Writer's Tips: Writing Personal Memoirs

How to write someone's memoirs as a gift for an individual or even a whole family. Information on research, interviews and developing an outline.

Every family seems to have that one special person who is the "keeper of memories." This person is the one who shares stories of parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and life in the good old days around the dinner table or campfire. Everyone who is lucky enough to hear their tales carries away with them fond memories and a sense of history.

What better way to show this person how much you appreciate their storytelling abilities than to present them with a written collection of those bits of personal history? If you are someone who enjoys writing and is seeking a unique gift idea for a special individual, consider pulling together a collection of memoirs.

There are many ways to go about putting together this one-of-a-kind gift. The first thing to do is to think about the "tone" of the memoirs you plan to write. Would a straightforward collection of family history best fit the recipient of your work, or would they be more appreciative of a collection of humorous stories? Perhaps a themed collection is more appropriate. Theme ideas include, but are by no means limited to:

- holiday tales

- family vacations

- love stories

- beloved family pets

- funny childhood tales

- a history of a particular family residence

- family ghost stories

Once you have decided on the type of memoir you would like to create, it is time to start pulling together stories. Start by writing out sketches of all the tales you remember. Flesh out your memory by talking to other family members. Pay special visits to the person you are preparing the collection for and ask them to retell all the tales. In most cases, the type of person who would love this special gift is more than willing to sit over several cups of coffee and recap all those good times. Arm yourself with a mini-tape recorder so that you can listen to the tales again at your leisure.

Of course, the next step is to sit down and write. Allow yourself plenty of time to pull together a descriptive and creative collection of memories. You have plenty of choices as to how you want to capture the tales in writing. If you are focusing on events in one person's life, you can write the entire collection in first-person, from the viewpoint of your storyteller. Or you can write from the "voice" of several different family members. Finally, you can write out the memories from a third-person narrator's perspective. Let your intuition guide you.

Depending on the type of memoir you are choosing to write, your writing can flow in many different ways. You can write chronologically, from earliest to more recent events. If you have chosen to write a "themed" collection such as "holiday memories in our family," each individual tale can be a chapter.

When you have finished writing, set your work aside for a few days. Then return to it with fresh eyes and edit it for factual as well as grammatical errors. Have another family member review it and provide you with feedback.

When your collection of tales is complete, you must decide how to present them to your recipient. Here are a few suggestion:

- Create a booklet. Design a cover and table of contents that suits your material, or enlist the services of a graphically-savvy friend to help you. You can simply put the material together in a nice binder or notebook, laminated if you so choose. Or you can have your collection professionally printed and bound.

-- Purchase a large photo album and place printouts of your text in the album pages. This is particularly effective if you wish to incorporate family photos into your work.

-- If your gift recipient is internet savvy, consider creating the memoir as a web page.

Regardless of the format you choose, there are many "special additions" that can add character and sentimentality to your gift. A few include:

- Photographs. You can add photos separately, or scan them directly into your text or web site.

- A genealogical history or family tree to appear at the beginning or end of the memoir, or as a separate link if the memoir is online.

- Illustrations. If you or someone you know are artistically inclined, consider illustrating the memoir.

- Personal anecdotes from other family members. Have each family member share something they'd like to say to or about the gift recipient, and incorporate their thoughts into the memoir.

Creating a memoir is a labor of love. But it is something that can be cherished by family members for decades to come. You can even set up the memoir in a format that allows it to be added to over the years, by yourself and other members of your family.

The most important thing is to use your imagination and recall how you felt when hearing the tales you are trying to pull together. When I wrote a memoir for my grandmother, I started out with the intention of pulling together a collection of stories from her childhood. But for each tale I wrote about her, I was reminded of a similar tale from my own girlhood. So I ended up doing a series of themed chapters, and each chapter included a memory of hers alongside a memory of my own that somehow related to it. Although this wasn't what I set out to do, it resulted in a sentimental end product that showed similarities in our lifestyle in spite of generational differences. The smiles and tears as she read it were priceless, and all I had invested was a lot of time doing something I truly enjoyed.

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