Bringing Books Back

by Linda O. Johnston

I’ve been wriing for a while, as those of you who know me, or know of me, are aware. I’ve so far had 57 traditional books published, with more to come—including one more next month.

Fun? Oh, yes! But some of those older ones had stopped being available, or at least mostly so.

However, my first mystery series is now available as ebooks, and my second is on the way as ebooks and audio! The first of those mystery series is my Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter Mysteries, and the second is my Pet Rescue Mysteries. Those Pet Rescue Mysteries available again now as ebooks and audio are BEAGLEMANIA, THE MORE THE TERRIER, AND HOUNDS ABOUND. There are two more in the series, and they’ll be on their way soon.

And I do have some of my earliest time travel romances available as ebooks as well.

If you’re a writer, have you also been in that situation? What do you do if you’re traditionally published and your first ones are getting old? They can remain available at online sites such as Amazon, but it’s a shame just to ignore them, right?

So what do you do? If they’re already available as ebooks, just continuing to promote them to readers might be enough.  And audio can be fun.

What if there are more formats to come in the future? I’m not a techie person so I can’t suggest what they might be, but do you have any thoughts about it?

Or, if they’re in a series, why not write some more books to that series to get more readers interested in the first ones? Of course they need to be available, but if they’re out there as ebooks why not?

We put a lot of effort into our books. We put parts of ourselves in them. It’s fun to have them available and have readers read them.

So it’s a good thing to find ways to keep them available!

AS ONE DOOR CLOSES – 

ANNUS MIRABILIS BECKONS

                                                              (a remarkable year)

by Rosemary Lord

Just as I was thinking, “Aah, I can relax, just focus on my writing. I’ve got things covered…” Then everything goes topsy-turvy – again. Why is that?

I’ve been working on a book on the history of the 1905-founded Woman’s Club of Hollywood. I’m thoroughly enjoying diving back into research – one of my favorite things! It’s fun, pulling out the documents and newspaper clippings of the Club history, therefore early Hollywood history. Local Hollywood papers in the 1920s were full of Club news! I love recreating those early 1900 scenes.

Maybe I should just stop there. Because, next, I started on the more recent history story. I gathered the copious notes, Court Reports and endless pages I’ve written about the last ten years of thievery, skullduggery, break-ins, bankruptcy and lawsuits. However, this rendered me emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed, as I relived the stress, the 18-hour days, the threats, physical attacks, the police protection, the ugly shenanigans I endured. My goodness – how did I get through that? That was quite depressing. So, I’ve put that book aside for now. I’ll get back to that later…

Much better is my work on a new Lottie Topaz novel. A wonderful adventure. I’m busy plotting – or rather, following Lee Goldberg’s idea and writing a simple movie script of the story as a basic map. It’s very helpful. I’ll add the fun color my imagination creates later.

I’ve also started a sort of ‘memoir; about my early days in the British movie industry, based on all the diaries and scrapbooks gleaned from my Christmas visit to England. My apartment is littered with these stacks of post-it covered papers and files.

So, I’m loving my writing life once again. And the Woman’s Club was humming along nicely with new volunteers and only part-time attention required from me.

But then the L.A. Building and Safety Inspectors decided to complete their inspection of our Historic buildings, explaining their report was delayed due to Covid-19 shutdown backlog. The original report was from May 2011. It only took them 11 years to catch up! The Hollywood School for Girls schoolhouse was built in 1903, so we knew we had a long list of repairs, upgrades and restoration. We’re doing as much as we can without funding for the expensive, specialized work on our historic landmark buildings.  

But the stringent Building and Safety regulators were not satisfied with our progress, issuing a new To Do list, with a fourteen-day deadline! And a fine for the violations! (Such as missing 1903 building permits!) They added $64,000 worth of termite and pest-control tenting and remedying! Hmmm.

Although the Inspector I met was very sympathetic and gave me a time extension to complete. Phew!  So now all we have to do is raise about $200,000 to pay for this…

Then the Fire Department joined in. We’re always very careful with brush clearance. In the 1990s, a carelessly tossed cigarette from the apartments next door caused a fire that destroyed four of our small 1915 wooden classroom-cottages. So, we’re really cautious! We shook the trees to remove any dried-out dead bits. One of our younger members climbed some of the trees to remove dead branches. With the help of our local police, all the dead brush was safely removed. We thought.

Aha! We missed a bit! The Fire Department noticed that some of the palm trees – over 100-years old and over 4-storeys tall – had a few more dead branches. More fines! I’m now trying to find someone who can shimmy up those palm trees and thwack off the offending branches. The professional tree trimmers charge thousands – which we don’t have. I thought I might even stop by the Fire Station that cited us: they have tall ladders and are not afraid of heights…

But, I’ve been through worse with this Club. And I shall persevere. People will come in to help, I know. As one door closes, another always opens. I’ll canvas the Hollywood community for donations. This, too, shall pass.

So, all this stopped my writing flow and dragged me back into another world.

Then, last week – just as I was getting back into writing mode – much of the World was shocked and saddened by the news of the death of Queen Elizabeth II. I was surprised at how emotional I was. I know she was 96 years old – but we thought she would go on forever. She was always in my life.  It’s like losing your favorite grandmother.

 Queen Elizabeth truly devoted her life to the service of Britain and the Commonwealth. Growing up in England, I accepted that girls – women – could do anything they wanted. Even become Queen! Elizabeth was not born in line for the throne. She had an ‘ordinary’ (if privileged!) childhood and served in the Army during World War II.  People all over the world loved and admired her grace, her sensible approach to life, her love of animals – and her sense of humor. Although, even the Queen had her bad times, her “annus horribilis,” dealing with wayward offspring and grandkids.

But, as one door closes… Britain now has a new King: Charles III. People have been buoyed at the way he is dealing with these early days in his new position as King, knowing that he has had a long ‘apprenticeship’ and will follow in his mother’s footsteps in service to the people. And so, my sadness was soon replaced by hope and pride, watching the new King step into those big shoes! A new door opened – a fresh start.

Excuse my ramblings, as I, too, open a new door in my life. Instead of allowing these ‘challenges’ from the Woman’s Club to destroy me, I’m re-focusing once more on my writers’ life.

And with this view through a different door, I’m really looking forward to an “Annus Mirabilis.” A wonderful Year ahead!

(Rosemary’s delightful blog was posted by Gayle Bartos-Pool.)

A New Book Release Party!

Release party for Miko Johnston’s

A Petal in the Wind Book IV: Lala Smetana

Sunday Sep 11 2022 5:00pm – 6:00pm

Kingfisher Bookstore, 16 Front Street NW, Coupeville WA

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We are thrilled to announce the long-awaited continuation of Miko Johnston’s Petal in the Wind saga. A founding member of Whidbey Island’s Writers in Residence, Johnston’s historical novels beautifully capture the heartbreaks and triumphs of a young Jewish woman coming of age in early 20th century Europe.

Please join us for an exclusive free event as we celebrate the release of Johnston’s newest novel on Sunday, September 11th at 5 pm in the Kingfisher Bookstore’s lower level. Champagne and small bites will be provided by our neighbor, Front Street Grill.

While this is a free event, tickets are required. Please secure your place by calling the Kingfisher Bookstore at  360.678.8463 or by emailing hello@kingfisherbookstore.com.

Petal in the Wind Book IV: Lala Smetana

As the Great War rages, Lala dreams of someday having it all — marriage, motherhood, and a career. She reunites with Josef Smetana, the man she loves, and they marry. Amidst a world-wide pandemic and political discord rippling through Europe in the aftermath of war, Lala and Josef encounter undercurrents of mistrust and bigotry that sprout like noxious weeds. Lala notes a disquieting change of attitude in Josef as well; he no longer supports her desire to work.

The Smetanas move to Prague and start a family. When an opportunity arises for Lala’s final dream to come true, she plots to keep her secret from Josef, until she learns he’s kept a far more dangerous secret from her. With her family’s fate hinging on her success, together they must navigate a new resurgence of an old hate that threatens to shatter their lives.

A Debut Mystery and Using Cornish Cuss Words!

by Jill Amadio

Mystery writers are often asked how they decided to choose not only the genre but the plot itself. My revelation for my debut novel came about when I moved to the United States. I’d been a reporter and figured on continuing in that profession forever. I loved it. However, life has a way of setting one down a different path than planned.

Balboa Island isn’t too shabby a place to live if you are banished to the colonies as I was. As a result of my divorce conditions I agreed to live in America with our three children.  A job on a magazine brought me to Balboa Island that is part of Newport Beach on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and the ritziest coastal town in Orange County, California. A virtual village, quaint and stunningly beautiful, Balboa is a place where nothing untoward ever, ever happens. Many of the beach “cottages” are stylish mansions with yachts bobbing at private docks and everyone goes to bed at 10 p.m.

In order not to confuse readers or tourists, I moved a few streets around for the plot and changed the name of the island to a fictional one in my book, “Digging Too Deep” naming it Isabel Island. When I lived there crime was non-existent except for an occasional purloined bicycle.  In short, the perfect setting for a murder or two.

After ghostwriting a crime novel for a Beverly Hills financier who never read books but wanted his name on one I decided mysteries were for me. I’d created a series character for him hoping we’d continue, and I was paid, to boot. But he declined after a lengthy book tour including a cruise while signing my book. Thus I plunged into writing my own first mystery.

A terrorist plot seemed the most shocking event to wake up the islanders but after meeting many authors who were writing violent, brutal thrillers I changed my mind.  In my bones are the books of Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell. M.C. Beaton and P.D. James whose gentler murders fit more into the solve-the- puzzle, cat-and-mouse games I prefer rather than the graphic police procedurals and private detective plots so popular in the U.S.

Like most authors I bring a few personal experiences to my work and I wanted to establish a series character so my amateur sleuth, Tosca Trevant, is from Cornwall, UK. I’d dumped her onto Isabel Island where she grumbles about the lack of rain.

I asked poet and professor Pol Hodge in Redruth, Cornwall who teaches Cornish, for a supply of Cornish cuss words for my main character. He sent two pages of unbelievably descriptive and naughty ones – just as well my modified translations aren’t too precise — and I got to work on plot and setting.

I joined Sisters in Crime and its offshoot called Guppies, the Great Unpublished.  I also joined Mystery Writers of America, another national organization. Both offer excellent workshops and speakers but as we all know it’s the bum-on-the-chair that puts the words on the page.

After the book was polished I paid a professional editor to give it a look. He said I’d broken most of the Rules of Writing a Mystery; I had not followed The Formula publishers insisted upon; I was too free-wheeling with my character’s humor, and I should start all over again. Fat chance.

Next, there was the dreaded Perfect Query to be created.  Queries to agents must be specific, beautifully shaped, and, again, adhere to their golden rules as posted on their web sites. This time I paid great attention, followed the submission guidelines, reluctantly whittled my prose down to the required three paragraphs, and made up a list of unsuspecting agents.

There must be five thousand of them in America. The list was so lengthy I went to sleep reading it. I finally got it down to 60 agents after spending weeks checking each of their websites, a time-consuming exercise but no way around it at that time although today one can define the search.  I queried six simultaneously. I’d already talked to two agents – at $50 a pop – at writers’ conferences which were so frequent one’s bank balance is constantly depleted.

No takers. I queried 45 before giving up. Many sent me form letters of rejection, two asked for chapters before telling me No Thanks, and several never answered at all. It was depressing but my fellow writers urged me to keep submitting. So I next tried the small presses that can be approached directly without an agent. However, a few of those too have strict rules – no violence, no cruelty to animals, no swearing (Oh, dear), and no sex. That last bit was easy. I was British, after all.

After three editors rejected me the next on my list was Mainly Murder Press. Frankly, I fell in love with the name. It stated exactly and honestly what it published, and was on the East coast where all the big publishers were located, a fact that appealed to my snobbish instincts.  MMP only produced 12-15 books a year and its site stated “Absolutely No Submissions Until Late Spring.” Gosh. It was only January and I was impatient. Then I thought, well, it may be January on the East Coast but I was in Southern California and the daffies were already nodding their lovely yellow heads. I sent my query in, claiming that where I live it was already late spring.

The very next day MMP asked for chapters, then the full manuscript, and one week later I’d signed a 3-book contract. They thought my book was “wonderful”!  All of their editors and beta readers (a new term to me) loved “Digging Too Deep,” and I was in heaven.  I liked the book cover design although I requested the flag of Cornwall be added unobtrusively somewhere; the font was fine, and I waited anxiously for their digital ARC I was to send out to reviewers.

MMP did not promote nor send ARCs out early but it did distribute through Ingram, which was peachy, I thought. This publisher also did not give author advances but paid standard royalties and mailed catalogues to 650 independent U.S. bookstores, and to 4,000 public libraries.

Alas, the ARCs arrived barely a week before the paperback was published. Most reviewers refuse to accept such tardiness so I missed out on many reviews. However, I did my best. I thought that the bookstore on my island would order dozens of copies. Ha! I took the book in, asked them to stock it, and asked, May I please have a book signing here?

Again, I’d done everything wrong.  I was told, No, no, you have to create some buzz first! So I called a couple of local editors I knew. After they reviewed the book in their newspapers I took the clippings to the bookstore, thrust them into the owner’s hand, and said, Right. Here’s your buzz. I also sent the book to my UK hometown bookstore but never heard a word.

Nevertheless, I lined up more signings. One of the most enjoyable was at the annual Gathering of the California Cornish Cousins, a sly move I admit, but I sold a lot of books.  Thinking outside the box I also joined the Cornish-American Heritage Society which holds annual Gatherings along with a pasty-toss contest. Heaven forbid a pasty splits open and covers someone in meat and potatoes. My second mystery, “Digging Up the Dead,” earning a review from author Anne Perry.

So, while I am still ghostwriting biographies for a living having just finished a memoir and moved to Connecticut, Tosca’s third adventure is underway. After all, I have only used up nine Cornish cuss words.

Why? And What?

Once again, as I’m traveling down my winding writing road, my book club happenings have started me thinking on several fronts. And as before, I’m posting my thoughts here in the hope they will help readers understand what goes into an author’s mind in getting a book out there, and maybe a few other writers might be having similar thoughts of their own? And I’m also publically airing a tad of self-pity (smile.)

Why do I read a book? These days, mainly because my book club tells me to! This month’s selection was a book I would not have thought of as a reading selection on my own, but that’s one of the great parts about book club—to read outside our own readings “ruts.” My rut, of course is mysteries. Well this month, our book was How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, by Mike Brown. Not a book that would have crossed my reading horizon by itself—and I loved it! Even ended up doing Google research and further reading. The topic, the writer, the style, the information—all were wonderful!

From there my mind went to other sources of reading suggestions, like author reader/author posts (Of course Writers in Residence suggestions are the best!), recommendations from friends and relatives, bookstore promotions, social media platforms like Facebook, and in the far past, even grocery store checkout displays.

All of this is leading to the big questions in my post here—why would anyone want to read my books, or said a different way, what would entice a reader to want to read my book? My past answer to these questions has often been—Location – Such as, what is the Pacific Northwest like? What is the Mojave Desert like? Why are these characters living there? And why does “what and why” matter to me right now? Well, besides being an interesting writing knowledge topic in itself—which always interest me, my book sales are very low and I want to fix that. If I can(smile)

But there’s more, and not about me. It’s partly about the concept of reading is a wonderful “thing” in itself, and also that there is a “twinkling something” in a reader and writer’s mental world. That “something” that causes us to recommend a book to a friend. Brings a smile to our faces.

Is it the title? What I’m working on now is tentatively titled Mojave Gateau. A chocolate gateau certainly gets me salivating…but is it enough to buy a book? I’m thinking not.

So what and where are my meanderings leading me to so far? Well, as I have tended to think in the past about location, the desert does still tickle the fancy, but it’s not enough. I’m also still clinging to the concepts that characters and scenery are the keys to good writers. And that might still be true, for me at least. But, what’s the good of a great story that no one reads? Is it enough I’ve written the darn thing and my editor, even a publisher or two think it was worth the effort? Hmmm???…

Maybe there is no magic bullet. Just a lot of good hits on multiple fronts? Paid publicity, titles, word of mouth, cover, implied adventure, puzzle solving???…All thoughts are welcome!

Happy Writing Trails

A “Hot” Cool Book for Summer!

By Bonnie Schroeder

How are you coping with what feels like the hottest summer on record, everywhere except maybe Antarctica?

When I was a kid, I sought refuge in the local library, which had two ways to escape the heat: good books and air conditioning. Still not a bad way to go, right? But today you don’t even have to leave your air-conditioned home (if you have one) because you can rent eBooks right from your phone or computer.

I haven’t spent the entire summer loafing. In fact, I have at least resurrected one of my novels from the internet oblivion where it languished after my publisher closed its doors at the end of last year. Yes—it’s true! Mending Dreams has been reissued in a second edition and is back in circulation, through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, and a ton of other retailers as well. Readers may even be able to order it through their local bookstore, since I’m publishing with IngramSpark as well as Amazon.
The text of the book is unchanged except for some small grammatical corrections, but I’ve added bonus material at the end—a list of book group questions, and a sample of my second novel, Write My Name on the Sky, which will be next up for reissuance.

Check out Mending Dreams’ spiffy new cover, designed by the amazing Paula Johnson, who also guided me through the indie publishing maze on this, my first-ever attempt. There were a few bumps in the twisty road to publication, but it was worth all the angst and hand-wringing to see my novel back on virtual bookshelves, and to hold a copy in my hands.

I can now honestly say that writing a book is easy compared to publishing it. This has been a true learning experience, and I tell myself all this new education has been good for my brain. I’d be glad to share my experiences with you—simply reply to this email, and we’ll talk.

Now, here’s your reward for reading this shameless self-promotion. I’m not much of a cook, but I recently discovered a terrific idea for breakfast on these sultry summer days: overnight oatmeal. I found this on the Weight Watchers website (being a Lifetime member since 1989) and modified it a little to suit my tastes.
Start with ½ cup uncooked rolled oats and add ½ cup fat free milk. Mix them together in a storage container, cover and refrigerate overnight.

In the morning top with crushed berries, bananas, peaches or whatever fresh fruit strikes your fancy. Stir in about ¼ cup plain fat free Greek yogurt.

And—presto! You have a nice, cool, nutritious breakfast at your fingertips.

Some recipes suggest you make this in a glass Mason jar, adding the toppings in pretty layers, but I like my glass cereal bowl with a top that seals. You can find a ton of variations on the internet, too—so let your imagination run wild.

Meanwhile, my dog Thunder and I have some reading to do.

Metaphors by a Kingly Author

by Jackie Houchin

How many of you have ever read the Book (or parts of the book) of Ecclesiastes in the Bible? It’s in the Old Testament, right after Psalms and Proverbs (other excellent books to read!).

Ecclesiastes is written by King Soloman (the wise) toward the end of his life. He’s thinking back on all the “things” he has accumulated and accomplished. He calls them futile, useless, and vanity. It’s a bit depressing, however true.

Then in the last chapter he writes a fantastic – and rather gruesome – metaphor on aging, with a brilliant comment at the end. If you use metaphor in your writing, you will really appreciate it. If you are older and things about your body are “wearing out” (hearing, eyesight, energy, knees, memory) like me, you will maybe get a rueful kick out of it as well.

Here is King Solomon…

1Remember your Creator

in the days of your youth,

before the days of trouble come

and the years approach when you will say,

“I find no pleasure in them”—

..

2before the sun and the light

and the moon and the stars grow dark,

and the clouds return after the rain;

..

3when the keepers of the house tremble,

and the strong men stoop,

when the grinders cease because they are few,

and those looking through the windows grow dim;

..

4when the doors to the street are closed

and the sound of grinding fades;

when people rise up at the sound of birds,

but all their songs grow faint;

..

5when people are afraid of heights

and of dangers in the streets;

when the almond tree blossoms

and the grasshopper drags itself along

and desire no longer is stirred.

Then people go to their eternal home

and mourners go about the streets.

..

6Remember Him—before the silver cord is severed,

and the golden bowl is broken;

before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,

and the wheel broken at the well,

..

7and the dust returns to the ground it came from,

and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

..

How many of those metaphors did you catch?  I know personally about the diming vision and fading hearing, and definitely the white “almond blossom” hair!  So far, my “grinders” are still in fair shape, but I know about energy lagging with that old grasshopper.

And then in conclusion the wise old king writes…

..

12But, my child, let me give you some further advice: Be careful, for writing books is endless, and much study wears you out.

13That’s the whole story. Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. 14God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad.

..

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How have you used metaphors recently in your writing?  Do you enjoy reading them when other writers use these methods…sparingly, of course?

**** If you want to learn more about Metaphors, Similes, Analogies, Allegories and Idioms to use in your writing, check out this article in  The Free Dictionary for explanations and samples of each.

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Photo by Matt Bennett on Unsplash

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®.

Now About that Memoir…

By Gayle Bartos-Pool

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Several of us on The Writers-in-Residence blog have been mentioning writing a memoir recently. Maybe you’re thinking that it must be associated with people “of a certain age,” but frankly, younger people haven’t lived through nearly as many adventures, ups, downs, and life in general as we folks in that upper age bracket, so we do have more to write about, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start writing your own memoir now and keep adding to it.

But it is true that older folks have survived it all, the good, the bad, and what life threw in our path to make us who we are. And you want to know something else? We all learn from those things. I’m sure you all have stories to tell. So why not let others laugh and cry and say Wow! along with you? Your friends and family will enjoy reading about your life because they weren’t with you every step of the way unless you’re a Siamese twin. Younger people can actually learn things when they read how you became you.

And there is a bonus in there, too. You will start to understand who you are as well. There will be some things that you recall, maybe some that have been buried for a while, that will let you reevaluate your life and see that you were and still are a very interesting person. You won’t be able to change the past, but you can see what you did along the way. If there were problems in your life, what did you do to overcome them? Not everybody starts out a Rockefeller.

As for John D. Rockefeller, the head of one of the wealthiest families in America, he started out as a bookkeeper at sixteen in Cleveland in 1855. He sold and moved produce during the Civil War to the Union Army. He was an abolitionist, voted for Lincoln, and after the war when the need arose switched from food stuffs to oil. An oil glut had some refiners dump the excess in rivers and streams, J.D. used the surplus to run his refineries and turned the rest into other by-products. He wasn’t going to pollute the waterways or waste all that product. He founded Standard Oil. The guy had a philosophy: He said God had provided the opportunity to earn all the money he had made; J.D. didn’t mind making it. He also wanted to save as much as he could and give away as much as he could. He was a philanthropist and considered one of the richest men ever in American history. There were downsides to his businesses, but he did a lot of good in his life. But that is what makes people so interesting no matter what they have in the bank. The good, the bad and the interesting.

dad-and-meI had the opportunity to have a father in the United States Air Force. We lived on the island of Okinawa when I was 5-7 and in France when I was a teenager. I went to a boarding school that provided an education that exceeded my first year in college in Memphis. I switched schools because I wanted to actually learn something. To pay for my college education, my wonderful dad sold some of the French clocks he and my mom had collected while we lived in France. I worked a year between my sophomore and junior years in college as a private detective to earn money myself and to see what the world was all about. That was probably as important as the four years in college. After I graduated from Rhodes College in Memphis and worked another year to earn money, I moved to California. I took acting lessons so I could learn about the movie industry and especially how to write dialogue because I wanted to write for TV or the movies. I had a few scripts looked at, but none sold. I decided to write mystery novels instead. There is even a story in how that came about, but you’ll have to read my upcoming memoir to see how that happened. It’s a good story. Oh, I went on to write 24 books. I guess all this preparation in life laid the groundwork for that little endeavor.

I have a little saying that I wrote a while back:

It doesn’t matter what you don’t have; It’s what you do with what you have.

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I have been working on my memoir for nearly a year. I have over 40 scrapbooks with bits and pieces of my life from the time I was born to today. I even have my mom’s family album that I redid when it started to fall apart that has the family’s history in pictures. What a joy to look through it now with my niece and her kids. My brother and I still recall old stories and some of them are in the book. It’s full of pictures and memorabilia and stories of my family and me. It shows how I became who I am.

So when you are writing your memoir, even if it takes you a few years to go through your scrapbooks or diaries or old photographs or spend a few holidays with family and talk about old times, discover who you are and share it with others. We all have a story to tell. Frankly, we are all interesting. Write On!

From PI to Mystery Writer

Memoir: What it is/What it isn’t

By guest blogger, Alison Wearing

I think it’s so much easier to define memoir by what it’s not…Memoir is not a chronological recitation of a life. It’s not therapy. It’s not an accusation. It’s not a boast. It’s not fiction. It’s not gossip. Memoir is a search to understand the human condition—to tell a personal, resonating story. Memoir writers look back with empathy—toward themselves and toward others. They fabricate nothing on purpose. They know what to leave out. And they recognize—explicitly and implicitly—they are not the only ones in the room. Their readers matter, too.” 
Beth Kephart, author of Handling the Truth

It used to be that only famous people wrote about their lives: retired politicians, Hollywood personalities, rock stars. They wrote their memoirs; they still do. The aim of a person’s memoirs is to cover as much of a life as possible, to draft an overview that touches on all the essential points: family, education, relationships, influences, crucial turning points, successes, failures, accomplishments. Memoirs can also be called autobiographies.

More often than not, memoirs and autobiographies are structured chronologically, and generally, we are drawn to read them because the authors (or, in the case of ghostwritten autobiographies, the subjects) are people already familiar to us. There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing an autobiography, as long as your intended audience is your family or those close to you (unless you are famous, in which case your fans await your story!).

I once had a woman in one of my workshops who was creating a handwritten and hand-bound autobiography, complete with sketches of floor plans of the houses the family had lived in, paintings of significant buildings, black-and-white photographs. It was a magnificent creation and will be a priceless treasure for her family and future generations. Those of us in the workshop enjoyed paging through the volumes, admiring certain drawings and photographs, but the story itself didn’t invite or include us. It was a series of details that had relevance only to the people involved in the life described. For what it was, it was spectacular. I don’t want to detract from that approach and the author was very clear about what she was doing and for whom. The reason she joined my workshop was to learn how to write more personally, to delve into the realm of communicating emotion rather than simply the facts. I’m not sure she’ll choose to include that kind of writing in her book, but her family might treasure that intimacy if she does. Either way, this kind of a work isn’t a memoir. It’s an autobiography. It’s the whole kit and caboodle. It’s the wide-angle photo of a life.

An autobiography can be a beautiful endeavor, but it is markedly different from a memoir. For while an autobiography is the story of a life, a memoir is a story from a life.

A memoir may visit different parts and elements of a person’s life, but the intention is not to tell or describe the whole thing. It may deal with a period of time, a place, a relationship, a journey, or several of those things, but the story is delineated, it has a container far smaller than the span of the writer’s life. A memoir has a focus; ideally, it has a clear and narrow focus. And paradoxically, the narrower the focus, the greater the freedom the writer may have to talk about the breadth and fullness of her life. We’ll delve into that more deeply when we get into structure, but for now, let’s just cover the basics of the genre.

In addition to a clear focus, a memoir has, at its heart, a transformation of some kind, a shift in perspective or understanding, a new way of seeing one’s life, a place, a relationship, the world, whatever the theme of the story.

In this way, a memoir often chronicles an emotional journey of some kind, a departure from one aspect of oneself and an arrival at another (often more enlightened) state of being. The author might be trying to achieve resolution, to solve of a problem, or to achieve a higher understanding or acceptance of circumstances, events.

Or, as Mary Karr, author of the now-classic memoir The Liar’s Club, puts it: “In a great memoir, some aspect of the writer’s struggle for self often serves as the book’s organizing principle, and the narrator’s battle to become whole rages over the book’s trajectory.”

The “battle” Karr refers to may take a variety of forms, and it might not be a dramatic fist-fight-of-a-battle so much as a peaceful and gradual unfolding. It could be a recollection of travels written from a broader perspective than what was available at the time.

It could be a revisiting of a traumatic incident from a place of recovery or empathy. Whatever its focus, a memoir is more than just an honest account of an event or a time, more than a simple recounting of events, more than a detailed reportage of a journey from A to B.

It is an effort to make sense of—and perhaps make peace with—an aspect of the writer’s life.

It is an exterior and interior expedition, a quest for meaning.

“Memoir is not about you, or me. It’s about something universal. That is, if you want anyone else to read it.  Good memoir takes on something universal and uses you as the illustration of that larger idea.”                                                                                     ~ Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project

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Alison Wearing is a best-selling, multiple-award winning writer, playwright, and performer.

She is also the creator and facilitator of Memoir Writing Ink, an interactive online program that guides people through the process of transforming personal stories into memoir.

Do you have a personal story you wish to write?

Do you wonder how to craft your story to make it compelling reading for others? Or how to structure it so it holds together? Or how to write about difficult memories? Or how to write truthfully about something that happened decades ago? Or what to do if someone else remembers the same events differently, or if they don’t want you to write your story?

These questions can paralyze us, but that doesn’t need to be the case. In fact, those same questions can be the doorways to the finest iterations of your story.

If you’d like to learn more about her 12-week course, visit: Memoir Writing, Ink

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Alison also leads Memoir Writing Retreats – next up is in Tuscany, Italy in October 2022 and in April 2023.  Interested?  Tuscany Retreats

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