Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Five things we learned publishing our first book

“Someday I’m going to write a book!” How often have you said that, or heard a friend or relative make a similar statement? You probably didn’t hold your breath until it appeared. 

So it comes as a surprise to the nine members of Genealogy Ensemble, the family history writing group of which I am a member, that we are actually doing it. In November, we will launch Beads in a Necklace, a book of collected short stories based on our family research. 

These real-life stories include a young Scot who immigrated to Canada and became a famous gospel singer, memories of queuing up for food rations in post-war England, and a young girl who was kidnapped from her home in southern Maine by the Abenaki Indians in 1692 and spent the rest of her life in Quebec. I have included stories about the Bagg, Mulholland and Smith families.

Now that it’s about to be published, I thought it would be worthwhile to look back at some of the lessons we learned that might help potential authors.

Grow Organically

The genesis of Beads in a Necklace goes back to 2012 or so when we decided to write about our families and share our stories. Since then, we have met once a month to critique each other’s work, improve our story-telling skills and gain confidence. 

After a while, our stories were so good, we wanted to share them more widely. We began taking turns posting them on our blog, Genealogy Ensemble. The book authors among us kept talking about the possibility of publishing something, but the idea always seemed far away.

Last year, we got serious about the idea. With 2017 being the 375th anniversary of the City of Montreal, where we all live, and Canada’s 150th birthday, we decided it was time to publish a collection our stories: a 250-page book, with a proper binding and a beautiful cover, that we will be able to give to friends and relatives for Christmas. 

Start with Structure

We started discussing the project last September. The first step was to each choose our five favourite stories. Each article had to be about 500 words long and include endnotes citing the sources of our facts. Apart from that, there were no rules. 

After considerable debate, we agreed on the title Beads in a Necklace, and we came up with a logical way of organizing the stories into sections. 


We all pitched in to help at various stages of the process, depending on our areas of expertise. I did most of the editing, with help from Tracey. I had worked as a journalist, and Tracey and Dorothy are also professional writers. That helped a lot: we know how to tighten a longwinded sentence, spot a good first paragraph and structure a story so it flows smoothly. Several members of our group have natural writing talent that they never knew they had, but they are still learning the skills that come from writing on a daily basis. And sometimes writers have to let go of their egos and allow changes. Of course, everyone could say yes or no to editing suggestions, and we always managed to find compromise solutions.

Sandra, who has experience preparing annual reports in the corporate world, did most of the layout, with Claire’s assistance. Claire also knows her way around digital photography and she cleaned up the often scratched or faded photos we wanted to use. 

Ask for Help

We even got friends involved: one friend who is a proof reader is making sure there are no typos or missing punctuation marks, while another friend who is a graphic designer has agreed to do the cover.

There have been many details to consider. The people responsible for the layout had to decide on the size of the book and the fonts to use and get quotes from a local printer. Someone has to look after making a digital version available, and we have to crank up our marketing strategy. Last but not least, we had to find a place that is big enough but not too expensive for our celebratory book launch. We found a church hall that is perfect!

Persevere through glitches

Most of the glitches we have encountered have been computer-related. For example, we tried both Google Drive and Dropbox so we could upload files that everyone could edit. Both did the job, but we found Google Drive to be a bit unstable, while for a reason I still don’t understand, I can’t see many of the changes that Sandra and Claire have made to the layout in Dropbox.  

This has been a long process. We were editing in January and the book will be launched in November. But we are all thrilled about it. Furthermore, I hope to apply the lessons I have learned from this experience when I write a book about my own family’s history. Just don’t hold your breath until it appears.

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Thursday, August 24, 2017

Another Year, Another Post

As Writing Up the Ancestors approaches its fourth anniversary and I approach the end of my summer vacation, it is time to look back at last year’s posts and look ahead to the coming season. 

Some blogs assess their success from the number of hits they get. That is not the case with Writing Up the Ancestors. For one thing, every now and then the stats go through the roof. For some reason, hundreds of computers in Russia hit on my blog for days or weeks at a time, making the stats that Blogspot provides completely meaningless. 

But every now and then, I get an email from someone who turns out to be a distant relation or who is doing research on one of the people I have written about. That means Writing Up the Ancestors is finding its audience, mainly through Google, and that is very satisfying. 

This past year I broke through a huge brick wall. My paternal grandmother’s grandparents were a missing generation, so I hired a professional genealogist to look through records in the Bay of Quinte, Ontario region where they lived. She helped uncover a family secret: they were not married, and they were probably first cousins. (See “The Ancestor Who Did Not Exist”, and “Martha J. Rixon’s Short and Difficult Life”,

The problem with writing their stories was that they were complicated, and I may have buried my great-great-grandmother’s heartbreak in my efforts to explain the genealogical research steps I took to solve the mystery. Oh well, that doesn’t mean the article must remain a failure: I can always rewrite it.

Many of my ancestors are buried in St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church Cemetery, Scarborough, ON.

I also researched several other lines on my father’s side last year. My Hamilton, Glendinning and Stobo ancestors came from the Scottish lowlands to Scarborough, Ontario around the 1820s, and the Whiteside family arrived from Belfast at about the same time. I looked at these extended families to see where they were from, who immigrated and who stayed behind, and what happened to that first generation in Canada. These were all large families with many descendants, so my hope is that other researchers will find their stories useful. This research did not make for great story-telling, but it was nevertheless important. 

In the coming years, I plan to tackle another branch of my family tree that will present similar problems: my mother’s ancestors who settled in Massachusetts and Connecticut around 1630. Puritans in belief, they were mostly farmers and they had large families. My four-times great-grandfather Phineas Bagg, who left Massachusetts and settled in Quebec around 1795, was the fourth generation of his family born in North America. 

A great deal of research has been done on this American colonial population. In many cases, it is known where these people came from in England and which ship they traveled on. Marriage, baptismal and death records are all available, as are probate records, land records, military service records and so on. It will be impossible to learn much about their personalities, so it may be challenging to write anything beyond dry facts, however, there are numerous books about colonial culture and religious beliefs. I hope to shed light on their lives by describing those practices, and the historical events of their times. 

Another goal for the coming year is more research on my Irish immigrant ancestors, the Mulholland, Whiteside, Workman and Shearman families. I still know very little about them, but we are thinking about a trip to Northern Ireland next spring, so that motivates me to learn more.  

As in the past, I will try to follow Genealogical Proof Standards and to cite my sources. Without clarity and accuracy, Writing Up the Ancestors would not be worth my time, or yours.