Sunday, August 9, 2015

Writing Their History

 Life can only be lived forwards,
but it can only be understood backwards.
Soren Kierkegaard

Where I publish monthly,’s goal statement is “connecting Asian American women to the world.” Making that link between East and West involves, in part, understanding the past, especially that of one’s parents, one’s extended family, and their ancestors.

While you still can, you might well gather information from your parents and other relatives about the lives they lived Over There and how things changed by Coming Here. You can interview them, recording it as oral history. You can examine documents and mementoes they still have. You can use authoritative sources to give the background for the times and places in which your relatives lived.

Then, you write your book.

Why Write?

You will understand your family and yourself better. They will be pleased that you are interested. You will preserve the history of the microcosm in time and space that they inhabited. If you publish, you will become a published author, a feather in your career cap. Perhaps having written it will open some doors. Who knows?

Who Will Read It?

Your family and friends will, and you may end up having written a book that deserves and gets wider attention.

How Write It?

Prepare for a marathon. Hundreds of hours spent on a book is typical. Fortunately, there is no big rush, so settle into a pace you can maintain. Find some times during the week you can set aside and find some place you can work well in. Some of you will like to write alone, while others might prefer to do it at Starbucks. Some will use the computer, others pen and paper. Some will even dictate and transcribe.

Make an outline. Start with the big chunks first, and later you can add the smaller ones. To get your readers interested, you’ll start with an attractive cover and title, but for now, let’s focus on the text. Here’s an outline that can work:

·      Crisis: catch the reader’s attention with something dramatic.
·      Background: what led up to it.
·      Outcome: what followed, immediately and in the long run.
·      Lessons learned: what was learned and what can others take away?

Let’s see how that might play out for your family.

·      Crisis: Something made them leave all that was familiar and come thousands of miles to a country where they were likely to be viewed as outsiders, had no jobs, and quite possibly could barely speak the language. Why leave? Why come here?

·      Background: Who are these people? Where did they grow up? What was that like? How did they come to this point in their lives? What is the cause of the crisis? What are the possible resolutions? What are they hoping for? How likely is that?

·      Outcome: What followed from the crisis? What are the implications both for them and for people they really care about? What does the future hold?  

·      Lessons learned: What did they take away from this experience? What do you? What should others? What are the major themes?

Because family histories are stories, start with a bang: capture your reader with your beginning. Make them wonder about the outcome of something. You should include lots of stories. As with fiction, the writer needs to tell the stories clearly, to make sure the reader learns the answers to the questions journalists pose for themselves: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? The little stories need to start with implicit headlines to alert the reader to what is coming: “It was a dark and windy night….” Snoopy knew what to write!

Write any part you can, any time you can. Organize (outline) early and agonize (proofread) later. You’ll stitch the parts together and add foreshadowing and transitions later. Chronological ordering is easiest, but sometimes there are themes that can be developed in sections.

Having written a first draft, pass it around to those who know the family history and to those who can help you with your writing. Your relatives will be pleased to tell you stories, which you should heed, and your friends will likely give you advice on writing…which you can take or leave as you wish. You may have to change the names or locations in some of the stories, but you can alert the readers to that at the outset.

An Example

One of my writing students has a four-book (!) series planned around the stories of her female ancestors, an admirable group of hardy and independent women in Upstate New York. One of the books will start with the family’s being evicted from their farm, taken by eminent domain by the government as part of an army base. No, these are not Asian Americans, but the government is the U.S. and the base was Fort Drum in northern New York, built during the early years of World War II, even before the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.

The writer has interviewed her 90-ish grandmother and preserved the results of the interview. Part of this will likely be quoted at the beginning of various chapters.

The writer has also amassed letters and diaries from her family that will be used in preparing the books she has planned. You could probably find such materials, too, and read them or have them translated for you, if necessary…while the participants still live.

The Title
        If you are writing for strictly family and friends, then a simple and clear title is all that is needed. If you hope to get a wider audience, then you’ll want to give the title more thought.

Taking some time and effort to choose your title makes sense. This will also help guide the direction of your writing. The title should be only a few words; the subtitle can clarify them. Perhaps there is a theme that the title can express. Perhaps there is a central figure or event to be highlighted this way. If you find later on that you have strayed from the title as you wrote the text, you can then decide whether to change the title or to bring your writing back in line with your original idea.       

For developing a title that will help your book reach its audience, you’ll be balancing between what is creative and what is clear. In some cases your title may be a bit mysterious, but you can choose to clarify it with a subtitle. In working on the book, you’ll likely have a shorter title. Your book’s formal title may be different from the “nickname” you started with, your working title. No problem.

The Cover

People do judge a book by its cover. You can decide how much to care.

For a family history for family and friends, you won’t worry much about the cover. Perhaps one of the relatives has some artistic ability that can be harnessed. If you are going to publish the book more broadly, then you will likely get a commercial artist to do the cover or use something supplied by the publisher, such as a template to which you add a photo or drawing.

In general, we are advised that simple covers are best, especially if the book is going to be published and then distributed online, where the covers are tiny in comparison to that of the book itself. Your title will be large, your name small. Asymmetrical covers are said to be more eye-catching than those that are symmetrical. Use a few, contrasting colors, rather than many.

Front Matter

Have a Dedication page; write a Preface about why you wrote it and who should read it; maybe even get someone to write a Foreword describing and praising what you have written. A detailed Table of Contents will serve as a quick outline for readers and let them find the pages of most interest to them, as you are not likely to have an Index.

Near your Title page, put “Copyright My Name 2015,” which will assert your rights to the material. You’ve written a book. You've become an author.


There you go! Writing your family’s history will be an adventure, one you will probably be glad you undertook, one others are likely to appreciate. Who knows what will come from doing it?


Dr. Cooper (, a retired scientist, is now an author, editor, and writing coach. His first book, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage and Devotion, was published by Outskirts Press in 2011. Also available from online booksellers are two memoirs he co-authored: The Shield of Gold and Kidnapped Twice, and three memoirs he edited: High Shoes and Bloomers, But…at What Cost, and soon Home is Where the Story Begins. On Twitter, he is @douglaswcooper. His writing, editing, coaching site is

No comments:

Post a Comment