Writing Your Family Story

Today’s guest blogger is Donna Schlachter.  She lives in Denver with husband Patrick, her first-line editor and biggest fan. She writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts. She is a hybrid publisher who has published a number of books under her pen name and under her own name. Donna is also a ghostwriter and editor of fiction and non-fiction, and judges in a number of writing contests.

A couple of years ago, I had the unhappy fortune to be with my father as he answered questions for the intake counselor at a hospice facility. He patiently answered her questions about his family, his children, what he’d done for a living, until he grew tired. And then he simply said, “If you want to know any more, read the book.”

“Read the book?” She looked at each sibling. “What book?”

“There on the bookcase.”

I handed her the book. “It’s the first part of his life, up until he married my mom, and then the last part, where he found his half-siblings from his father’s side of the family.”

She thumbed through the book then she looked up at us again. “You won’t believe how many family members come through here every year who say they wished they’d listened more closely to their parent’s stories. Or how many parents who say they wished they’d taken time to write down the stories. This is the first time I’ve met anybody who actually did it. You have a treasure here.”

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a writer, you might want to record family stories for future generations. Here is the process we used to write the book for family only and then prepare it for the general market.

  1. Decide what your goal is: first and foremost, this was a history book for the family. Secondly, he knew his story wasn’t unique, but the setting and the characters were, and we felt that would set the book apart in the general market.
  2. Decide the structure: he wanted to tell three separate stories including how he came to be born and placed in the family he was raised in, his life growing up in a unique setting, and finding his half-siblings on his birth father’s side of the family. So we went with the three-books-in-one approach, from two different points of view, his birth mother’s and his.
  3. Decide what to include: a person’s life has innumerable stories, so we kept to the ones that best described my father—pragmatic, logical, forward-thinking.
  4. Decide whom to protect: in the family-only version, we toned down some stories where we felt we knew the truth but couldn’t prove it, while in the market version, we changed the names of the characters, kept the name of the town, and wrote it the way we believed it happened.
  5. Decide what to exclude: my father came to Christ three weeks before he passed away, so that was a huge part of the family-only book, even though it was a short part of his life on this earth. The title, My Cup Has Overflowed, came from a song I love called “I’m drinking from my saucer, Lord, because my cup has overflowed”. We decided not to include much of that story in the market version.

So, if you’re thinking about writing your family story, don’t wait. If you’re tired of hearing Uncle John’s stories or Grandma Mary’s tales, don’t tune them out. Write the stories. They won’t always be here.

Donna  will be teaching an online course for American Christian Fiction Writers in June 2017, “Don’t let your subplots sink your story”.   Her current release, Echoes of the Heart, a 9-in-1 novella collection titledPony Express Romance Collection” released April 1. 

Facebook: www.Facebook.com/DonnaschlachterAuthor

Twitter: www.Twitter.com/DonnaSchlachter

Books: http://amzn.to/2ci5Xqq

Echoes of the Heart: http://amzn.to/2lBaqcW

9 thoughts on “Writing Your Family Story

  1. Thank you Jim for bringing Donna’s story to life. So true, many of us do not know the history of our families. Why, I have no idea. I remember being told by my maternal grandmother…”whatever went on in the past is adult business.” Isn’t that sad. As a family we have lost many decades of stories due to that attitude. I’m always telling stories. It’s important for the future generations. Thank you again

    • Hi Augie: Thanks for stopping by. Yes, it’s sad when we try to bury our family stories. Not everything is pretty or perfect, because people aren’t truly that way. No matter how much we wish we had a June Cleaver mom or a My Three Sons father, our family life was likely a mess. But our stories tell us not only where we’ve been, but who we are, and why.

  2. As a working genealogist I often speak to people who don’t even know the names of their grandparents or who have waited until after loved ones have passed to ask questions about the past. Some answers can be found through existing records, but those cold pages lack the human emotion which enlivens a story.

    • Hi John, Thanks for stopping by. Yes, losing our past is so sad. And then with blended families and single parent families where one parent isn’t in the picture at all, we lose our immediate past. Genealogy sites can fill in the blanks, but as you said, they are cold pages compared to the stories. I like to visit cemeteries, and I remind myself that every stone represents the worst day in somebody’s life. But even the stones can tell us a story. It is up to the story tellers to find those stories.

  3. Love this! I wrote books about each of my three children, starting from before their birth, and gave them to them at their high school graduation. I’ve also kept an annual journal of our family’s doings, but should really take the time to write down stories from my and my husband’s youth as well. Thanks Donna and Jim!

    • Hi Mary, what a wonderful gift for your children. As we go along with our daily lives, and one of our kids says or does something, we think, “I’ll never forget that”. But we do. And I think we tend not to live in multi-generational households so much these days, so the family stories aren’t passed along. I wish now I’d paid more attention to my grandparents’ stories about their childhood.

  4. The thing is, can you write memoirs and make them interesting, even if you aren’t famous? I’m trying two things – a converational approach and some little hooks. That is, hooks that a casual reader could relate to, out of the reader’s own experiences.

    • Hi Dac, I think a story is a story. Just because a person is famous doesn’t mean their story is going to be interesting. For my father’s first book, I broke it into 3 sections: his birth mother’s story starting at age 12 when her mother died up until she gave my father to his birth father’s family when he was 3 days old. Then I started my dad’s story from when his story started, as a story told him by his adopted mother, and then his life up until he married my mother. And the last section was about him finding his birth family. His second book filled in the years between his marriage and his death. Lots of stories, lots of characters, lots of history. But always the story was the starting point.

      • And Dac, I think you have the structure of a good story. A hook is important, but it’s just to grab attention. It isn’t the story. Tell a great story, wrap it around to something the reader can relate to, and your memoir will be interesting. let the reader arrive at the moral of the story. For example, one of the stories in my dad’s book is about how he paid way too much for a coin he bought from a young boy. When asked why he paid that much, he said, “Did you see his clothes? His boots? That could have been me.” The response wraps back to his incongruous beginnings and how he was rescued from a desperate situation where he would have ended up like that child. He understood he was that child. But he didn’t have to say all that. Let the reader experience the Aha! moment for themselves.

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