Linda Spence: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Personal History

Book Review: Legacy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Personal History
Linda Spence
Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1977
155 pages

“This is a book waiting to become your story,” writes Linda Spence in her book, Legacy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Personal History.

She then goes on to show you how. Not with fancy words, out-of-touch theories, and dreary writing exercises; but with down-to-earth, practical, anyone-can-do it guidelines and examples. She debunks every myth you’ve ever heard about writing your life story and walks you through the storytelling process simply, clearly, efficiently, and effectively.

Fear of writing is swept away by her calm assurance that you are preparing a gift for your children, grandchildren, and friends. No need to concentrate on whether the story of your life will be an international best seller. Instead, think of the stories of your life that were fun or interesting for you and that helped form who you are.

She divides thinking about your stories into nine easy-to-read sections: Beginnings and Childhood, Adolescence, Early Adult Years, Marriage, Being a Parent, Middle Adult Years, Being a Grandparent, Later Adult Years, Reflections. Each section begins with a few brief paragraphs on what happened in her life during that period, with plenty of quotes from her family members to reveal she is an ordinary person, just like you. The kicker, though, is what comes next: after the brief paragraphs, she lists a series of questions and thought starters to get your remembrance juices going. There are more than 400 questions throughout the book. Here are some of them:

Where did you live during your childhood and who lived with you?
Tell about the animals you loved as a child.
What are some of your summertime memories?
What were you involved in at school other than classes?
Tell about your first crush.
What was the most trouble you found yourself in as a teenager?
What were the significant milestones in your career or personal life in your twenties and thirties?
What was it like for you to leave home?
What organizations were you interested in?
Tell about your courtship.
What were some adjustments you made in your married life?
Describe some common interests and their contribution to your marriage.
What rivalries and alliances developed among your children?
Who were your neighbors and how did your lives touch?
In what ways did you continue to increase your knowledge and skills?
Have you saved anything from your past that your grandchildren now enjoy?
Tell something encouraging about each grandchild.
How is your life different today from how you thought it would be?
Who are the people providing the most satisfying companionship to you now?
Tell a story from your life that you’ve never told before.
In what ways would you say life today is more satisfying than in the days when your parents were your age?
Why did you choose the jobs you had and how did you get them?
What have you fought for in your life?

I highly recommend this book in my monthly classes on writing memoirs. You can get a copy from any bookstore, online, or at your local library.

Linda Spence writes and collects legacy stories in Mill Valley, California, where she lives and works as a consultant.

Cover image courtesy Shallow Press/Ohio University Press.

Justine Kuntz: A 20-page Memoir Can Be a Treasured Gift

Guest article by Justine Kuntz

Justine Kuntz
My friend Nancy and I wrote a memoir of her husband Tony, although he was a reluctant participant. Tony had been captured in Africa during World War II. He spent 14 months as a wounded soldier in an Italian prison camp and then in two German prison camps. He was discharged from the U.S. Army totally disabled.

I had heard some of his stories and asked whether we could write about them together. Although he was a great storyteller, he always refused by saying, “They’re too painful to talk about.” However, he repeatedly told certain ones to Nancy and a few to my husband and me and friends over dinner after he had a glass or two of wine. The stories never changed and needed to be written for his grandsons, if for no one else.

A memoir takes shape
Nancy and I crafted a 20-page memoir with some of his war photos and an appendix of World War II information I found on the Internet. Tony’s 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division has a site which provides a brief history and made a perfect foreword for his memoir. Plus, the Red Cross has online debriefings from their inspections of German prison camps. These provided the “official story” of prison conditions. Tony’s stories provide the “real” conditions and how methods were contrived to present the “official” condition unbeknown to the International Red Cross during their inspections.

Nancy and I walked the beach each Saturday morning and discussed the stories I had written from memory that week. I also gave her a list of questions to casually ask Tony at their leisure. These conversations usually took place as they read the newspaper over breakfast and commented on global events. This time was a natural opportunity for brief discussion that provided the memoir details and often set him to reminiscing further. She would say, “When you were in …” and this or that happened. “Tell me again, why did...” Inadvertently, he provided the details and sometimes enough detail to begin a new story. Some stories ran only one paragraph. We arranged them chronologically and separated them by lines of asterisks.

Nancy framed his medals, ten of them, in a shadow box. She had sent for them years earlier through the Army but never had done anything with them. I found a website explaining the significance of the ribbons and medals displayed in the shadow box, including the Purple Heart. We incorporated the information into an appendix along with telegrams, maps, and photographs of prison and his inmates. His parents had kept telegrams from the War Department and from ham radio operators who contacted his parents with information regarding his capture in Africa, his injuries, transport, and locations.

A gift for Tony
We presented the memoir to Tony for his 80th birthday. Six of us sat around the table and cried as he opened the gift; then we all laughed at ourselves crying. Such a memorable occasion! Through tears Tony said, “I knew something was going on but I never expected this.” Although the memoir covers only 18 months, that time controlled the rest of his life and ultimately Nancy’s too. They met when he was in Cushing Army Hospital recovering from his extensive injuries.

Tony proudly gave fifteen copies of his memoir to extended family members. Two great-grandchildren have been added to the family since then. Their father covets the memoir for his children to read about their great-grandfather’s World War II experiences.

Nancy helps others
Some years later in my memoir class, Nancy continued to write her stories of their years after the war. These she sent to siblings as she wrote them. Her classic comments in class were: “One thing I realize after doing only a few stories. Our phone calls are no longer about aches and pains. We laugh and enjoy our childhood all over again as we reminisce. They help me fill in the detail.”

Hers was a different kind of therapy and class members reaped ideas from her insight into the benefits of writing memoirs; another human interest story on mining treasures by writing one’s life stories.

Justine Kuntz teaches memoir writing classes at St. Gregory's Episcopal Church in Boca Raton, Florida. She is a retired teacher of high school English. Photo courtesy Justine Kuntz.

Good Book Design is Essential to a Memorable Memoir

There are many memoir authors who photocopy their typewritten manuscripts, or print them on their personal inkjet printers, or take them to their local copy center, and then staple them together for distribution. These have a tendency to become ragged-edged, torn, and misplaced over the years, mainly because they are not perceived to be of long-lasting value.

You will be better off pursuing the production of a book that looks like a book, either with a soft cover or a hard cover. This kind of a book will maintain a place of honor on a bookshelf or coffee table and is more likely to be shared with others as an important work that the author, family members, and friends are proud to own.

Print-on-demand (POD) companies (see short list below) using digital technologies will easily and affordably print your memoirs that have the look and feel of books produced by major publishing companies. Many POD providers will print as few as ten copies and some have minimums of twenty-five copies. POD services can include whatever you are willing to pay for. The least expensive is when you email to a POD company a manuscript that is ready to be printed. Costs go up when you engage the company to do layout, photo placement, cover design, proofreading and editing, as well as printing and binding.

One option is to hire a professional who will take your typewritten manuscript and lay it out to look like a book (see short list below.) You decide the chapter breaks and chapter headings and the layout person makes it look great. This becomes the layout you email to a POD. You can also do it yourself with Microsoft Word (see short list below.)

Some PODs have online templates for you to design your own front cover and back cover, again at an extra charge. Otherwise, you might be able to engage a local artist who is experienced at book cover designing.

The costs of using a POD are wide-ranging. A general guideline is from $10 per book to $35 per book depending on your choices of soft cover or hard cover, color or black and white, the number of copies printed, and the services you decide on. POD is far less expensive than printing and binding from your home printer or your local copy store.

When you go the POD route, you will have a treasured family heirloom you can be proud of and that will be kept and shared for a long time.

A short list of POD companies

Creative Continuum

Family Heritage Publishers

Family History Publishers


Modern Memoirs

My Canvas

No Waste Publishing

A short list of manuscript formatting services

Do-it-yourself: How to Lay Out a Book Manuscript in Microsoft Word

Compass Rose Horizons

Fern J. Hill

Integrative Ink

Kleine Editorial Services


Writer’s Relief, Inc.

Photo: An on-demand book printer at the Internet Archive headquarters in San Francisco, California. Printed pages land in this slot, where they are tapped into an even pile by pneumatically actuated tappers on the top, side, and edge of the page. Photo courtesy Dvortygirl.

November is National Family Stories Month

Whatever name you have for the stories of life—personal history, memoir, or biography—now is a great time to start putting the stories of your family into writing because November is National Family Stories Month.

Here are some things you can do:

  1. Check with your local library, writers’ club, college or university on activities that may be planned.

  2. Begin a family newsletter.

  3. Start a personal blog.

  4. Start a family website.

  5. Read or share a book about a favorite person.

  6. Participate in social networking.

  7. Trace your family history. Several free websites will help you do this.

  8. Subscribe to a free genealogy newsletter. An excellent one is by Kimberly Powell at

  9. Record interviews with elders at senior centers and send the recordings to them and their families.

  10. Bring your scrapbook up to date.

  11. Start that scrapbook you have been putting off doing.

  12. Create an online scrapbook or animated photo album at one of many free websites.

  13. Put together a family recipe book.

  14. Locate family or friends who have drifted away and telephone them.

  15. Assemble a digital photo album; makes a great gift.

  16. Create a short video on your webcam and email it to family members, or transfer the video to a CD and send by postal mail.

  17. Create a PowerPoint slide show of photos and comments and share with family.

  18. Purchase low-cost promotional products with family names imprinted and give to family.

  19. Join a local genealogy club or writers’ group. Your library can help you find one.

  20. Start a journal.

  21. Give journal books with blank pages to family members so they can begin writing their stories.

Thanksgiving is a natural gathering opportunity, so it’s a great time for grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews to get started on their stories. Stories can be goofy, serious, reflective, confessional, and healing. They can be of childhood, adolescence, marriage, work, vacations, immigration, holiday celebrations, and much more.

Children and adults can participate. Children can illustrate their favorite family stories using crayons or colored pencils on plain paper. Add a current flavor with digital photos taken by the children and printed on plain paper. Bind several stories with brad fasteners and a cover of colored construction paper with pictures cut from magazines. What a fun and treasured gift! Adults can use a digital voice recorder, video camera, or pencil and paper.

How do you know what questions to ask? Linda Spence has more than 400 sample questions in her book, Legacy: A Step-by-step Guide to Writing Personal History (Shallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1997). For more great books take a look at my suggested reading list at the top of the links on the right side of this page.

Photo courtesy Dorsey E. Levell from his book, Levell-Drew Family History.

Toolkit for Making Written Material Clear and Effective

Governments and corporations have been trying hard in recent years to write laws, instructions and contracts in plain language. Some succeed better than others.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has a free download, “Toolkit for Making Written Material Clear and Effective.” While the guidelines are intended for those who write for the needs of CMS audiences, they are an excellent resource for families, friends, community organizations, and memoir writers. The principles for effective communications can apply to any writer for any audience.

The toolkit has a table of contents and eleven parts. They can be downloaded as a complete set or as separate parts. Topics include using a reader-centered approach, guidelines for writing and design including the Web, materials for older adults, and a section of before-and-after examples.

The toolkit includes examples for “brochures and pamphlets, booklets, flyers, fact sheets, posters, bookmarks, application forms, comparison charts, postcards, instruction sheets, and questionnaires.” This is information that can be applied to any type of writing.

The toolkit cautions on using grade-level readability formulas which “are used to measure difficulty of vocabulary and sentences in written materials.” Such formulas tend to be narrow and limiting, the toolkit states.

In the section titled Guidelines for Writing, the toolkit includes how-to-do-it information on what readers want and need to know, using plenty of headings and subheadings, pacing readers, using an active voice, and using a conversational style.

In the section titled Material for Older Adults, the toolkit includes information on how aging affects literacy skills, helping those with vision limitations, and helping those with declining cognitive skills.

Go here to download the toolkit: