Saturday, August 27, 2011

Organizing Genealogy - But Why?

Recently I walked out the door and met myself coming in. That's how I felt two weeks ago when I realized I'd just looked through the same books at the library for the same information that I had already looked for last year. Uh-oh. Time to get organized.

I found a binder, bought some slide-in protectors, and filed what I had about Thomas Maness and that family line. Then I started plugging information into Reunion on my desktop computer — still a work in progress. I not only need to figure out what I've done to keep from doing it again, but putting the pieces of the puzzle I have together will help me figure out where to look next.

This past week, several genealogy bloggers have written about organization. One blogger mentioned a rented storage unit, environmentally controlled, full of ancestral research! (And my friends think I'm a genealogy nut.) These folks are ambitious. One is trying to scan every piece of paper he owns and has put hours and hours toward that goal. Another has rooms full of boxes and wants to organize everything in them, possibly including digitization, and has figured that it would take the rest of her life. Indeed. I say, if that's the goal, do it.

As for me, organization is not the prize, it's a stepping stone towards what I want. I'm on a mission to find my Maness ancestor, the mystery we've been trying to figure out for four generations. That's my goal. And I really want to find him while my uncle is still around, because he got me started on this search. So I only need to get the Maness family information organized and entered into the computer. For now. If I looked at all my genealogy research for the past 20 years and tried to do something with it, that would distract me from my mission and take valuable time. My other current genealogical project is my book about the English family, and I switch back and forth between the two.

Instead of looking at that mountain of everything you can possibly do with your research and getting overwhelmed, let me suggest some ways to sharpen your focus.

1. Do something for somebody. Last year my goal was to scan large-format negatives of the Lassiter family and make a photo book for my uncle's 80th birthday. He loved it! And real deadlines, like milestone birthdays and family reunions, push me to get things accomplished.

2. Do something for yourself. If there's a pile of research on the floor by your desk and you're tired of tripping over it, just organize that pile. Set a timer and file (or scan, if you wish) papers until the timer goes off. The next day, repeat.

3. Do something for the future. Why are these people "organizing" everything? Is it so somebody won't throw it away when they're gone? Maybe it's for the fun of it, especially if those files were inherited (we genealogists love to play with new information), but these folks just don't sound like they're having fun. Perhaps a better goal would be to label all the boxes and write up instructions for when we're gone (Yes, I need to listen to my own preachin' here). I've been thinking about that lately, since I work in the Friends Historical Collection and we inherit other people's research. I have several family members that wouldn't mind having my research - they're mildly interested in it - but they would never do anything with it. Like spread it around or publish it. And then what would happen after they are gone?

My computer is a backup, a tool, but it's volatile. I don't expect any successor to come along and dig through old hard drives to pick out the information. Whether I give someone a photo book that makes him feel special, (finally) publish my genealogical novel that tells about the hopes and trials my ancestors went through, or leave published (or at least documented) family tree information for the next addict that comes along, I want to leave something tangible behind to make all this research worthwhile.

Why do we do genealogy? Yes, it's addictive, and fun! But my current reasons are that I want to tell the stories that need to be told and connect with family members who are still alive.

What's your raison d'ĂȘtre? Where are you going with this genealogy obsession?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Writers Read, Part 2 — The Preacher's Bride

I mentioned in a previous post that I'd starting reading a historical novel that seemed very promising. Yes, The Preacher's Bride was just as enjoyable as those first few pages led me to believe. I stayed up late a few nights because I didn't want to put it down!

The setting is the closest to my work-in-progress that I've found so far — 1650s England (mine starts about 1660 in Ireland). TPB is also based on real people. So while I enjoyably immersed myself in the story, in the back of my mind I picked up writing tips.

For example, author Jody Hedlund mixes in historical details without slowing down the plot. She uses an old word for diaper and details the kind of plant used for firewood. Social structure becomes apparent in the first few pages — something we just don't think about in modern times.

I'm glad I read this book after my draft is already fleshed out, because I don't want to take too much from someone else's creativity. But I certainly have more research to do. I've already got an idea of what my characters wore and what they grew in their fields, but I need to find out the correct words for those articles of clothing and what ingredients were in their favorite stew. The research has been challenging — I've used books about England because the social histories about Ireland are 100 years too late.

Jody wrote dialogue in mostly modern language, but threw in "Twas" every now and then. I will have to use "Thou" and "thee" in my novel because it was so important to and distinguishing for Quakers, but I worry about bogging down the dialogue. So I notice how other historical writers deal with early modern English.

Jody's incorporation of a relationship with God was different from the Christian historical I had recently read. Her style was subtler and more believable, but the growth still progressed for characters who already had faith.

Another aspect I noticed was villain development. Jody has two main villains in her story, who appear several times and create worse and worse situations. However, my wip is a lengthy saga and the crises in the real John Clibborn's life involved multiple bad guys over decades of time: an army captain here, a priest's tithemonger there, and so forth. I'm thinking of making John offend the tithemonger when he was a just a boy, so his hatred of him 20 years later won't come out of the blue — but that adds more scenes to an already lengthy story. I could combine some of these villains into one or two characters, but I'd like to stay as factual as possible. What to do?

If you know any other good books set in the mid-17th century, I would love to hear about them. Meanwhile, whether you're a writer or not, I recommend The Preacher's Bride. Enjoy.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Abandoning Camp, But Not CampNaNo

This time last year, my local NaNoWriMo friends and I were already psyched for November's annual National Novel Writing Month. This year, as we were getting nostalgic and missing each other, but not really thinking about whole new novels, the Office of Letters and Light launched Camp NaNoWriMo, which brings the same crazy writing challenge to any month of the year! As hectic as this summer has been, I had no intention of starting a novel in July. But as we tossed the idea around in our Facebook group, a few of us decided to dip our toes in for August. Including me.

No, I wasn't ready for a whole new novel - yet - but I needed a push to get back into my wip. The CampNano theme is really inspiring: "An idyllic writers retreat, smack-dab in the middle of your crazy life." I got into the camp spirit and dragged a mattress into my sun room where I could open up the windows and hear all the critters at night (and enjoy the cooler air during one of North Carolina's hottest summers), without having to battle real mosquitoes.

"Crazy Life" is right. Distractions, appointments, meetings, and family crises have abounded this month. Although I won't be anywhere near 50K words, ANY WHERE NEAR, I still wrote a little more than I might have otherwise. My virtual cabinmates are historical writers, which is fun, and something about posting my wordcount online just feels satisfying, even if those numbers are pathetically low (you can only count new words, and I'm revising).

While I enjoyed listening to tree frogs and crickets all night for a couple of weeks, I had some wicked strange dreams. Followed by ... a wicked backache. Last week I abandoned my makeshift campsite and moved back to my bed. Tomorrow I go see the doctor.

C'est la vie. I like changing things up a little every now and then for a creative boost. It's been a little like a real camp, where you come home sunburned and sleep-deprived and missing some socks, but your imagination has been recharged.

Here, have a marshmallow!

Monday, August 08, 2011

Writers Read. Period.

Writing gurus tell us to read books in the genre that we want to write. Before I started my novel, I was reluctant to do that because I didn't want to copy anybody, even unintentionally. Now, I realize that not only is my story unique, but its specific genre has even changed since I started. Reading other books has not only taught me techniques, but has also helped me define what my future book is.

I thought it was going to be "historical" and I read Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower — all 480 pages of nonfiction. Hmm, maybe a little too historical. I've always aspired for my multigenerational story to be like Roots by Alex Haley. I read that and The Peaceable Kingdom by Jan de Hartog, and learned a lot from those two sagas. They seem to fall under historical fiction.

Today, as my manuscript has evolved and my reading list lengthened, I would call my work "Christian historical fiction" with elements of romance. So, the first half of this year, I've sought out a few Christian romance books to read — and been a bit disappointed. This seems to be a popular genre, but when I asked for recommendations, the bestsellers were set in modern cities. I needed historical. And the ones I picked off the shelves were...O.K.

One that I had owned for years and finally read was so disappointing I finished the first of the four stories in it and then gave it away. Yes, there was a bad guy, but most of the crises were caused by the MCs just acting stupid. Like falling in love with each other and then getting engaged to other people for no realistic reason. A more recent book that I got at the library was a little better, but terribly — or comfortably — predictable. And the denouement (the way they got out of a jam and into a happy ending) was too convenient and not very believable. However, I learned how Christian genre authors bring God into the plots and subplots, an aspect I had forgotten to include. I learned something from every book I read, even the bad ones.

I just picked up another Christian historical romance, set near the era I'm writing. I had seen the cover several times and a blurb on the author's blog (one of my Twitter and blog acquaintances — there's another lesson), but in light of the recent disappointments, I checked it out from the library instead of buying it. I didn't have time to read it right away since I'd committed to writing that afternoon, but I glanced at the beginning as I fixed lunch, to get a sense of the style.

I devoured four pages by the time the microwave rang off. The pace moves quickly but historical touches seep through. I have immediate concern for what's going to happen to that poor baby. I can identify with the frustration of people who are too proud to let you help. Yes, yes, this may be what I'm looking for! Something to learn from and enjoy! I'll let you know.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

#amwriting Blog Party!

Happy 2nd Birthday, #amwriting! #Amwriting is a hashtag — a code word writers use to connect with each other on Twitter. Another way to put it: #amwriting is a conversation, that anybody can pop in and join, and that conversation's been going on for two years! We're having a blog party to celebrate!

Around 2008, I said, "Twitter's too A.D.D. for me." I wasn't interested at all in short, seemingly random fragments about what strangers had to eat for dinner. By 2009-2010, I was checking Twitter before my e-mail. Now, I pretty much check Facebook and Twitter everyday and avoid my e-mail as long as possible. Here's why I became a tweetaholic:

1. Twitter is completely customizable. Through searching on certain words and hashtags, I've connected with genealogists and writers around the world. One of the first people that ever followed my blog was an American ex-pat writer in Turkey. Johanna Harness, creator of the #amwriting hashtag, is a shepherdess in the midwest. How else would I have ever found these interesting people?

2. It's community. After finding people that have something in common (like writing the great American novel), we cheer each other on. Yes, there are a few self-styled gurus and "coaches" that have found us and use the hashtag to plug their websites while ignoring the conversation that's going on (often the people with links in their posts), I just ignore them back. You can tell the people who are really there to write. They're saying that the kids are still in bed and they can steal a few pages. Or they suddenly want to kill off their main character. Or what's another word for chaos? We cheer each other on and sometimes answer. "You can do it!"..."I know the feelin'"..."Mayhem!"

3. No guilt. While my e-mail inbox gets so full it blinks red lights at me, — full of read me-reply to me-put this on your calendar-buy me — I can come back to Twitter (or Facebook) after several days of busyness and still have one page to read. Or more, but only if I want to. It's like running into your friends after not seeing them all week. You just catch up, and nobody feels bad that you've been apart for a few days because that's life.

Thanks, #amwriting tweeps, for the funnies, the tips, the kindred angst, and most of all the writing encouragement. Even when I've been gone for a while. (And happy #amwritingversary, Johanna!)

For those of you joining the party by blog tour, step on over to Robyn's TheOneAMPen. If there's no path to the next blog, knock on Nikki's door for the final blog party post.