Now available: My new book, Witnesses of Hope, Faith, Love and Healing, at in paperback and Kindle editions.

Share your memories of Park Central Square, Springfield, Missouri, for my new book. Details.

Not for Idiots: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing a Memoir

Book Review: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Memoir
Victoria Costello
Alpha Books/Penguin Group, 2011
Softcover, 286 pages, with appendices and index

The number of people writing memoirs is growing, with some memoirs becoming bestsellers. Whether you want to write your memoir for profit or fun, to find healing, or to leave a family legacy, Victoria Costello's complete, clear, and compelling how-to book is for you.

Costello is an Emmy-winning author of six nonfiction books including her memoir and three other Complete Idiot’s Guide titles. In this book, she walks you step-by-step through the memoir-writing process, from uncovering your reasons for writing to becoming published. What to put into your memoir and what to leave out—covered. Writing the truth without hurting people—covered. Using fiction techniques of plot, character, dialogue, and conflict to make your memoir a page turner—covered.

How the book is organized
The book has four parts. In Part One, Writing Your Life, Costello recommends reading memoirs to become acquainted with how others have done it. Appendix B lists twenty-two memoirs to get you started. She gives common reasons for writing memoirs, including self-understanding, memorializing a relationship, overcoming adversity, and leaving a legacy for your children and grandchildren—even great-grandchildren you may not meet.

Part Two, The Ingredients of Memoir, provides a recipe for writing that includes how to determine point of view of your characters, making characters believable, dialogue, plot and structure, and revising your pages. Since your memoir is about you, you likely will use a first-person point of view, represented by the word I. Closely related to point of view is voice. “Voice in memoir is the real you,” Costello writes. “It’s how you sound when you get together with your oldest friend over coffee and gossip or have a heart-to-heart talk.”

Part Three, The Bigger Picture: Theme and Genre, covers dealing with tragedy, romance, illness, travel and adventure, and business memoir. Theme means “you fulfilled a promise made on page one: that you would make a necessary change in your life (story)—and then faithfully tell them all about it.”

Part Four, Getting Read, is about turning journal writing into memoir, writing about family, writing about faith, and getting published

Appendix A lists websites, organizations, and how-to books on writing memoir; Appendix B is a reading list of memoirs; and Appendix C is a permission form Costello suggests for persons you interview for your memoir. (More important than permission is to avoid harming a person’s reputation—libeling them—by what you write.) 

How she keeps you on track
At first glance, you may think the nearly 300-page book has too many rules to follow. However, sprinkled throughout are easy-to-understand definitions of key writing terms, quick prompts for you to practice writing, inspirational quotes from published memoirists, and potholes to avoid. I especially like her Five Golden Rules of Good Writing:
  1. Say it simply.
  2. Mix up your sentences. Follow long with short, and vice versa.
  3. Don’t start every sentence with I.
  4. Details are always better than generalities.
  5. Begin every scene in the middle, not when and where the action started.
Victoria Costello is a science journalist, ghostwriter of memoirs, public speaker, and workshop presenter on memoir writing and coping with family mental health challenges. Visit and

What book on writing memoir have you found most helpful? To write a book review for this blog go to Guidelines for Guest Posts and Book Reviews.

Cultural and Literary Events for May 2014

Haitian Heritage Month Poster
Lots of ethnic and family heritage to write about this month.

Check with your library, college, government agencies, or community groups for activities in your area.

Listings are for the United States unless noted.

Asian Pacific-American History Month
Haitian Heritage Month
Jewish-American Heritage Month
National Family History Month,
Prepare Tomorrow's Parents Month,
   May 11-June 15
Victorious Woman Month International

Other Observances in May
Allergy/Asthma Awareness Month
Arthritis Awareness Month
Awareness of Medical Orphans Month
Barbecue Month
Better Hearing and Speech Month
Bike Month
Civility Awareness Month International
Fibromyalgia Education and Awareness Month
Foster Care Month
Gardening for Wildlife Month
Get Caught Reading Month
Gifts from the Garden Month
Good Car-Keeping Month
Hamburger Month
Heal the Children Month
Healthy Vision Month
Hepatitis Awareness Month
Huntington's Disease Awareness Month
Inventor's Month
Latino Books Month
Meditation Month
Mediterranean Diet Month
Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month  
Mental Health Month
Military Appreciation Month
Motorcycle Safety Month
Moving Month
Older Americans Month
Osteoporosis Awareness and Prevention Month
Photo Month
Physical Fitness and Sports Month
Prader-Willi Syndrome Awareness Month 
Preservation Month
Salad Month
Salsa Month
Smile Month
Strike Out Strokes Month
Stroke Awareness Month
Sweet Vidalia Onion Month
Teen CEO Month
Tennis Month
Ultraviolet Awareness Month
Vinegar Month
Women's Health Care Month
Young Achievers/Leaders of Tomorrow Month

What is going on in your area this month? 

Some listings courtesy Chase's Calendar of Events. Poster courtesy Haitian Heritage Museum.

Noah: It’s a Movie, Fer Cryin' Out Loud

Russell Crowe in Noah
What does the 2014 blockbuster movie Noah have to do with your memoir? Stay with me while I set the stage. (No doubt, Theater Breath, you recognized the pun.)

Cecil B. DeMille is supposed to have said, "Give me any page in the Bible and I will give you a movie." And why not? The Bible has plenty of action, conflict, romance, treachery, wars, mystery, infidelity (always great for ticket sales), supernatural events, and evil versus good--reasons why the Bible remains the bestselling book of all times.

Believers, nonbelievers, and censors
A lot of controversy surrounds Noah the movie. Results of test screenings to Jewish, Christian, and general audiences were reported to be troubling. In interviews, director-writer Darren Aronofsky and writer Ari Handel said their movie was a re-imagining of the Noah narrative. The narrative takes up roughly two-and-one-half pages in the Bible.

Bible believers who pooh-poohed the movie said it characterizes themes not in the original Genesis account (a flood story is in numerous cultures.) Nonbelievers who pooh-poohed it said it is a preposterous telling of a bizarre myth. Film censors in Islamic strongholds Malaysia and Indonesia banned the movie because it depicts a prophet; Islamic law forbids worship of other than God.

Fer cryin' out loud, people, it's a movie. I've seen movies with this statement at the beginning: "Some of the following is true." The major purposes of most movies are to entertain, provide jobs, and make money. Opening weekend, Noah earned $139 million at the box office worldwide; not a record for an opening weekend, but enough to make the producers happy--the film cost $130 million to make.

It's your memoir, go with it
What's my point? Just as the Bible is based on stories and just as movies are based on stories, your memoir is based on stories. And since, by definition, memoir is based on only a short period in a life--think one page in the Bible--you could write more than one memoir. Gloria Vanderbilt wrote five, Mary Karr and Sue William Silverman each wrote three.

If twenty directors made movies from the same page in the Bible, the results would be twenty different movies. I'm not suggesting you make up a bunch of stuff in your memoir, although some publishers categorize memoir as fiction. This is true: Your story, your memoir, is just that--yours. You tell it from your viewpoint, your experiences, your emotions, your growth, your purposes. And if it gets banned in Malaysia and Indonesia? Well, you tells your story and takes your chances.

Read author Linda Thomas's views on sacred connection and personal ownership of memoir in her guest post. How do you feel about the ownership of your memoir? Of your memoir having a sacred connection?

Photo copyright Paramount Pictures. Courtesy IMDb.

Cultural and Literary Events for April 2014

Official poster of National Poetry Month
Write a letter, write a poem, write a card; you can do it all in April and much more. Check with your library, college, government agencies, or community groups for activities in your area.

Not all cultural and literary events are declared official by government agencies. Some are by passionate nonprofit groups whose members want to have fun with their topics or get the word out about their important work.

Listings are USA unless indicated.

National Poetry Month Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. Contact your local organizations for readings, festivals, book displays, workshops, and other events.

School Library Month Founded by American Association of School Librarians in 1985. Jeff Kinney, New York Times bestselling author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, is 2014 national spokesperson.

Deaf History Month (March 13-April 15)
Kite Month (March 29-May 3)

African-American Women's Fitness Month
Alcohol Awareness Month
Autism Awareness Month
Bereaved Spouses Awareness Month International
Cancer Control Month
Car Care Month
Card and Letter Writing Month
Child Abuse Prevention Month
Confederate History Month
Couple Appreciation Month
Customer Loyalty Month International
Decorating Month
Defeat Diabetes Month
Distracted Driving Awareness Month
Donate Life Month
Emotional Overeating Awareness Month
Fresh Florida Tomato Month
Grange Month
Holy Humor Month
Humor Month
Informed Woman Month
Jazz Appreciation Month
Knuckles Down Month
Landscape Architecture Month
Library Week, April 13-19 
Month of the Young Child
Occupational Therapy Month
Pecan Month
Pest Management Month
Pet First Aid Awareness Month
Pharmacists' War on Diabetes Month
Prevention of Animal Cruelty Month
Rebuilding Month
Rosacea Awareness Month
Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month 
Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) Education and Awareness Month
Soyfoods Month
Straw Hat Month
Stress Awareness Month
Twit Award Month
Women's Eye Health and Safety Month
Workplace Conflict Awareness Month
World Habitat Awareness Month
Youth Sports Safety Month

Tell us what you are doing to observe and write about these or other special events in April. What memories do you have of these evens?

Poster image courtesy

Some listings courtesy Chase's Calendar of Events.

A Boy and His Grandfather Travel through Time

Kai and Carl with their animal friends.
Secrets, magic, and a kingdom at peril—a description of some current television shows, yes. It is also how photographer and genealogy enthusiast Carl James is introducing his four-year old grandson Kai to their family history in an exciting new way, even though they live 1,000 miles apart. Carl lives in Springfield, Missouri and Kai in Richmond, Virginia.

“We only see each other in person once or twice a year, but we Skype quite a bit,” Carl says. “His mother and I brainstormed on how we could stay in contact more often. We came up with the idea for a genealogy book in which Kai and I would time travel to learn about our ancestors.”

After a visit to Springfield by Kai and his family, Carl sent them home with an empty three-ring binder, to which he adds installments combining photos, clip art, and text.

The story
“My family had some history with James VI, who was king of Scotland in the 1500s. The story I’m doing for Kai has him as a knight—Sir Kai, Lord of Wales—and me as Opa Carl, Grand Wizard of Nottingham. Opa is German for grandpa. German is one of three languages Kai is growing up with; the others are Spanish and English."

Sir Kai rides a horse named Flame and Opa Carl has an owl named Hootie on his shoulder. King James the VI, whom the story identifies as Kai’s uncle, tells Opa Carl the kingdom is in danger from people who want to overthrow the king. "Included are members of the Clan Ruthven who are related to us and living in the castle," Opa tells Kai. "The king wants you to investigate the clan to find who he can trust."

Opa Carl and Sir Kai can travel anywhere, past or future. "No one can ever know we are from the future,” Opa Carl cautions. Carl can send Hootie as a scout. Hootie is a shape shifter, an American Indian term for an animal that can change into other creatures. Hootie becomes Mimi the mouse, Ring the raccoon, or Scooby Doo the dog.

A world-wide adventure
Besides the fun of the story—Carl says he is having more fun than Kai—Carl makes the genealogy book interactive for Kai by hiding Mimi and other animals on pages for Kai to find. He also drops in photos of Scotland he took as background for the characters. As the ancestry story develops, Carl will add maps and photos of Japan, England, and Ireland.

How long will it take to finish the project? “Kai likely will be grown,” Carl says.

Carl is a registered architect. He started drafting when he was nineteen. After two years of college, he became an architect’s apprentice for twelve years before passing the Missouri registration examination. He worked for eighteen years for Warren & Goodin Architects and Engineers in Springfield and designed hotels for John Q. Hammons. Parkinson’s disease forced him to retire in 2007 at age fifty-nine.

His book, Aux Arcs, Black & White Photography of the Ozarks Region, combines his love of photography with his poetry. Other of his photographs, poems, and essays are on his website, Liteworx Productions.

What fun new way have you found to tell your family history? Or, tell about such a project by someone you know.

Image: From a page in the James genealogy book. Courtesy Carl James.

Cultural and Literary Events for March 2014

Visitors to a garden in Suzhou, China, during a typhoon.
How are you celebrating special observances in March? Have fun, write about them, and let us know.

Not all cultural and literary events are declared official by government agencies. Some are by passionate nonprofit groups whose members want to have fun with their topics or get the word out about their important work.

Check with your library, college, government agencies, or community groups for activities in your area.

Mirth Month International - Created by author, keynote speaker, and jollytologist Allen Klein.

Sing with Your Child Month - Singing with your family forms everlasting bonds and enables children to feel safe and secure.

Umbrella Month - Ways to celebrate the umbrella which was invented 4,000 years ago.

Other March Observances
Listings are for the United States unless noted.
Caffeine Awareness 
Clean Up Your IRS Act
Colic Awareness
Colorectal Cancer Education and Awareness 
Craft Month
Credit Education
Employee Spirit
Expanding Girls' Horizons in Science and Engineering
Eye Donor
Frozen Food 
Greek-American Heritage
Humorists Are Artists
Ideas Month International
Irish-American Heritage 
Kidney Month
Listening Awareness Month International  
Malignant Hyperthermia Awareness and Training
Multiple Sclerosis Education and Awareness 
Music in Our Schools
Nutrition Month      
Optimism Month
Peanut Month
Poison Prevention Awareness
Red Cross Month
Save Your Vision
Social Work Month
Women's History Month
Workplace Eye Wellness
Youth Art

Deaf History Month - March 13-April 15
Kite Month - March 29-May 3

What March event most influences writing your life story? What are you doing in your community to observe a special event?

Some listings courtesy Chase's Calendar of Events.

Photo: Pascal3012/CreativeCommons

Cultural and Literary Events for February 2014

Chinese Pottery Horse
Use these special observances as memory joggers for writing your life story or for having fun in your community. Check with your library, college, government agencies, or community groups for activities in your area. 

Not all cultural and literary events are declared official by government agencies. Some are by passionate nonprofit groups whose members want to have fun with their topics or get the word out about their important work.
Chinese New Year
Fifteen-day celebration of year of the horse starting January 31. Eight things you should know. Chinese new years are based on the twelve signs of the Zodiac. Those born in the year of the horse are considered fashionable and self-confident, like to show-off, and may fall in love easily.

Other February Observances
Listings are for the United States unless noted.
MD/Low Vision Awareness Month 
American Heart Month 
Bake for Family Fun Month
Beat the Heat Month
Bird-Feeding Month 
Boost Self-Esteem Month
Cherry Month
Condom Month
Expect Success Month International
Fabulous Florida Strawberry Month 
Marfan Syndrome Awareness Month 
Mend a Broken Heart Month
Parent Leadership Month
Pet Dental Health Month
Plant the Seeds of Greatness Month
Renaissance of the Heart Month International
Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month
Spay/Neuter Awareness Month
Spunky Old Broads Month
Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month
Time Management Month
Wise Health Care Consumer Month
Women Inventors Month
Youth Leadership Month 

What February event most influences writing your life story? What are you doing in your community to observe a special event?

Some listings courtesy Chase's Calendar of Events. 

Photo: Chinese pottery horse, Tang Dynasty, 618-907 A.D. "Treasures of China Exhibit," Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2007. Courtesy Creative Commons