Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Preserving a Family Oral History

This week we reach back into the archives again. The post that follows was originally published on July 9, 2014. It was written by Julie Demoff-Larson and is titled “Preserving a Family Oral History.”


My father has this knack of storytelling that I wish I had inherited. Yes, I can spin a tale on paper, but his talent resides in the oral tradition. Many holidays and late night discussions around the dining table end with Dad captivating us with stories of his youth and that of my grandfather. As an adult, it is those stories of my grandfather that peek my interest the most. I often think of how much of his story has already been lost through the version my father tells. And there certainly are many facts that I cannot relate to my children. It becomes necessary to write down as much as is remembered, and as early as possible to carry on these stories.

So, how do we preserve a family’s history without having our ancestors here to fill in the missing information that is vital to the retelling of the story? Through research?  Well, that all depends on what kind of research we are talking about. A writer can look to community archives to see how people lived during a specific era, but that doesn’t quite represent what has happened within an individual family. This reminds me of Jeanette Walls first two books. The first, The Glass Castle, is a memoir of her childhood looking back at her parent’s dysfunction and mental illness. Nothing is lost because it is her story. In her second book, Half Broke Horses, Walls labels it as a “true-life novel” based on her grandmother. Walls initially intended it to be a biography, but soon realized there were too many gaps to fill in the story. So, the question becomes is it better to write a family oral history as fiction, or maybe as a hybrid between fiction and nonfiction?

A biography can be restricting because the audience expects the reading to be based on fact, including time and setting. This is extremely hard to accomplish because it is speculative. Capturing emotion, personalities, and drama on the page requires flexibility. We all know there is some give in creative non-fiction when it comes to enhancing language to create depth, but it does not allow for grand embellishment that creates new scenarios within the story — that would be fiction.

Advice to those wanting to record the oral history of your family: write down what you know, what you can find out, and research community archives for customs and norms, and then combine with your imagination. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Research & Memoir Writing

October is going to be a busy month for the blogmaster and other regular contributors as we prepare for the 2016 Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference on November 12. So we will take advantage of the blog archives and reprint several previous posts about writing memoirs and preserving family memories.

We start with the May 1, 2013 post by Sandra J. Nantais titled “Research & Memoir Writing.”


A common misconception about writing a memoir or life essay is that the writer must write expressly from memory.  If that were so, that would make for a fairly flat and boring snippet of life tale.

Example 1: Summer!  Yea! It’s summer!  It’s the late 60s and summer means shorter pants, bare feet, Kool-Aid and the dunes!  The weekend arrives, sandwiches are made, Kool-Aid is in the metal jug and, with towels over our shoulders, we run out the door to the silver car.   

Upon opening the car’s back door, we all turn and run to the porch yelling Eeeeeuuuuu!

Example 2:  Summer!  Yea! It’s summer in the late 1960s and this means plaid knee-knockers, bare feet, sandwiches and the dunes!  It means waking to the sun shining and Mom packing sandwiches into a brown paper grocery bag (peanut butter or bologna on Wonder Bread of course).  The cherry Kool-Aid was already in the red and white metal picnic jug waiting for two trays of ice to be dumped in before having the lid screwed on.

Us kids would bound out of the house with a towel over our shoulder towards the shiny silver 1966 Dodge Coronet 440.  Whoever was quickest would open the back door, only to release the strong smell of spoiled milk.  Eeeeeuuuuu!! We’d yell and run back to the house and gather on the steps pinching our noses closed.

By adding a few vivid and specific details from that era, the reader is there along with the writer, in that moment.

Other then the memory of the car being silver with four doors and a black interior, I have no idea of the make or model.  My eldest brother is twelve years older and a lifelong car buff, so I asked him about the silver car, which is how we all still refer to it.

Why not just write it that way?  Just describing the car as ‘the silver car’?  Because by adding the make, year and model of the car, I can create more emotion or familiarity within a reader.

The same is true with the drink cooler.

I vividly remember the drink cooler and that it was metal.  Yet, I still researched vintage 1960 water coolers to keep with the time frame introduced.  If by the 1960’s the metal were replaced with plastic I would have left that detail out.

Is this wrong?  Does it make the memoir fiction?  Does it change a memoir from being my memory?  Not at all.   It is just facts about objects that were present.

With memoir writing the author is endeavoring to restore a memory as truthfully as possible.  Memories are deficient, and checking minor facts for accuracy shows that the author cares.  Verifying with someone what color something actually was or which beach you were at doesn’t change what you felt.

So go ahead and ask a sibling or research details.  It will only help immerse the reader into the moment right alongside of you as if they had experienced the same sadness or joy or laughter with you.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Dueling Memories

Kathryn Page Camp
One of the first things I learned in law school is that if ten people witness a crime, they will have ten different versions of what happened. Everyday life works that way, too.
Memoirs tell what happened to the writer through the writer’s eyes. But memoirs are not fiction, so they must also tell the truth about the actual events. How do you balance and reconcile these two concerns?
Take an example from my life.
My family lived in Jordan when I was six. We didn’t own a car, but we hitchhiked and took buses all over the Holy Land. It was mountainous country with narrow shoulders and no guard rails along the roads. So whenever the bus or car I was riding in went up a mountain, I closed my eyes and asked, “Are we on the falling off side?” If the answer was “no”—meaning we were on the side of the road near the mountain, I would open my eyes and look around with interest. If the answer was “yes,” they stayed tightly shut.
My entire family agrees on that much of the story.
On the day before Christmas, we were on a bus headed up a mountain on the way to Bethlehem. It was raining, and the roads were slippery, but we weren’t on the falling off side so I wasn’t worried. Then, without warning, the bus slid across the road. Again, we agree on that much. But from there, our memories differ.
I swear that one wheel slid off the mountain and left the bus hanging over the side. That’s what my terrified six-year-old mind saw as we scrambled out and huddled in the rain. My mother had a different memory—she said the bus slid sideways until it blocked both lanes but it never left the road.
With help from the male passengers and other men from the cars that couldn’t get past, the driver got the bus back on the right side of the road, loaded the passengers who were brave enough to chance it, and continued on to Bethlehem. Make that the passengers who were brave enough to chance it and one terrified six-year-old who had to be bribed by her parents.
Mama and I have different memories about where the bus landed after sliding across the road. Mama was probably frightened, too, but she was older and more rational. And the fact that the men managed to get the bus back on the road with no special equipment and without sending it over the edge strengthens the argument that her memory is probably the correct one.
But my memory was my reality, and that’s part of the truth, too.
So how should I handle this incident if I were writing a memoir about my childhood in Jordan? It is among my strongest memories and one of the most dramatic things that happened while I was there, so I couldn’t leave it out. But should I tell the story as I remember it or as it really happened?
I would treat it the way I have treated it in this blog post. I would start by giving you my reality and then describe why the external facts were probably different than I remembered them.
In my case, the evidence indicates that Mama’s version is the correct one. But sometimes people have dueling memories and the fight ends in a draw. When I am sure that my version is correct, I go with it. But if there is any chance that the other person’s memories are more accurate, I will at least acknowledge them.
A memoir has to be true to the world as the writer saw it at the time. But it isn’t fiction, so it also has to be true to the actual events. Or as true as you can be when people have dueling memories. Sometimes that means qualifying your memories by adding someone else’s.
But your memories are your reality, and that carries its own truth.
The photograph at the top of this post shows the road descending from Wadi al-Mujib in Jordan. My husband took the photo on a family trip in 1998.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

When the Editor Pays You

Kathryn Page Camp
Sometimes the conversation between an author and an editor resembles this one between Alice, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse:
“Do you mean that you can find out the answer to it?” said the March Hare.
“Exactly so,” said Alice.
“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”
After you sell your book to a publisher, the editorial relationship changes. You are no longer the boss. Ideally, you will work with the publisher to reach a compromise that you can both live with. Or, as often happens, you may realize that the editor’s changes improve the book. You probably did mean “I breathe when I sleep” rather than “I sleep when I breathe.”
But what if, for whatever reason, you said “I sleep when I breathe” on purpose? Changing the wording could affect more than a single sentence or paragraph. If the publisher’s edits don’t change the focus or the overall style of the book, however, you may choose to shrug them off. That’s what I did with the first edition of In God We Trust. Actually, I had a good relationship with the editor. Still, there were some edits that weren’t worth arguing over.
It’s different when an editor wants to change the book’s philosophy or structure. What does a writer do then?
First, consider the editor’s suggestions. Maybe they make the book stronger. But if they change the overall philosophy of the book or violate your purpose in writing it, you may be left with two unattractive choices: (a) let the publisher have its way or (2) break the contract and take the consequences. The best way to avoid this issue is to do your research and know what you are getting into before signing the contract.
I wrote Writers in Wonderland for the average writer, not for academics or other lawyers. I needed a hook to get and keep my audience’s interest in what many consider a dry subject, so I went with a Lewis Carroll theme. When I submitted the proposal to publishers, I received a number of encouraging responses but only one bite. It came from an academic publisher that wanted me to tone down the Lewis Carroll references. Since that would have eliminated the hook and limited my audience, I declined the offer and ended up self-publishing.
If I had already entered into a contract, however, I probably would have given in and mourned the changes forever after. Unfortunately, that’s part of a writer’s reality.
So before you enter into a contract with a traditional publisher, consider what kind of editorial relationship you are likely to have. If you think you can live with it, go ahead and sign. But remember this:
When the editor pays you, it has the final say.
The drawing at the top of this post is by John Tenniel and was one of the original illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The quoted passage is also from that book. The image and the text are both in the public domain because of their age.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

When You Pay the Editor

Kathryn Page Camp

What does a sleeping child have to do with editing?

Not much.

When I looked for a photograph to draw attention to this post, I couldn’t find any good ones about editing or editors that didn’t raise copyright issues. But I did have a cute picture of my daughter when she was about eleven months old, so I wondered if there was any way I could tie it in. Here’s what I came up with.

You’ve chosen an editor and handed over your baby, who is wide awake and ready to go on an action adventure. (Or at least that’s how you see it.) When you get your baby back, you discover that the editor has changed the action adventure into a bedtime story.

I admit that the analogy is a stretch, and a very long one at that. A good editor would tell me to eliminate the analogy—and the photo—and find another way to start the post.

So here’s the question: Do I have to take my editor’s advice?

Not if I’m paying the editor. I’m the boss and can do whatever I want, which includes rejecting any suggestions I don’t agree with.

But just because I can doesn’t mean I should.

I pay the editor for advice, so ignoring it is the same as wasting my money. Not that I take every piece of advice she gives me—I don’t. Still, I seldom reject her suggestions completely. I may not use her words, but I try to clarify the passage without changing the meaning.

When you pay the editor, you are the boss. You get to decide which suggestions to take and which to reject.

But remember why you hired an editor in the first place.


Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Should You Hire an Editor?

This week’s post is a reprint of the November 13, 2013 IWC blog post, which was written by Kathryn Page Camp. The cost figures may be outdated, but the advice never is.

The original post was directed at self-publishing, but the information also applies when preparing a manuscript for submission to traditional publishers.


What do you think of when you hear the word, “self-published”? I think of substandard work. While there are many great self-published books, they aren’t the ones I remember. As a self-published author myself, I’m ashamed of anything that gives the category a bad name.

I like to support my fellow authors, and I’ve bought my share of self-published books. I also download those “free” Kindle books when the description sounds interesting. And some have been a pleasant surprise.

But most are riddled with typos, inconsistencies, and just plain bad writing.

That’s why every self-published author should hire a freelance editor.

Yes, I know it’s expensive, ranging anywhere from $500 to $10,000 for a 60,000 word manuscript. The actual price is based on a number of factors, including the type of edit and the experience of the editor. And the poorer the manuscript, the more it will cost to edit. But if your goal is to produce a professional-quality book you won’t be ashamed of five years from now, it’s well worth the money.

What types of services do editors provide? For our purposes, we will concentrate on three.

Proofreading is the cheapest and most basic service that editors provide. A proofreader looks for typos, misspellings, and grammar errors. If your book has been typeset or reformatted, a proofreader can also check the final copy against your original manuscript to make sure they match. The cost to proofread a 60,000 word manuscript may average from $500 to $950.

Copyediting is probably the most common. I always pay for a copyedit before finalizing a book manuscript, even when I am submitting to a traditional publisher. After all, why wouldn’t I want to submit my best work?

Like proofreading, copyediting looks for typos, misspellings, and grammar errors. But it also looks for inconsistencies and for words and sentences and paragraphs that are confusing or awkward. I own a self-published non-fiction book that is easy to read and gives me interesting information, but it mentions that a woman was 12 in 1817 and 76 in 1871. That means I can’t trust the facts without double-checking them with another source.

That error is evident on the face of the manuscript, and a good copyeditor would have caught it. If you request it, a copyeditor will also check other sources to verify facts and references. Obviously, however, the more you ask a copyeditor to do, the more it will cost. For that 60,000 word manuscript, a copyedit may average anywhere from $750 to $2,500. 

Substantive editing—sometimes called line editing—is the most expensive, but it is also the most comprehensive. Although it includes some of the elements of a good copyedit, a substantive edit also looks at the contents and tells you what works and what doesn't on both a macro and a micro level. The editor may go so far as to recommend that you reorder your chapters to make the plot more suspenseful or eliminate your favorite passage because it’s irrelevant. For a 60,000 word manuscript, a substantive edit will average between $2,000 and $10,000.

What type of edit you need depends on your human resources. Do you belong to a writers’ critique group that includes knowledgeable members and provides honest feedback on both craft and clarity? Do you have someone (preferably not a family member or good friend) from your target audience who will give you candid comments from a reader’s perspective? And do you take full advantage of these resources? If so, you may not need a substantive edit.

I’m a grammar geek and, given time to do a careful read, am also good at catching typos and confusing words and phrases. Even so, it’s hard for me to edit my own work. I know what I wanted to say, and my mind reads it that way. And I’m not alone. Very few people can edit their own work and end up with an acceptable product.

Of course, not everyone has the financial resources to hire an editor. Still, there may be a way. What about giving up that cappuccino you always buy on the way to work? Or do you have skills you can barter?

Start by asking yourself why you are writing and publishing. Because if you want to produce your best work, you will find a way to polish it before releasing it to the public.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Before You Hire an Editor

Kathryn Page Camp

I always hire an editor before submitting my manuscripts to publishers. After all, shouldn’t I submit my best work? I’m not taking about perfection, because then I would never finish a book. But I do want to submit the best book I can to a potential publisher.

It’s the same with an editor.

Too many writers dispense with self-editing because “that’s what I pay my editor for,” or even “the publisher will fix it.” But that thinking is na├»ve. The more work you leave for the editor, the more the editor will cost. And expecting the publisher to fix it may mean that you attract no publisher at all.

Even more importantly, nobody knows what the writer intends better than the writer does. The more a writer leaves to an editor, the less it will be the writer’s work.

That’s why I believe that self-editing is a prerequisite to hiring an editor.

Self-editing is too large a subject to cover in one blog post—or even in a series. That’s why I’m going to refer you to some of the many books that are out there. There may be others that are better, but these are the ones on my bookshelves.

·         Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell (part of the Write Great Fiction series published by Writer’s Digest Books);

·         Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King; and

·         The chapter on revision from Stein on Writing by Sol Stein.

So do yourself and your readers a favor. Learn about and apply self-editing techniques before you hire an editor.


Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at