The Power of Life Writing and Family History

Recently I was reminded again of the power of life writing. Below is a comment from an editing client who had just received a proof copy of his professionally designed book, a tribute to his father.

Looking at the completed copy, thinking about the entire effort of the past year to make the book possible, and realizing my Dad will be memorialized forever, caused a deep emotional response within me today. As I am writing this email to you, I am fighting back the tears. Sad yet happy, feeling loss but grateful, queasy about it all, yet content.

The elderly and frail father died while his story was in the cover and interior design phase. This is always a worry when writing about and for an elderly person. But the father knew about the book and fortunately his son had read parts of it to him, so he knew how much his son loved and admired him—enough to write a book about him. That’s impressive. Our consolation is that his family can hold a great and lasting tribute to a man of the times whose humble beginnings ended with great accomplishments through hard work, perseverance, and risk-taking.

It is always a heart-warming pleasure to hear the comments of people when they see the finished copies of their family story books, often the result of years of hard work writing and then going through the editing process. Every author is thrilled to see their book in print for the first time, especially a first book, like a baby being born after a long labor, but family story books are extra special. They hold great meaning, full of history and connection to the family’s past and present. They honor lives of people of personal importance. Even if some of those people were far from perfect, their stories show the progression of generations and where behaviors and thought patterns come from.

A book can be passed into future generations, unlike stories locked in someone’s mind. You do not need to have writing experience to write your family history and stories. Just start researching and writing. Ask family members to help. When you think you are finished, consider hiring an editor to smooth out the sentences and fix grammar and spelling. You can simply take the manuscript to a local copy shop or make (and pay for) as professional-looking a book as you want by hiring experts. Many companies exist to create family books, even researching and writing them for you if you have lots of money to spare. Whatever you do, don’t lose the stories!

See articles under my Resources tab above for information about publishing family-only books:

Publishing For Family Only

Publishing With

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Family History in Truth or Fiction

Back in May 2017 I posted “Writing the Immigrant Story in Truth or Fiction” about Amy Cohen and her family history novel Pacific Street based on her immigrant ancestors’ stories. She explained why she decided to write her family history as fiction. There are a number of other reasons for writers to do this—to avoid hurting family or to protect the guilty and not have to worry about a lawsuit or being disowned, because there’s a bigger story to tell outside the confines of one true story, or just because they want to.

Amy recently published another family historical fiction book based on another set of ancestors. Santa Fe Love Song is about a young Jewish immigrant to the US who became a pioneer on the Santa Fe Trail and settled in Santa Fe. But he wanted to marry a Jewish woman, so he had to go back east to find a wife who would accompany him back to New Mexico. Below are Amy’s answers to some interview questions.

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Amy B. Cohen, Santa Fe Love Song

Your first family history novel, Pacific Street, featured your immigrant ancestors on your mother’s side, so Santa Fe Love Song is about your father’s immigrant side? Tell us a little about the two main characters – were they both immigrants?

Bernard Seligman, my great-great-grandfather, was born in a little town in Germany in 1837. When he was nineteen years old, he decided to leave Germany and follow his older brother Sigmund to the US. After a year in Philadelphia adapting to America and learning English, he traveled the Santa Fe Trail and joined his brother’s dry goods business in Santa Fe. He eventually became a business leader and political leader in Santa Fe.

His wife, my great-great-grandmother Frances Nusbaum, was American born. Her father came to the US in about 1840 and worked as a peddler throughout Pennsylvania where Frances was born in 1845. Eventually her father established a successful dry goods store in Philadelphia, where Frances spent much of her childhood and early adult years.

The story spans the years from Bernard’s arrival in the US in 1857 until 1870, by which time he and Frances and their children were living in Santa Fe.

Did you find a lot of stories about them and where, or did you have to imagine a lot of the book’s storyline?

The story’s timeline came from the research I did into their lives—census records, birth-marriage-death records, and immigration records. I also researched what life was like in Philadelphia, on the Santa Fe Trail, and in Santa Fe in the 1860s so that I could best understand the lives that Bernard and Frances lived in those years and in those places.

Once Bernard and Frances were settled and well known in Santa Fe, there were many newspaper articles about their later lives during the last few decades of the 19th century. I used those news stories to learn more about their characters and interests and then read backwards in time to imagine what they’d been like when they were younger, the subject matter of my story.

My story is focused on those early years between 1857 and 1870: how Bernard adjusted to life in Philadelphia and on the Santa Fe Trail, how he met and fell in love with Frances, and how he persuaded her to leave all she knew in Philadelphia and move out to the frontier. I had no information about any of those matters. I knew when and where they married, where they lived, and when their children were born, but the rest of those early days came from my imagination. The story itself is fictional, the people who inspired it were real.

I find that so interesting that your immigrant ancestor “finally felt at home” in New Mexico, in my mind very different from the landscape of Germany and likely nearly absent of Jewish culture. Do you have a clue why that was?

I don’t really know, and that was the challenge in writing the book. I had to put myself in their shoes and try to imagine what it was like for a young German immigrant from a small town and for a first-generation American woman raised in a sophisticated and cultured city to come to such a different part of the world. Having visited all three places in recent years—Bernard’s birthplace of Gau-Algesheim, Germany, and Frances’s hometown of Philadelphia, and Santa Fe—I could visualize them there and feel their reactions to what they were seeing. As I explore in the book, Bernard found a spiritual connection to the landscape and the natural beauty of New Mexico that helped him feel at home. And Frances? Well, you’d have to read the book to understand her reasons for accepting Santa Fe as her home.

I understand you involved your young grandchildren in creating this book? And so what age range is the book written for?

The book is suitable for anyone from middle school and up. It is not a “young adult” novel as the book industry defines it since Bernard and Frances are not teenagers in the story. But it is part love story, part adventure story. I hope it will appeal to all readers.

My grandsons created the artwork in the book. It was their idea, and I loved the fact that it gave me a chance to share the creative process with them as well as the stories of their ancestors.

What would you say is the takeaway from this adventure-love story?

The book is about the ways we fall in love—with places and with people. How do we reconcile those loves when they conflict? How do we negotiate our needs with those of another when we feel passionately about something but also want to respect and serve their needs as well? In that sense the book is universal because it’s something all human being struggle with in relationships—making ourselves happy and making someone you love happy when happiness can mean different things to each person.

Do you have any other comments about your writing journey for Santa Fe Love Song?

Although this is a work of fiction and not a history book, I’ve done my best to capture the times and places in which Frances and Bernard lived to give an authentic context to their story. I wrote this book for my grandchildren and their grandchildren so that when they get older they will know something about their immigrant ancestors—the risks they took to come to America so that they and their families would have the best opportunities for a good life.

There is something almost magical that happened when I was writing this book. Of course, I didn’t know Bernard or Frances, and I had really had only that skeleton timeline when I started. But by placing myself in their shoes and imagining how and why they ended up together in Santa Fe, I fell in love with them. They became real to me, and I hope my readers will also fall in love with Bernard and Frances.

Amy B. Cohen blogs about her family history and genealogy research on Brotmanblog: A Family Journey Pacific Story and Santa Fe Love Song are available online in print and e-book.

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Happy New Year – traditions, hope, new starts

Happy New Year – surely it has to be better than last year! I did my usual tradition of fixing mochi rice cakes for breakfast, considered by the Japanese a good luck food to start the year off right, if you don’t choke on the super-gooey things. For the first time I also fixed “toshikoshi” soba soup late on New Year’s Eve. Eating soba requires biting (breaking) the long soba noodles, symbolizing the breaking away from the old year. Yes, be gone 2020!

Of course I did the “o-souji” the last days of December. This is the “big clean” of the house to sweep away the old dirt —and get ready for the new! In Japanese Shinto belief, osouji is for deep cleaning the house to welcome the spirit of the new year. This is not just vacuuming and dusting, but cleaning everything that is not part of the normal cleaning routine—curtains, blinds, top of fridge, ceiling fan blades, light fixtures. It’s exhausting! It can also include getting rid of things you don’t use or are tired of. I don’t remember my mother doing much of this, but she did insist on changing the bedsheets on New Year’s Eve day. Osouji also symbolizes putting the past “dirt” behind you to start your life afresh.

While these New Year traditions won’t change anything, they do bring hope and the awareness that a fresh start is possible. During these especially trying and difficult times, this new year brings hope for good health as well as good luck, hope for a miracle that people will behave nicer and with respect for others, hope for the US to not be torn apart (even further) by poisonous politics. Wishful thinking, I know, but I’d be willing to eat more mochi rice cakes and keep finding things to clean if that would help. And I’ll be praying.

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