Memoir and Family History: Part 4—Getting Started

You’ve decided whether you’re going to write a memoir or a family history, the scope of the story (some aspect of your own life or a certain group of ancestors), and the genre (nonfiction or fiction).

Now you need to determine your audience.

In Leaving a Legacy, I said that most memoirs and family histories don’t have a wide appeal in the mass market. However, if there’s something out of the ordinary in your story, you may believe thousands of people would be willing to pay money to read it.

If you are like most memoirists and family historians, though, your audience will be narrower. For memoirs, people close to you—family, friends, business associates, fellow members of your church and organizations—will be the prime audience.

Depending on the aspect of your life you are writing about, you may have an audience related to that. For example, if you write about dealing with a disease or overcoming a tragedy (such as a violent crime), organizations for people suffering with the disease or people impacted by the tragedy may be interested in your story.

The audience for a family history includes the descendants of the people in the story, both those living today and future generations. Museums, libraries, and historical societies in the areas where the book is set may also be interested, especially if you include historical facts about the area along with your own family story. Individuals and organizations with similar interests to you or your ancestors might also be interested, such as a church that your ancestors founded or a professional or trade association related to a craft, hobby, or business important in the story.

Next, create a plan.

  • Research—Most family historians will have already done much of their research before they decide to start writing, but you may need to do additional specific research.
  • Interview—Decide who (if anyone) you would like to interview and how you will do it (video, audio recording, or handwritten notes); contact them to schedule; prepare your questions. Be sure to save the recordings if you videotape or audiotape the interviews so your family have the opportunity to see the person and/or hear their voice.
  • Get organized—Some writers like to prepare detailed outlines before they start writing, and others prefer to just start writing. If you don’t outline, you probably want a notebook or a computer file to record ideas as they occur to you and to keep track of research and interviews. There’s no rule that says you have to start writing at the beginning and finish at the end. See William Zinsser’s advice in the installment on memoir.
  • Decide how you will write—You can type in a word processor; write in longhand and have someone type the manuscript; talk into a tape recorder and have someone transcribe the tape; arrange for someone else to interview you and write up the interview.

 Although I expect my blog readers will do their own writing, some people who want their personal or family story written prefer to hire a ghostwriter. This is a viable option—just keep the following in mind:

  • You are telling your or your family’s story, and it should sound like you. Each person has a distinctive voice, word choices and the way the words are put together. If you hire someone else to write your story, find someone who will become familiar with and use your voice.
  • Ghostwriters are skilled and well-paid professionals; reputable ghostwriters typically do not write for a percentage of the income from the book because there is no guarantee the book will ever be published much less produce any income. You can expect to pay a significant fee upfront for the services of a qualified ghostwriter.
  • As I wrote about in my series on copyright, written work is protected by copyright when it is put into fixed form. Be sure that any agreement you make with a ghostwriter specifies that the writing is work-for-hire and the copyright belongs to you.

 If you’re having a hard time thinking of things to write about, try some memory triggers:

  • Re-read old journals or diaries—even old calendars with notes of your activities.
  • Pull out and read those old letters that you stored away years ago (if you’re old enough to remember written letters)
  • Review e-mails, forum and blog posts, and other electronic/online writings. Many people have documented experiences and thoughts online or in e-mails rather than hand-written letters.
  • Look through scrapbooks and photo albums—do this with other family members and share memories of the people and events you see.
  • Visit places and buildings from your past—your hometown, your college, businesses where you’ve worked.
  • Read your hometown newspaper from years past—especially you lived in a small town. 
  • Hold family heirlooms and personal treasures in your hands—remember the stories you’ve heard or the emotions you’ve felt.

Next, we’ll talk about the writing process.

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