If you’ve ever wanted to write your own memoir or you want to learn how to weave bits of your own family history into your fiction, you’ll find many great tips in this interview, with expert genealogist Stephanie Pitcher Fishman.
Stephanie is an author, blogger and professional genealogist. As a genealogist, she specializes in Midwestern and South Eastern U.S. family history and is the author of more than 7 family history research guides on topics like religious records, census records, and state-specific research techniques. She’s also the co-founder of the www.theindepthgenealogist.com. Stephanie also writes amazing fiction! You can find more about Stephanie where she blogs at www.stephaniefishman.com and connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.
In the introduction, I talk about how I set my own goals for this year and that right now I’m enjoying some quiet time writing and editing. I do struggle to focus when I edit my stories, which is why I’m re-reading Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work by Steven Pressfield. I’m also learning a lot from a compilation of writing tips written by many bestselling authors like James Scott Bell and others in a new book titled, Writing Success: Your Book from Start to Finish to Publication. I also enjoyed discovering so many new tips on the different ways to research and write your family’s story from Stephanie’s newest nonfiction book Family Story Toolkit: Using Nonfiction, Creative Nonfiction, and Fiction to Tell Your Stories (Quick & Easy Guides for Genealogists Book 4). Stephanie simplifies her writing and research process further in this interview…
*Stephanie says she started when she was young and they would sit around in a circle as a family playing story games and each person had a chance to tie in characters and finish the story. From that point onward, she says she was told stories by her Grandmother and she was encouraged to write and tell stories. Books became her best friend as they moved a lot from place to place.
*She took a break from writing when life got busy with her own family. But when her Grandmother started getting dementia, Stephanie was motivated to write down her family stories. As she transitioned into nonfiction, she developed a love of digging into genealogy came from.
“You live as long as you’re remembered.” Russian Proverb
*Stephanie says as she came to her 40th birthday, her daughter was graduating and since she would no longer be homeschooling, she wondered what she should do. A friend encouraged her to try NaNoWriMo. From then on she started to write fiction again. She says she writes both nonfiction and fiction because she loves both and can’t choose between them.
*Tips for writing a memoir or a biography of your family history: 1) Marry the fiction techniques with your nonfiction book. You can do a creative nonfiction blend and look at the characters and the setting. Stephanie encourages writers to first write down all the stories of your family that you want to include.
You can choose to write your story as a research-based nonfiction book, or as a creative nonfiction narrative or as a fiction story. Stephanie wrote a short ebook explaining the differences in her newest nonfiction book Family Story Toolkit: Using Nonfiction, Creative Nonfiction, and Fiction to Tell Your Stories (Quick & Easy Guides for Genealogists Book 4).
* If you are writing a facts only nonfiction book, you’ll want to include all the details of timelines, documents, and archived information. Writing your family’s history this way can be overwhelming and be dry to read. But if you think of your ancestor as a character and start writing down the things you remember, writing the story becomes easier and more approachable. Some Tips: Write little notes to talk to someone about a story and go back and look at old family photo albums. Then when you’re comfortable with that, consider starting Stephanie’s free mini-course which will walk you through your next steps of telling your story.
*Stephanie encourages writers to see their ancestors as real people who have dealt with the death of a child or who went through hard times because it puts a level of humanity on them. Write what feels right for you and your family. Write your story your way – there’s no right or wrong way to express yourself. Have the conversations and enjoy it and then your story will flow.
*What do you do if some of your relatives/ancestors weren’t so nice… how do you write those stories? Stephanie encourages writers to try to think through ahead of time, how you will write those stories when they come up(because most likely they will). Take a look if there are people who are still alive that were close to that person who might be affected negatively by what you write. Also, Stephanie says if the person you’re writing about is still living, she would hesitate to tell the story unless you have permission or let them know how you’ll include the difficult stories.
Think of your family story as a wagon wheel with spokes – as you tell the story it will branch out and reach more of your family. Or, you can hide it in fiction. Stephanie says she did that with her novel, Finding Eliza.
*As a fiction author, Stephanie has a real knack for exposing secrets and lies in her characters – which is awesome – and brings it around to a powerful transformation at the end of the story. Stephanie gives a few tips on how to dig deeper into her characters: 1)Go thru the process and think through where would this main character go; who would they interact with; how would I feel in this situation. 2)Let the characters speak to you and ask them questions.
*In NaNoWriMo she learned how to bind and gag the inner editor. She discovered that when you write a story – it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be done -for the first draft. Stephanie says often her life experiences – whether she is feeling strong, weak, angry, sad or happy – comes out in her story in some way.
*How do you weave history into your fiction story? Stephanie recommends looking at county histories(the floods, the barn dances that year), look at old newspapers and read old articles on your time period. Learn about details like: what does the town look like? which families were at odds with each other? what music did they listen to? Were the town’s people struggling with specific issues?
*For writers who are considering collaborating on a project here’s some things to consider: 1)a good relationship with someone 2)a common goal or vision – if you’re going in the same direction it’s easier to work through the hurdles when you communicate about the end goal.
If you’re writing in a compilation, you can write a story based on a picture, or a song like Stephanie did with other writer friends who each wrote a story in their book Shutter Step.
*Stephanie shares her struggles with fibromyalgia and arthritis and what she does on the days it’s really hard to write. When she’s feeling sick, she focusses more on research or learning something, instead of doing creative work and that way she feels like she’s getting something done. She encourages others who are dealing with illness or if you’re dealing with illness in the family, do something that keeps you inspired: write notes; listen to podcasts; research, etc. Stephanie says the writing group Tribe Writers Fiction Writers that we’re both a part of, she finds is a big support to her in her writing. And she also has family members who encourage her to keep going.
*Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, everyone is pouring their heart and soul into their work. It’s about knowing your way and having people who will encourage you. It also helps to take the time to write notes to yourself and keep your Why in front of you every day.
*Upcoming projects that Stephanie has on the go: She’s working on a book of her own family stories that she’s working on with her mom; she’s also started a passion project at her new website www.slayingfibro.com; and she’s also creating another course in 2016 to help people write their family stories.
How do you bring heart and soul into your family’s stories through nonfiction or fiction? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.