I have learnt a lot since I started collecting stories for writing Norman’s memoirs (See my last post ‘Thanks for the Memories’ where I describes an extraordinary 103 yr old friend whose story I have compiled) and thought it might be useful to pass on a few tips and be honest about my mistakes about writing someone else’s memoirs, so that you enjoy the pleasure of the experience and aviod falling into the same traps:
1. Decide on the right equipment before you begin. I would suggest that you need the following:
- A good scanner for photos and mementos
- A hard drive for back up copies
- A good camera which will take the quality of photos you need
- An easy to use video camera
- A ring file or filing system to store your notes, documents and any other personal items safely so that you can easily find them
Video ~ When I began this project two years ago, compiling Norman’s memoirs, I already knew some of his story which I’d gleaned over the years, but the most useful item I purchased before I started was a flip video camera. The shop assistant in PC World suggested one, when I explained what I was doing.
‘What will you do with an audio recorder at the end of your project,’ he said helpfully. ‘You could put this video camera in your handbag and use it with family and friends.’
He has been proved right time and time again. Not only that, but it was far easier and much more fun transcribing videos of Norman sharing his stories with me than listening to an audio recording, and one day I hope to edit some of them to share with you too. How special it is to have videos of him telling the story of his life, and if you are doing it for a member of your family, how lovely as a keepsake. (I have not had the courage to look at any of them since he passed away, but I will soon, I promise.)
Camera ~ As for the camera, I wished I’d bought a better camera at the start. My little digital camera was fine for the internet but not so good for publishing.
2. Keep back up copies of absolutely everything.
Obvious, I know, but we are all very busy people and unfortunately I found myself having to go back and borrow pictures and mementos a second time, because I had forgotten to make a back up copy of everything and store it carefully, so that I could easily retrieve it. I also had to improve the quality of many of the shots. Taking photos of old photographs with a good camera was often better than scanning a tiny photo too.
3. Plan how you are going to format it before you start.
Now, I decided I would format the manuscript myself, not knowing what I was getting myself into. Since I knew Microsoft Word and I wanted a document I could easily print out for Norman to read and give me valuable feedback, I spent ages laying out the document and pictures in Word first. DON’T!
Once I realised I needed better software for quality of layout and design I asked for some advice and bought Serif Software. A friend and writer didn’t like the software when he came to help me set up the pages and margins for me for the first time but gradually I’ve got to know it and quite like it. Whatever you use, remember that it takes time to get to know how to use it. It was here I realised that I did’t have back up copies of everything, and, to my dismay, found transferring them from Word destroyed the quality of the images. I learnt this to my cost because I wasn’t just around the corner from Norman to pop in, and in the end the formatting took twice as long.
4. Plan how you are going to organise the stories you collect.
Most advice on the subject suggests organising the material into themes; the major parts of the persons life, but, because Norman wanted to tell me about the whole of his life, and I was doing it predominantly for him, to give him another purpose to enjoy life in old age and giving him questions to ponder between visits, we decided to organise it chronologically. After all, at 103, it was the passing of time and his contrasting memories of as far back as WW1 to the present day which were interesting, as well as the wonderful story of his life. He was such an inspiration to elderly people too, especially in the way he has handled life since his 100th birthday.
5. It’s a time consuming project. Be realistic about the time you have available. If it’s a family member or friend of the family, as like as not you would be visiting fairly frequently anyway but this is a regular commitment. Having said that, how much more interesting your visits will be as you hear stories of the person’s past life that you didn’t know before, rather than general chit chat about the price of a loaf of bread or the weather. What wonderful memories you will have of your time together when they are gone.
6. Decide who you are writing it for.
Is it just for family and friends?
Do you aim to self publish it?
Do you hope to get a publishing company to take it on? I havn’t tried the major publishing houses since I was so wrapped up in the project, but advice you read is that it’s extremely rare to get the memoirs of an ordinary person published, except by a Vanity publisher. There are many companies out there who could help you at a price. Look into that at an early stage in the project and budget accordingly.
7. How do you intend to illustrate it?
You have all these photos and mementos but putting photos in books adds greatly to the printing costs.
~The cheapest way to include illustrations is to have a set of a few plates of photos at intervals through the book.
~If you want a picture on every other page or
~wrapped throughout the text then the price will go up accordingly.
~Also the price of colour will treble the costs.
It pays to think ahead and manage people’s expectations.
8. Above all treasure the moments
and if you can’t always visit when you want, share thoughts on the phone to keep the ideas flowing or better still, as I did with Norman, speak on Skype! I even videoed a story or two that way, and we had a regular spot each Monday afternoon at 2pm. We often had wonderful chats for half an hour or more; ones I will always remember, and often on a Monday at 2pm miss him several months on. That is, unless there is a Skype line from up there!