Writing Life Stories – How to Start With What You Have

I have always been fascinated with family stories and experiences. I come from a long line of storytellers, and I’m thankful for that. When I was a little girl, it was very common to sit on the porch on summer evenings with my parents, grandparents, aunt, and uncle and listen to their tales of the past.

As I got older, it became very important to me to preserve these stories the best I could. The biggest problem was that most of my relatives had passed away by the time I wanted to write them down. My mother is still living, so I get a lot of information from her. But here are some things that I have done, and hopefully these tips will help you if you are interested in recording the life experiences of your family members.

Start with what you have. You probably know a lot more information than you think. I got a notebook and started writing snippets. Even a paragraph can tell an interesting experience. If all you have is a paragraph, that’s ok. Many such paragraphs can be compiled into a nice book for your family.

Think like a newspaper reporter. You are reporting the incident that happened. Use the journalist questions – who, what, when, where, why, how. If you even turn each of those questions into one sentence, you will have a paragraph that sums up an experience or incident.

Let me illustrate this with a personal story. My grandmother was born in 1892. She went to a one-room schoolhouse in rural West Virginia. She once told me about a time in school when she played hooky.

This is how I would set up a paragraph with the journalist questions:

Who: Grandma
What: Skipped school to go ice skating
When: Around the year 1900
Where: Hundred or Littleton, West Virginia (I’m not sure where she lived at the time. It was one of those two towns.)
Why: Loved to skate, had a friend who was willing to go with her.
How: Left at noon recess, skated on the creek, didn’t return for afternoon classes.

Now, let’s turn this into a small paragraph. It doesn’t have to be fancy. You can rewrite it later. Just get the basic information down.

My grandmother grew up in Wetzel County, West Virginia. She was always a daring and adventurous girl, especially in a time when girls were supposed to be so lady-like. She attended a one-room schoolhouse in the country town of either Littleton or Hundred, West Virginia.

At noon recess, the children were allowed to go outside and play, even in the winter. There was a creek that ran along the back of the school yard. It froze completely in the winter, and made a nice place for the children to skate. The creek ran for a good ways, and I think it even connected a couple of the small towns.

One day, when Grandma was around eight years old, in 1900, she and her friend took their ice skates to school. When the teacher let them go outside for recess, the two girls donned the ice skates and went skating up and down the creek.

All too soon, the bell rang for the children to return to afternoon lessons. Being the mischievous girl she was, Grandma suggested to her friend that they not go back to school. They were simply having too much fun. So they skated off down the creek and that’s how they spent their afternoon.

Whether or not she got in trouble, I don’t know. She must not have, because she didn’t remember any consequences from the adventure.

Ok, now you see what I mean. This was several paragraphs, not just one. And it came from one little memory of Grandma skipping school and going ice skating.

So if you want to record family stories, don’t be afraid to start out with one small idea or event. Plan out the paragraph with the journalism questions. Turn those facts into sentences. Elaborate on those sentences with details, and you will have a nice story.

If you would like to see how my mother’s stories were turned into a children’s book, please visit the link below.

Dirt Roads and High Topped Shoes
Childhood in the 1920s
http://www.amysinclair.net

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