mother recently went to Guatemala for a mission trip. She keep me, my sister and her friends apprised of her progress building a school with posts on Facebook. Every day was a little story with gems like this, “We saw a smoking volcano near our highway today. It was very warm and we hope it is cooler in the place we will work (higher altitude). We waded in the Pacific Ocean today, which was very warm here.” When she returned home, she used her posts inspire photo captions in her scrapbooks.

3. Take advantage of an online prompt provider. There are many, but one I like comes from WordPress (where I host this blog). Every day, I get a one-word prompt in my email In Box. Today’s word is pensive, for example. Imagine all the vignettes pensive might inspire. When was the last time you were pensive? What life changing events made you pensive? When should you have adopted a more pensive attitude before taking a big leap? What are you pensive about right now? These ideas from the Daily Post are meant for blog writers, but they work just as well for budding memorists.


And here are three books to inspire writers of all sorts, but especially writers of life story:

  1. Writing Down the BonesWriting Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg was first published in 1986, but I recently picked it up and I’m loving it. She combines the concepts of Zen meditation and writing to get writers past the terror of the blank page. With suggestions like “What autumn was it that the moon entered your life?,” “When was it that you picked blueberries at their quintessential moment?” and “How long did you wait for your first bike?,” you’ll be off and running on stories from your life. The book is written in such as way so you can read it straight through, or simply turn to any chapter for inspiration.
  2. Skills FINAL EBook Cover after Proof NOOKSkills for Personal Historians: 102 Savvy Ideas to Boost Your Expertise by personal historian and blogger Dan Curtis includes chapters on “The 50 Best Life Story Questions” “The 50 Best Questions to Ask Your Mother” and “Powerful Ways to Recall Forgotten Memories.” Written for professional personal historians, this book might also inspire you to write other people’s life stories. Like Goldberg’s book, you can read this one straight through or readers can pick and choose where to dive in.


3. Eating An ElephantAuthor Patricia Charpentier provides encouraging words and clear examples in Eating an Elephant: Write Your Life One Bite at a Time to walk you through writing your life story. I took an insightful editing class from Charpentier and enjoyed her style. She even mixes in a little Cajun French and offers insight into South Louisiana culture in her examples in her book.

Want to write a book? Consider starting with a blog

People thinking of telling a big story might consider beginning with a blog.

As a blogger myself, I often tell people thinking of writing their life story that a blog is a great way to document individual stories and invite feedback. Think about this: You write a great little story about a memory of your Uncle Joe. You invite family members to read it, and they add comments with details of Uncle Joe you didn’t know or might have forgotten. Your Cousin Hercules add his two cents correcting one of your facts (he was always such a know-it-all anyway). Now this vignette of Uncle Joe is more complete and accurate. Once a week or so, you write another story and invite more feedback. At some point, you can assemble all your little stories into a book about your life and family, and all along, your family learns a little something about your perspective on life.

Cool, huh? Blog-to-books are an effective way to becoming an author, and I recently helped a man who’s a blogger and personal historian do just that.

Business Tips for PH Lo Rez2

Business Tips for Personal Historians: 92 Lessons Learned from a Veteran Storyteller by Dan Curtis is written for people serious about making a business of helping tell life stories in print or film but to be honest, it’s a handy reference for anyone working at home. It includes chapters on setting up a business, finding and keeping clients, marketing and pricing your work and taking care of yourself–the CEO and chief bottle washer of your business. The book is also a good study on how a blog looks and reads in print.

This is the second book by Curtis published by Personal History Press for people interested in personal histories, and it benefits members of the Association of Personal Historians, of which I am a member.

Curtis didn’t sit down and write this book in a month (or even a year). Business Tips for Personal Historians is drawn from his widely read blog which he maintained for several years (he reflects on the process of writing a blog that becomes a book in a contribution to the Association of Personal Historians blog here). Curtis, from Victoria, British Columbia, is a documentary filmmaker, writer, certified life coach and professional personal historian. Editor Kathleen McGreevy at Chapter Savers categorized, arranged and edited hundreds of blog posts to create this and a second book that came out in April (Skills for Personal Historians: 102 Savvy Ideas to Boost Your Expertise).

My expertise came into play by designing the works into e-books and paperbacks. Buy the paperback here, the Kindle version here and the Nook version here. It was gratifying to play a role in bringing popular Curtis’ work to a new life.

Interested in turning your blog into a book? Maybe I can help. Contact me here.

Tips on preserving, archiving and displaying letters

Do you have a rich correspondence to preserve?

My 99-year-old grandmother and I have been exchanging letters for as long as I have been on my own. I usually write about the places I’m visiting, and she writes about who’s visited and the weather, all in her particular handwriting. I enjoy knowing what’s going on with her.

Many of her letters stored in a manilla folder, but I ran across this website the other day with better ideas for preserving important letters.

The Center for American War Letters offers tips on Preserving Your Wartime Letters, many of which could be applied to letters from any source. Some of the tabs include:

  • Storing and displaying your letters
  • Marking and cataloging letters
  • Temperature
  • Email
  • Repair and restore letters
  • Archive products

If you have wartime letters, love letters, letters from a pen pal or letters from Grandma you want to hang on to, check it out.

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.


Details distinguish

Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.

~ Ernest Hemingway

I just returned from a cruise vacation where I finished reading three books and made memories for days with my husband and stepson.

The experience reminds me to pay attention to details. I really appreciated Kelly Corrigan’s memoir “The Middle Place” for many reasons but especially because she includes so many evocative details of your childhood — moments with her dad, brand names, fashion trends — little descriptions that really brought the story to life.

And when I was taking pictures of all the topical islands we visited, I remembered to take pictures of food, flowers and the moments away from photo ops and posed shots. Like this one:

beach shot

My stepson and I were stuck (if you can call it “stuck” when you’re on a tropical island, 100 yards from a modern beach restaurant) when our golf cart got a flat, and my husband left us to fetch a repairman. Stepson sat on this dramatic rock to take in the scenery, and I snapped this “quiet moment” shot, which turned out to be my favorite picture of the whole week.

The lesson here is that no matter what story you’re trying to tell, the details matter. In narrative, it’s descriptive details. How did it smell? How did he sound? What color blue was it like? In photo books, it’s pictures of the subjects on the fringes. Sure, get a shot of the cake, but take a picture of Mom making it, too.

Details matter. Capture them.