Writing the Memoir: Making Family Legends Fit (or Not)

nasa-1_245Much of what we believe as factual history has come to us in some form of written account, often multiple accounts that make up a body of truth. According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, a legend is “a story handed down for generations among a people and popularly believed to have a historical basis, although not verifiable.”

Although legend and history might share common ground, they are two different things and should be dealt with accordingly to ensure the integrity of a work of creative nonfiction (see my post “Keeping the ‘Non’ in Creative Nonfiction“). But should writers leave legends out of their memoirs because they can’t be verified? Are there good reasons to include a legend in a memoir?

It would certainly be easy enough to begin such a tale with something like, “I grew up hearing stories of how Uncle Fred was abducted by aliens….” Deciding how to present the story is probably the easy part. Deciding if you should write it to begin with, might be more difficult.

One way to determine whether to include a family legend in a memoir is to put it to the same test you might use when deciding to include any other memories.

  • What does it contribute to the chapter, the theme, the overall story?
  • Does it really belong or do I just want it to belong (perhaps for entertainment value or sentimental reasons)?

Your decision would also depend on your goals for the memoir – a collection of family stories meant only for the eyes of friends and family, or a memoir for public consumption?

I dealt with many family legends when I set out to write This New Mountain, the memoir of private detective and repo-mama AJ Jackson. Two in particular involved important women in AJ’s family history.

The first legend says AJ’s grandmother, Inza Annie, survived the massacre of the Bigfoot Band of Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in the winter of 1890. In that historic (and horrific) event, ninety Sioux warriors died and hundreds of women and children were hunted down and killed by a U.S. Army detachment. There was no way to verify Inza Annie’s story, but in 1902 she filed her marriage with the Five Civilized Tribes (the wedding having taken place in 1895). This legal document gives proof of AJ’s grandmother’s Sioux heritage and connection to the Bigfoot Band. I thought the marriage filing gave enough credence to Inza Annie’s story of surviving the Massacre at Wounded Knee that I included it in the memoir.

The second legend connects AJ’s mother to the space race. The story goes that while AJ’s father worked as a contractor for scientists at Sandia Base (later renamed Kirtland Air Force Base) in Albuquerque, he won the bid on a contract to produce new suits for the monkeys who were going into space. A way had to be found to stop the clever creatures from unzipping the old suits and climbing out of them. AJ’s father handed the project to his wife who adapted a child’s pajama pattern to make a new piece of clothing out of mesh material that fit over the original monkey suits. I couldn’t present the story as truth because there’s no evidence to support it from letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, photos, etc. In my research I did find that a chimpanzee named Ham was brought to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico in 1959 for training (and was the first chimp to make it into space in 1961). AJ was 15 years old in 1959, but her memory of her mother sewing the suits is sketchy. I could have presented the story as a harmless legend, but in the end I decided not to include it for a few reasons: 1) I couldn’t find a natural way to work it in; 2) I had other great examples of her mother’s ingenuity that did work; and 3) This New Mountain is not her mother’s biography, it’s a memoir about AJ’s life as a private investigator. The legend of the monkey suits just didn’t fit in the book.

Memoirists can’t expect to include every story from their pasts into a single memoir (no matter how much they love each one), any more than novelists should try to cram in every bit of character back story. Writers pick and choose the most important bits, whether it’s to make a setting come to life or complete the picture of a beloved, and ingenious, mother.

Does your family have stories – maybe a little on the crazy side – that have been told and retold at every family gathering to the point they’ve become legends?

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This New Mountain Gets a Makeover

TNM_NewCover_10Last June I mentioned that a new book cover was in the works for AJ Jackson’s memoir This New Mountain. From the initial planning to completion, it’s taken almost a year, but it’s finally ready for the world.

In redesigning the cover, we wanted to keep the colors of the sunset/sunrise, stick with an image of Shiprock, New Mexico as a focal point, and give the tow truck a more prominent role (since being a repossessor was such a big part of AJ’s life).

We also wanted to bring in elements that weren’t present in the initial cover. We aimed for movement and strength with hints of what a reader would find inside the covers of the book.

Because the memoir follows AJ Jackson as she learns the private detective trade and, in the process, learns to face her fears, I searched for an image of a woman climbing a mountain and reaching out to take the next step.

Rock climber at sunset, Kalymnos Island, GreeceI found hundreds of quality photos of mountain climbers but none so fitting as this rock climber at sunset taken on Kalymnos Island, Greece. (I can’t imagine having the physical strength or the courage to hang upside down from a rock face.) Flip the image from horizontal to vertical, apply a bit of photoshopping, and there you have it — a climber in silhouette.

TNM_NewCover_Icons10The last thing we did to hint at what the book is about was to include a line of icons at the bottom of the cover. I wanted to bring in symbols to represent the private detective profession, such as sunglasses, revolver, camera, magnifying lens, as well as the Southwestern motifs of a Zia sun symbol (from the New Mexico flag) and a desert with cactus.

This New Mountain final cover

2012 Cover

2015 Cover

2015 Cover

So there you go — a new book cover for This New Mountain. Which do you like more? Which one do you think is the more compelling cover?

Writing Process Blog Hop

Blog Hop2Blog hops are a great way to share sites and bloggers we love and to be introduced to new ones we’ll come to love. I’m honored that Diana Jackson thought of me when she needed another blogger/writer to nominate. Until now, I haven’t been able to participate because of time issues, but she made it easy to say “yes” – I could pick my own date to continue the hop.

To begin my part of this Writing Process Blog Hop, I’ll introduce you to Diana. Then I’ll answer four questions about my writing and finish with three author/bloggers who will continue the hop.

Diana JacksonDiana Jackson

Diana became a lover of the written word in her late teens, not only reading but writing stories and poems. Although a home counties of England girl – born in Surrey, grew up in Hertfordshire and now living in mid Bedfordshire – her heart has never been far from the sea. When she discovered her family roots in the Channel Islands, UK, she began an unrequited love affair, especially with Alderney and Guernsey.

Murder Now and ThenShe has published several novels, as well as the memoir of 103-year-old Norman Campbell, The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell (his chosen title!). Her Riduna Series, Riduna and Ancasta Guide Me Swiftly Home are historical fiction with strong links to the islands and to Hampshire, where her parents were brought up. Her most recent novel is a murder mystery set in the heart of Bedfordshire. A sense of place is important in all of Diana’s novels and whilst writing Murder, Now and Then she enjoyed exploring the hidden gems of this little-known county which she calls home. She was originally inspired by a 1919 unsolved murder near the village of Haynes in Bedfordshire, UK, not far from where she lives. Murder, Now and Then is a back-to-the-future novel set in 2019, written with flashbacks to 1919. A sense of family history, or family mystery, threads its way throughout the novel, thus combining many of Diana’s interests. (Her books are also available in the U.S.)

You can meet Diana at dianamj.wordpress.com where she explores the background to her novel writing and selectionsofreflections.wordpress.com, devoted to true stories of life, love and messages of hope, including guest posts and stories of her old friend Norman Campbell. You can also find her at dianamaryjackson.co.uk, @Riduna on Twitter, and Facebook.

4 Writing-Related Questions

1) What am I working on?
My fantasy novel The Last Bonekeeper is in its first draft. While it continues to percolate, I’m working on a collection of short stories in the same universe. Writing these short stories has helped me understand the Bonekeeper world I created with its people, customs, and rules that govern it all. I’m also in the process of redesigning the book cover for This New Mountain, the memoir of private investigator AJ Jackson. Casa de Snapdragon Publishing used my suggestions for the original cover two years ago, but I’ve learned a lot about cover design since then. I want to bring more movement and relevance to it now.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Though it’s a classic tale of good versus evil, I believe I have a unique world in The Last Bonekeeper – its setting, characters, and a different take on magic. For This New Mountain, I wrote the memoir in AJ Jackson’s “voice” complete with clichés and country wisdom. What sets the book apart most is AJ Jackson herself – private investigator, ex-gun dealer, former mental patient, descendant of a great Choctaw chief, and grandmother.

3) Why do I write what I do?
I love to create my own science fiction and fantasy worlds and watch my characters move about and interact within them. One of the most exciting things is to have a character step off the path I’d planned for him. When that happens, all kinds of things are revealed, such as threads I hadn’t consciously thought of, secrets a character has kept hidden, or gems that make the story fuller and complete. On the other hand, This New Mountain was a twelve-year labor of love. I wanted AJ to realize her dream of sharing her struggles and adventures in a published memoir.

4) How does your writing process work?
When I sit down to create worlds, I see characters move through their world, hear their conversations, feel their emotions, and then transfer it onto the page. I start a fiction project as a pantser (writing by the seat of my pants), usually with only a visual of the world and a few characters, and the beginnings of a story idea. After two or three chapters I know where the story is going and how it will end – that’s when I start a flexible outline. I tend to edit as I go instead of pushing through a first draft without looking back. This means it takes awhile for me to have a completed draft. By that time I’m ready to put the project aside and start on something new. That’s where I am with The Last Bonekeeper and why I’m writing the short stories. Alpha readers, beta readers, and editors are also part of the process. This New Mountain, being nonfiction, was written in a more conventional way using outlines upfront to plan the memoir. For more about how I put the memoir together, see “Writing Readable and Compelling Memoir” on Diana Jackson’s blog.

Meet Three Other Author/Bloggers

Joyce_Hertzoff_PhotoJoyce Hertzoff

Joyce was born and raised in New York City, graduating from Queens College (a part of the City University). She’s been married for 49 years and has two grown children, one daughter-in-law, two granddogs, two grandbunnies, and three grandcats.

She retired after 45 years in the scientific literature field before turning her hand to writing fiction. Her first novel The Crimson Orb, the first installment in the Crystal Odyssey fantasy series, will be released on June 17, 2014 (Phantasm Books).

The Crimson Orb Cover2Besides writing, Joyce loves to read and knit, and also crochet. She admits to watching too much TV. When her husband retired in 2008, they moved from Ohio to New Mexico. Since then, they’ve enjoyed exploring the southwestern U.S.

You can find Joyce on her website at joycehertzoffauthor.com, her blog at hertzoffjo.blogspot.com, and on Facebook. Find out more about her book at fantasybyjoycehertzoff.com.

Peter_Mallett_PhotoPeter D. Mallett

Peter lives in Virginia not far from the ocean, but he can’t quite hear the waves from his home. He’s been writing since childhood. He also enjoys drawing, photography, and helping others with their goals.

He sold his first short story in 2002 to Kid’s Ark Magazine. Later, he sold two short stories to Tyndale Kids for “The Young Believer’s Case Files,” published in 2003. He’s been blogging since September 2012 and has written articles, short stories, greeting cards, and inspirational pieces. An article he wrote for his blog in January was later included in the Southwest Writers’ Newsletter (May 2013).

On his blog, Writing in Color, Peter expresses his thoughts on writing and encouraging people who want to write better for their profession or their pleasure. Many have encouraged him, and he wants to give back. He trusts in the power of words, but more importantly he believes in people. His writing style is lighthearted and encouraging. In fact, motivation and creativity are themes he revisits often. Some posts are short (300-600 words) and some are longer (600-1200 words), but he tries to make sure none of them are longer than they need to be. He says, “I take pleasure in shooting unnecessary words.”

Here are a few of his favorite posts:
Writing: For the Love of Words
A Tribute to People
What to Do on Dark Days When Words Do Not Come

Find out more about Peter at Writing in Color. You can also find him on Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.

Patricia_Woods_PhotoPatricia Woods

Patricia is a former award-winning journalist and editor. Her work appears in newspapers, regional and national magazines, academic journals and online publications. Her background also includes years as a classical pianist and organist, vocalist, choir director, and piano teacher to adults. She writes about business, personal finance, money management, small business, agribusiness, and occasionally on the arts, especially music. Working from home now, Patricia uses two ancient computers, dog-eared leather journals, scraps of paper and sometimes the cell phone. She’s been known to still employ a manual typewriter when the fancy strikes.

DeadBeforeYouKnowItShe is the author of several books including the newly released Dead Before You Know It (How to Tidy Your Personal Papers Before Your Time is Up), available at Amazon in paper and on Kindle. Dead is the first in a series of Helpful Little Books®, books that provide practical solutions to the daily problems of living in the twenty-first century world.

Writing daily in the morning and at every chance on the fly, she agrees with James Michener’s saying about writing: “I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.”

“Everyone has a story to tell and that story continues right up until we take our last breath,” she says. She believes God is the Great Storyteller, and thus we are also Storytellers by nature in the very core of our being.

Patricia lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her family and a special needs dog who is deaf. She also has an imperious cat who owns the computer keyboard and all the pens in the house. Her spare time is devoted to books, music and all types of needlework while she watches endless BBC mysteries and dramas. Despite no real soil to speak of, scorching heat, springtime hail, locust plagues, and no rain from heaven, she grows heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables.

You can find Patricia at her website patriciaawoods.com and @PatriciaAWoods on Twitter.

When Diana Jackson first tagged me for this Writing Process Blog Hop, I followed the links back to the others who came before me and found new bloggers to follow, all with a unique way to approach the writing process. I hope you’re inspired to do the same.

What are your experiences with blog hops? If you’ve never joined one, have you ever thought of starting one yourself?

Why Use a Pen Name?

man with penDeciding whether or not to use a pen name is just one of many choices writers have to make when preparing to publish. It’s an easier decision for some than for others.

Two years ago I published This New Mountain under the pen name Cate Macabe. I had never intended to write a memoir (not mine or that of a private detective/grandmother), but from the start of that journey I knew I would use a pseudonym. My reasons were simple: 1) I write science fiction and fantasy, and I didn’t want to confuse future readers who might someday search for my other work; and 2) my writing style is significantly different for the memoir and my speculative fiction.

If you’re not sure taking on a pen name is right for you and your writing, here are ten reasons in favor of using one, followed by possible complications if you do.

Why to Use a Pen Name

  • Need to separate genres – keep them separate if your audience has different expectations (children’s books vs. erotica)
  • Recognize that gender names sell better in specific genres
    • women for romance, men for science fiction
    • some names bring to mind a specific type (strong, manly names for military or crime fiction, girly names for chick lit)
  • Your real name is too hard to pronounce or spell, or sounds “ugly” or silly
  • Create a brand or persona (a name to identify with; catchy, easy to remember)
  • Separate your work as a writer from your private life or from your profession
  • Avoid confusion – your real name is the same as another author or celebrity, or a personality/profession you don’t want to be identified with
  • Your real name is too common
  • Present your work without the pressure of living up to a previous success
  • Different writing styles – readers come to expect a consistency in style
  • Fresh start – if previous work has not sold well

Complications

  • People might see you as being phony or trying to hide something.
  • People who know you under your real name might have trouble finding you and your work
  • Payments – for indie authors, make sure payments are made out to your real name or that you can take payments under your pen name
  • If published under one name already:
    • You start from scratch – not all readers will follow you to your new work, messes with branding
    • Social media – keeping up with posting under different names (maybe separate websites, too)
    • Contract violation – some contracts forbid publishing under a different name or in a different genre

Choosing to use a pen name is a decision that should be made carefully, knowing it will add complications to your life (and deciding which one to use is even more complex). Rachelle Gardner, author/blogger/editor, gives this advice for those considering using a pen name:

We’re not going to completely get away from pseudonyms, since there are real reasons people use them. However, for now I’d say, only use [a pen name] if it’s crucial – if there’s no other way. And if you use one – it’s best to use only one name in your online presence – website, blog, Facebook, Twitter. Just inhabit that name and become it.

If you’d like to find out which authors use a pseudonym, go to this site for a comprehensive list.

Have you thought of using a pen name? Do you already use one for your writing or an online presence?

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Image “Carrying Pen” courtesy of rattigon / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A Private Eye Gives Up Her Gun

ID-100183203At Diana Jackson’s blog, A Selection of Reflections, she shares “true stories in the present and past” and tells about Norman Campbell who shared his story with her, “all 103 years of it!” A novelist and historian who lives in Bedfordshire, U.K., Diana also posts stories by guest writers – and I’m happy to have a condensed excerpt from Chapter 9: Know Thyself of This New Mountain up on her website. If you want to find out what could cause a private investigator to stop carrying her snub nose revolver on the job, check out my post on A Selection of Reflections. While you’re there, read a few excerpts from Norman Campbell’s memoir The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell, a man who became a silver surfer and learned to Skype at age 102.

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Image courtesy of num_skyman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Dialogue, Disclaimers, and Diarrhea

ForestPathWhat do dialogue, disclaimers, and diarrhea have in common? They’re three of the topics of my most popular blog posts for 2013. Just over half the articles were related to writing, the rest included recipes and one remedy for – yes – diarrhea. If you missed any of these, here are the top ten posts from my blog for last year.

  1. Ten Favorite Country Sayings – Wisdom (or country wisdom, anyway) must have been on many people’s minds this year, evidenced by my No. 1 blog post.
  2. Writing the Memoir: Disclaimers – Most works of fiction include a disclaimer to help ward off potential lawsuits, and it’s even more essential for a memoir. I include examples of different types of disclaimers and a link to where to find disclaimers for many kinds of fiction and nonfiction books.
  3. Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Dialogue – The fourth post in my Writing a Memoir Like a Novel series discusses how to write natural dialogue.
  4. Free Resources for Writers: The Basics – This is a short list of free foundational resources that continue to help me in my writing journey.
  5. Southwestern Recipe: Green Chile Sausage Gravy – The flavor of green chile is popular both inside and outside of the southwestern United States. Here’s a recipe shared by a New Mexico fireman that never fails to keep the firehouse happy.
  6. Country Remedy: Diarrhea Relief – Who knew this country cure would be so popular, but AJ Jackson says this simple remedy has never failed to provide relief from diarrhea.
  7. Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Story Arc – The first in the series of Writing a Memoir Like a Novel, this article discusses the beginning-middle-end structure of a memoir.
  8. 5 Tips for Retrieving Memories – An excellent article by Lisa Hase-Jackson (reprinted with permission) originally titled “Five Tips for Retrieving Memories and Developing Your Memoir.”
  9. Country Recipe: Old-Fashioned Tea Biscuits – This is one of AJ Jackson’s favorite family recipes that makes a ton of cookies.
  10. Writing the Memoir: Consider the Consequences – Three important things to think about before deciding to write a memoir.

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Six Elements of Fiction

Novel Memoir Series Word CloudIn my ongoing series, Writing a Memoir like a Novel, I share what I know about writing fiction as it applies to memoir. I hadn’t tried my hand at a memoir until I took on the project that became This New Mountain, but I have written short stories, novellas and novels. You might understand, then, why my approach to writing AJ Jackson’s true story (of a feisty private detective and grandmother) included the elements that make up a work of fiction.

If you’d like your memoir to have the depth and flow of a novel, try adding fictional elements — and check out my posts about crafting characters, setting, dialogue, a compelling opening, point of view, and story arc. Here are the summaries of the six articles in the series so far:

Characters

Apply fiction techniques to your “built-in” characters to bring your story, and the real-life people who inhabit it, to life. Physical description doesn’t tell us who a person is — we understand others by their actions and the choices they make. Weave in details a little at a time to reveal the characters as the story unfolds. By sharing the story behind the story, the reader gains an understanding of the why of things. Show how a person deals with change to shed light on that person’s character. Reveal the familiar, those common things we all relate to, to get the reader emotionally involved. Other details, such as relationships, ambition, and personal flaws, add layers and reveal character.

Setting

Creating memorable settings – without unnecessary detail – strengthens the writing and draws the reader into the story. Present the setting through the eyes of your character. Determine why a particular place is important to the character and how she feels about it. Use historical research to take you beyond the limits of your own memory. Make your story immediate and real to the reader by using just enough sensory detail.

Dialogue

Dialogue can reveal motives, character, conflict, setting, and important information, and can create tension, suspense, and movement through scenes. While staying true to your memory, produce realistic dialogue by following certain conventions: use contractions; don’t overuse names; avoid niceties and information dumps; use dialect and vernacular sparingly; beware exclamation points (!!!); structure paragraphs and use tags/beats to make it clear who is speaking.

A Compelling Opening

Memoir readers don’t expect action-packed openings, but the first few pages should still compel us to continue on and immerse ourselves in the story. A good opening will include: a character we know and understand; a situation that presents tension; an indication of the larger story problem or conflict; the general tone of the story (such as light-hearted or serious).

Point of View

Take readers to a place where they feel what you felt without telling them how to feel. Write an “eye memoir” versus an “I memoir.” Step back from who you are now as the writer and return to the perspective of who you were during the period of your memoir. In the end, your memoir is less about what happened and more about the importance of your journey, what you brought into it and how the journey changed you.

Story Arc

A story arc moves the main character (you or the subject of the memoir) from one situation to another, one state of being to another. Without this structure and focus, the memoir becomes a disconnected, chaotic jumble. Knowing and understanding your story arc – the beginning-middle-end structure – keeps the writer focused on what the memoir is about and acts as a guide to know what to include and what to leave out, as well as what needs detailing and what can be touched on through summary.

In the months ahead, I’ll be posting more in the Writing a Memoir Like a Novel series to include pacing, scene structure, and passive voice.

If there is a specific topic you’d like me to address in a future post, please leave a comment.

Country Recipe: Kefflins (Butter/Almond Cookies)

(From Vinnie Ann “AJ” Jackson)

My mama (Vinnie Arella Jackson) made Kefflins only for Christmas. She would make them the day after Thanksgiving so they would have time to cure. We had them every Christmas and we never knew where Mama hid the crock, because if we had found it, there would not have been any cookies left for Christmas day. All these years later, I still don’t know where she hid that crock.

Kefflins

1 pound butter

1 cup ground almonds

1 cup sugar

4 cups flour

powdered sugar

Cream butter and sugar, add almonds and flour. Mix and knead with hands. Roll into crescents. Bake at 375̊ on an ungreased cookie sheet until lightly browned. Layer in a crock (or a sealed container) with powdered sugar, and seal for at least a month to cure before eating.

I’ve posted this early in the holiday season so you might have a chance to plan ahead and have enough time for your cookies to cure. What recipe do you make every year as a family tradition?

To Blog or Not to Blog

After taking several months off from blogging, I’m back with a few questions I’ve had to answer for myself. Why blog? Why Not to Blog?

WorldPeople2You do not have to blog, and if you don’t have much interest in the form, then please don’t pursue it. As with any form of writing, it takes a considerable investment of energy and time to do it right and get something from it. ~ Jane Friedman

Why Blog?

Reasons for blogging vary from one person to another. Apart from any business goals of selling yourself and your goods or services, there are a few basic reasons to blog:

  • We all want to make a difference. Sharing knowledge or experience is one way to do that.
  • Some people have a lot to say. Blogging is another way to express themselves.
  • We all have a desire and a need to be heard. Done in the right way (and with the right intent), blogging can be a good outlet.

Initially, my purpose in starting this particular blog was to give my 12-year writing project a home and to encourage others to face their fears. AJ Jackson – the fearless private investigator and repo-mama from This New Mountain – has impacted me from the moment her red-headed spunk and energy rushed into my life more than fifteen years ago. My reasons for contributing to the blog-o-sphere were a natural by-product of my relationship with her. Later, including posts about writing style and writing as it pertains to memoir also seemed a natural addition to the blog. I am still (and forever will be) perfecting my writing skills, and I’ve felt the urge to encourage writers on their own journeys whether toward publication or “perfection.”

Why Not to Blog?

Again, the reasons not to blog (or to stop blogging) depend on the individual, but there are some standard things that come with the territory.

  • Blogging takes time. There’s the planning, the research, the writing, the proofing. Even just coming up with ideas to write about can take up hours every week. Do you have this time to spend?
  • Blogging takes commitment. Even if it’s once a week or once a month, keeping up a blog is one more thing to add to the To-Do List. How committed are you willing to be?
  • Blogging takes energy. Okay, it’s mostly brain energy. But you do have to drag yourself to the computer, then to the bathroom, then to the computer. And what about all those round-trips to the refrigerator and the bowls full of peanuts, pretzels and chocolate to carry back with you. That’s got to count for something, right?
  • Blogging can be a distraction. Blogging can keep you from something more important such as family commitments, health goals, or other dreams and creative pursuits. Will you use blogging as an excuse not to do some other thing?

It’s a physical fact that adding one thing to a finite space results in less space for something else. In deciding whether or not to blog, we each have to weigh our personal desires and goals against the added commitments and the affects blogging has on other more important aspects of our lives.

For me, I’ve decided to keep blogging. I’d like to continue encouraging writers to pursue their dreams and push through any fears that might be holding them back. But I’ve also come to realize I need to implement some major changes in time and goal management (a topic for another post).

Why do you blog? Have you found that the good outweighs the bad?

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Dialogue

LongRoad2bDialogue in any kind of story is useful for revealing motives, character, conflict, setting, and important information; as well as for creating tension and suspense, and movement through scenes. While staying true to your memory when writing memoir, you can still produce realistic dialogue by following certain conventions.

In a memoir, can you really recreate pages of dialogue? No. Key phrases may live in your memory, but few [people] can remember word-for-word exchanges. For this type of writing, you’ll have to rely on reconstructed dialogue, but it needs to come up against the standards of good dialogue.  ~ Darcy Pattison

Like all of us, your characters’ speech is influenced by their education, family, friends, where they’ve lived, their way of thinking, and the particular circumstances they find themselves in. A teacher will speak one way in front of a group of children, another way with her colleagues, and still another when she’s at home. 

The following are basic ways I’ve found to effectively capture interaction between characters through dialogue.

Use Contractions: In modern conversation, people say “don’t” instead of “do not,” unless they’re trying to make a point or for emphasis. “Timmy, don’t touch the skunk.” And then, “Timmy, do not touch that skunk again. Do you understand me?”

Don’t Overuse Names: We might say “Bill, is that a venomous spider on your back?” to get his attention, but when our husband comes home from work, the conversation doesn’t sound like:  “How was your day, Bill?” “My day was so-so, Barb, how was yours?” “Well, Bill, I stubbed my toe.”

Avoid Niceties: When people meet or talk on the phone, they might begin with the weather or inquire about each others health, but unless a person is fixated on these things (as part of their personality) or they’re important to the story, skip it. So when Bill comes home from work, instead of asking about his day, Barb might greet him immediately with, “I had the worst day ever. I stubbed my toe.”

Dialect: Writing dialect, and doing it right, is a difficult thing to do. What might sound right to you in the writing – because you know what you’re trying to say and how it sounds in your mind – might not come across to the reader the same way. Pick a few words, like “y’all” and “yonder,” and pepper them in the dialogue for best effect.

Vernacular: As with dialect, common language can be overdone. Include a few words to get the flavor, such as “gonna,” “gotta,” “wanna.”

Here’s an example of dialect and vernacular from Bobbie Christmas*:

The following is the kind of dialect editors do not like: “He ben goin’ ta dat sto’ ever’ day since thin.” It is much better to write in the vernacular – the lingo – of a character’s speech, spelling words correctly, but using the character’s word, as in this rewrite: “He been going to that store ever day since then.” 

Beware Exclamation Points: Overusing exclamation points becomes either annoying to the reader or meaningless like white noise. Instead of using an exclamation point every time characters get excited or angry in conversation, show this in their mannerisms or other physical reactions. Use them only when you have to and never more than one per instance. According to author Terry Pratchett, “Five exclamation marks [are] the sure sign of an insane mind.”

Information Dumps: To keep a reader’s attention, large amounts of information should not be imparted all at once in writing, and certainly not through dialogue. When we talk to each other, we don’t usually go on and on about a subject. And when people do, we (as listeners) often tune them out. We don’t want to do that to our reader. Give us important information through description, exposition, in bits and pieces, and break it up naturally in dialogue. Even when making a speech, the speaker will pause to take a drink of water or ask for questions from the audience. A storyteller will pause for affect, catch the eye of listeners, talk with his hands.

Filler Words: People pause when they talk, using words like “ah,” “uh,” and “um.” Sometimes we do this out of habit and sometimes just because we’ve lost our train of thought. Even though this is a natural way of speaking, it fills up space in dialogue and is annoying to read. For a character who speaks with pauses as part of who he is, use these sparingly as you would with dialect and vernacular.

Dialogue Tags/Beats – Tags and beats let us know who is speaking.

Use “said” whenever possible – it doesn’t interfere with the writing because the reader tends to pick up the important information (who’s talking) and skip the “said.” Use another word, such as “whispered” or “shouted,” when it’s not already clear how the character is speaking through word choice or the use of beats (see below).

Insert a dialogue tag where it feels most natural in the conversation, and sooner than later. Waiting until the end of a paragraph can be confusing or distracting to the reader if they don’t know who is speaking. In the first sentence of the next example, the reader doesn’t know who’s talking until the end, and it could make a difference in how the reader imagines the scene: “Well, that certainly is a colorful, venomous spider. Would you like to hold it?” Barb said. Or, “Well,” Barb said, “that certainly is a colorful, venomous spider. Would you like to hold it?”

A beat is a description of a physical action that falls between lines of dialogue. It adds variety and movement to the writing, aids the reader in “seeing” the scene, adds to characterization, and helps with the writer’s work of showing-not-telling. Where you have a beat, you don’t need a tag. Do this: “Look, another colorful, venomous spider.” Barb brushed the creature off Bill’s back. Not this: “Look, another colorful, venomous spider,” Barb said, brushing the creature off Bill’s back.

Paragraph Structure: Give each character in the conversation his own paragraph, even when using dialogue tags or beats or if it’s a one-word or one-sentence paragraph.

For memoir, we rely on our memory to write dialogue, but even having a recorded conversation doesn’t mean it converts smoothly into dialogue. For This New Mountain, I was able to transcribe a recorded interview with AJ Jackson’s mentor that became an entire chapter. This was a real-life, in the moment exchange, but straight transcription wasn’t enough to make it work. I added dialogue tags and beats. I cut filler words and vernacular. And to keep the movement going and spark interest, it was necessary to summarize some of what was said and include additional, relevant information.

Learning how to write good dialogue is a process. And like most kinds of learning, it takes reading and study and practical application. Go out into the world and listen to conversation. When composing dialogue, let it play out in your mind between your characters, and then share the end result with others to get their feedback.

(*Bobbie Christmas/Zebra Communications, the Writers Network News April 2012. For a free newsletter and Tools for Writers go to www.zebraeditor.com/tools_for_writers.shtml.)

What are your suggestions for writing realistic dialogue?