Get Inspired with Literary and Cultural Events in February

Lakota storyteller
Literary and cultural events connect us to our past and help inform our writing about our heritage. Throughout the year I will highlight events I hope will interest you.

National Storytelling Week
January 28-February 4, United Kingdom. Sponsored by the Society for Storytelling and funded in part by the Arts Council of England. Focus is on oral storytelling, the oldest communicative art. Dozens of theme-based activities for children and adults throughout the UK including medieval tales, tales from the crypt, rhyme time, signed reading, singing, dancing, music festivals, workshops, and more. Activities are at schools, libraries, theaters, bookstores, museums, and outdoor venues. Complete schedule.

Also note
YouTube/Your Film Festival. YouTube is conducting “a global search for the world’s best storytellers.” Submit a short, story-driven video by March 31. No entry fee. Ten finalists will open the 2012 Venice Film Festival, August 29-September 8. YouTube grand prize winner will receive $500,000 “to create a new work, produced by Ridley Scott and his world class team.”

This summer in the United States the National Storytelling Conference in Cincinnati.

This fall in the U.S. the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. 

Black History Month
Also known as African-American History Month. Founded by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. This year’s theme is Black Women in American Culture and History. Check with your NAACP chapter, library, public school, college or university for information on activities in your area.

National Trust for Historic Preservation offers a wide range of resources to “help save or interpret African American historic places.” Crafts and history for kids. has facts regarding prominent events that occurred in February.

PBS celebrates Black History Month. Explores, honors, and celebrates "African Americans’ vast contributions to society" with programming that continues through the spring. Guide to activities of “African-American art, films, research, history and culture throughout the year” in New York City.

National Council of Teachers of English. Invites organizations and individuals to hold an African American Read-in any day in February. Schools, churches, libraries, bookstores, community and professional organizations, and interested citizens are urged to participate. Download an African American Read-in packet.

Library Lovers’ Month

Many libraries throughout the world will have activities. Check with your library for what is going on in your community and how you may participate., a site of the American Libraries Association, suggests twelve ways to save your library.

Friends of Foundations of California Libraries has links to more than a dozen resources.

Australian Library and Information Association renamed Valentine’s Day, February 14, as Library Lovers Day and has a list of activities to celebrate.

Also note
April 8-14, National Library Week USA.  
September 22 and 23, National Book Festival, Washington, D.C. Link is to the 2011 event and will have information on the 2012 event when available.

What other literary and cultural events in February do you know of?

Photo courtesy National Park Service.

125-year-old Scrapbook Enlightens Understanding of Historical Figures

Librarian Mabel Phillips looks
over the historic scrapbook.
Letters to Santa Claus, notes to a sweetheart, a wedding announcement, newspaper obituaries and tributes; these and other historical insights from the family of a 19th century druggist in Ozark, Missouri are in a scrapbook more than 125 years old in the Christian County Library, Ozark. Items in the scrapbook are brown and tattered. Edges of the scrapbook pages are torn and fragile, with small pieces breaking off when they are touched. Library director Mabel G. Phillips keeps the scrapbook on a shelf above her desk.

“I wish we could afford to properly preserve it, but we don’t have the budget for it,” she says. “We have other papers and scrapbooks locked up that are in worse condition than this one.” She has attended workshops on preservation techniques that usually focus on a single piece of paper.

Robert and Nora Gray
This scrapbook was given to the library when it opened in 1956 by the family of druggist Robert N. Gray (1858-before 1920)) and his wife Nora Collier Gray (1866-after 1920). Contents represent the Grays’ interests in poetry, politics, and family. Items date from 1885 to the early 1900s, although most are not dated and most newspapers are not identified. Newspapers identified include Springfield Daily News, Springfield Republican, and Christian County Republican.

Robert wrote notes to Nora on drugstore stationary, R. N. Gray & Co., Druggists. This cryptic one was dated May 14, 1885: “Darling: Surely my strength will be ‘Sampsonion.’ But you will, as your words assure, at least think of me? Am glad you are ever in the same town – and not in Sp. Your Rob. P.S. I use envelope color of your dress. ‘Catch on?’” The stationary listed the drugstore as being on the southeast corner of the square in Ozark. Robert and Nora were married in Ozark on January 5, 1887.

Several letters to Santa Claus are in the scrapbook, including this undated one: “Dear Santa claus. I want a pair of skates and a pair of boots and a nu suit. Thomas. Good by. my nubrr is 42166.” Thomas was a grandson of Robert and Nora.

“The value of scrapbooks like this is they give character to individuals rather than just seeing dry names on a page,” says Mabel. “You have a little understanding of their humanness.”

More on Robert and Nora. 

Robert Gray’s father: pioneer settler
Robert Gray’s father was Daniel Gray (1806-1895), “one of the oldest settlers of Greene County and a man who was among the original 13 pioneers who started the village of Springfield in 1831” and who “helped drive the Indians from Greene County,” according to his obituaries in the scrapbook.

One item in the scrapbook is an article about Daniel from an undated and unnamed newspaper. The article, “The Story of a Pioneer, Daniel Gray’s First Christmas in Missouri,” tells of his arrival in Greene County when the county “embraced most of the country between the Osage River and Arkansas and west of the Big Piney and to territory of Kansas.” The article reproduces portions of a long letter Daniel wrote to Robert regarding that first Christmas. Here is an excerpt:

“In the fall of 1831, I moved to Missouri [from Kentucky] with Ragland Langston, the father of Joe Langston. We had a four-horse wagon made for the trip and both families put all our worldly possessions in this big moving conveyance and started for the west. We reached the end of our journey in December and stopped right where the Greene County Court House now stands. John P. Campbell, a wealthy gentleman from Tennessee, had settled that place and built a log house for his residence.”

Claiming his land
On claiming his land on the James River with his wife, Elizabeth, and their baby (unnamed): “I moved down on the James, one mile above where the Old Ozark bridge was afterwards built. Some one had cut down the largest walnut tree I ever saw. It had been a bee tree, cut for the honey. We got to this place late on Christmas Eve, 1831. The walnut log was high as my head. I cut poles and put one end on it and the other on forks and made a camp for the night. After covering over the poles, I made a very good shelter. It was cloudy, but not cold. After eating our supper, we made our bed on the ground and slept as sound as if we had been in the finest mansion. I had never had a better night’s sleep in my life. I was a little tired, you know.

“When we awoke in the morning to welcome Christmas and Sunday, for they came together that year, do you think you can imagine my feelings when I opened my eyes and beheld an eight inch snow on the ground?

“The next day, I cut a set of house logs and on the following day hauled them up. I meant to raise the house as soon as the snow melted.”

Read the complete article.

Nora Gray’s father: soldier and elected official
Nora Gray’s father was John P. Collier (1842-?), a native of Kentucky. He was a Union soldier in the Civil War, enlisting in Company A, Eleventh Kentucky Volunteer Infantry, and was at the battle of Shiloh. He and his wife, Louanna, moved their family to Moniteau County, Missouri in October 1871 and then to Ozark in October 1872. In Ozark he was elected to numerous public offices including deputy sheriff, county collector, deputy circuit and county clerk, county treasurer, school commissioner, justice of the peace, and probate judge.

More on John and Louanna.

My special thanks to Mabel Phillips for her additional research and confirmation of facts.

What old records have you found that shed light on family stories?

Photo: Wayne E. Groner

Alice in Wonderland and Other Free Resources for Writers

Ready to write.
Near the end of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, White Rabbit is about to read a convoluted indictment of the Prince of Hearts.

“But, Majesty, where shall I begin?” asks White Rabbit.

“Begin at the beginning,” replies the Queen. “And, when you come to the end, stop.”

Unknown to Carroll and his characters, the Queen came up with two excellent tips for writers; at least we can look back and make of it as we will.

I begin with a thank-you to Sharon Lippincott for the term life writing. She took the genres of biography, autobiography, memoir, life story, and family history and bundled them into one super-genre. I like it.

Another amalgam is creative nonfiction, which uses fiction writing techniques to tell nonfiction stories. See my post of January 3, 2011 for certified genealogist Sharon DeBartolo Carmack’s take on creative nonfiction in writing your family history. Examples of creative nonfiction in memoir include Ira Wagler’s Growing Up Amish  and Marry Karr’s The Liars Club: A Memoir. The magazine Creative Nonfiction is devoted to this type of writing.

The list below covers fiction and nonfiction resources for writers of all genres, with special applications for life writing. I hope you find them useful.

In this guest post by Linda Formichelli at Write to Done, she writes, “So when someone starts reading your article, you have just a few seconds to draw her in and convince her to keep going." That principle applies to any type of writing.

If you are in the business of helping others write their life stories, or would like to be, you can't beat this list by Dan Curtis.  

100 Resources for Writers 
Emily Suess's list includes writing prompts, networking, and blogging.

National Public Radio audio interview of Marion Roach Smith, an NPR contributor and author of The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life. To hear her interview, stay with the NPR audio link as it takes a while for her part to begin.

Ian Kath shows how to “record, edit and publish an audio life story of someone.”

By Kimberly Powell at You may also want to subscribe to her free newsletter.

Excellent tips to get you started right by Linda Joy Myers, founder of National Association of Memoir Writers.

Bobbie Christmas through her Zebra Communications offers the reports on topics including creativity, manuscript format, finding a publisher, and showing rather than telling.

Memory Joggers
MemoryList Question Book by Denis Ledoux, founder of Soleil Lifestory Network.

A History of Me by David L. Burton, University of Missouri Extension, Greene County.

Oral History Interview, Questions and Topics at

Writer Beware
Free newsletter on “Warnings About the Schemes, Scams, and Pitfalls That Threaten Writers.” Don't be put off by the science fiction relationship at this site. The newsletter covers all genres.

I stop.

Photo courtesy Niklas Nordblad.

What is your favorite website of tips for writers?

How Helpful is the Internet in Researching Your Book?

World Wide Web prefix
At a table during a weekend for writers to showcase their books, I sat next to a woman who wrote romance novels.

“How do you research for your novels?” I asked.

“Research? I don’t do research. That’s why I write novels.”

Whether fiction or nonfiction, if your book is set in New York City, Wyoming, The Texas Panhandle, or Miami (Miami is in Florida, isn’t it? Or is that Miami, Missouri?) you need to research. If your book takes place on a steamship you will need to research differently than if it takes place in the desert.

Some of your research can be on the Internet, the all-things-to-all-people, global interconnection of computer networks that includes email and the World Wide Web (WWW or Web). The Web is an easy resource to use. Just type a few key words into your browser’s search field from an Internet-connected computer anywhere in the world and more information than you can use pops up. Be on your guard, though, since anyone can put anything onto the Web. Consider starting your research on the Web and then verifying by going to original sources including other sites and books at the library. Careful does it when you find the exact wording on your research topic among several Web sites, a sure sign someone has copied the material; you won’t know how many degrees of separation.

S. J. Stewart is the author of eight western novels with a ninth to be released next month. Her books include Gambler’s Instinct  and Outlaw Stronghold. She uses a traditional setting for her books, which her publisher describes as locations west of the Mississippi River in the period between 1860 and 1890. Besides using the Internet for research, she keeps a map handy and has a large collection of reference books.

“My books include Southwestern history, Civil War history, plant life, animal life, the diaries of real persons who lived during historical times, a dictionary of the American West, and an encyclopedia of the American West. I also have a large illustrated book about saloons, one on shady ladies, an illustrated book that is an authority on the clothes worn by different types at different time periods, and a book on cowboy slang. You can’t learn too much.”

Linda Austin was born and raised in the United States; her mother, Yaeko Sugama-Weldon, is a native of Japan. Linda wrote the memoir, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, with and about her mother who lived through a WWII bombing of her village. The memoir reveals the horrors of war through the eyes of a civilian and celebrates Japanese family life. Linda’s research beyond interviewing her mother makes Yaeko’s stories more realistic and powerful on the page.

“I had to research WWII history and what was going on in Japan during the War. I read books and searched online. If I could not verify something I either left it out or stated it as an opinion or personal belief. I had a Japanese gentleman and his wife who are close in age to my mother review the book for details of the Japanese culture of that time.”

Amanda J. Barke is a prolific article writer and author of A Distant Rumble and The Sleepy Little Sun. She says to double check online resources as the Internet can be unreliable. She goes to the original source.

"If I am researching bankruptcy law, I am not going to take the opinion of a consumer and use it as a source for my article. I will go directly to an official website for bankruptcy law." She also uses multiple search engines to widen her results and says subsequent pages of search results can yield important information not on the first page.

Researching online can be time consuming, but eventually has to end, she says.

"At some point you must begin writing."

A library tutorial at the University of California Berkeley declares, “there is a lot of great material on the Web—primary sources, specialized directories and databases, statistical information, educational sites on many levels, policy, opinion of all kinds, and so much more—and tools for finding it are steadily improving.” However, the tutorial recommends searching the Web with “peripheral vision.”

Cornell University Library lists accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency, and coverage as criteria for evaluating information on the Web and walks you through the who, what, where, when, why, and how of those criteria.

Wendy Boswell of has a basic checklist. recommends the CARS checklist: Credibility, Accuracy, Reasonableness, and Support.

How did I find the information for this post? I’m blessed that S. J. Stewart, Linda Austin, and Amanda Barke are my writing friends and I asked them. The rest is a combination of the writer in me and searching the Web.

How has researching on the Web been useful to you? What frustrates you about researching on the Web?

Photo courtesy Creative Commons.

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack: You Can Write Your Family History

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack
Book Review: You Can Write Your Family History
Sharon DeBartolo Carmack
Betterway Books, 2003
Paperback, 245 pages with bibliography, appendices, and index

This book is in my Reading Guide at

“Being a ‘writer’ is really a frame of mind,” Carmack writes. “Sure, some of it has to do with talent or learned skills, but if you think you’re not a writer, than you won’t be one. I believe practically everyone has the potential to write a family history.”

She turns her extensive experience as an author, instructor, speaker, and business owner into a no-nonsense, uncomplicated, system to writing your family history. It’s much like baking cake—follow the recipe and you’ll get a cake. Follow her recipe and you will get a family history manuscript you will be pleased with and proud to share with family and friends. She also shows how to turn your manuscript into a book.

Carmack writes in a style that is easily grasped by professionals and newbies, and skillfully and passionately covers all the bases. She is especially strong for two major aspects of the process: creative nonfiction and what she categorizes as the four key parts of your story. Creative nonfiction uses techniques of fiction writing to tell a good story: scenes and summaries that reveal character, drama, emotion, and meaning while staying true to the facts.

Scenes and story parts
“Scenes allow your readers to feel like eyewitnesses to the events you describe,” writes Carmack. “Summaries, on the other hand, simply tell the reader what happened in a way that moves the story along in time more quickly.”

The four key parts of your story are “a primary focus on people, a strong beginning, a ‘keep ‘em reading’ middle, and a powerful ending.” These will fall into place quite comfortably if you have done your planning and research.

“You will make the whole process of writing your family history easier and give yourself a better night’s sleep if you think through the family history you want to write before you begin writing, then tackle it one step at a time.”

Before starting to write, Carmack suggests you:
  1. Pick the type of family history you want to write: reference genealogy, narrative, memoir, edited letters and diaries, biography, or fiction based on truth.
  2. Define the scope and structure of your project; which generations and which groups.
  3. Prepare family group sheets and transform the data into family summaries.
  4. Look for the plot.
  5. Develop a thematic chronology of localities and time periods.
  6. Revisit genealogical sources.
  7. Search social history sources for relevant details to flesh-out your narrative; proper citation is a must.
Stories jump off the page
Now, you have the foundation from which to make your ancestors come to life as real persons in real settings with real conflicts. The stories of your family, not just their genealogy, will jump off the page with “suspense, humor, and romance.”

Her final two chapters are a mini-course in publishing your manuscript. She covers copy editing, proofreading, copyright, obtaining permissions, print-on-demand, distribution, promotion, commercial publishing, dealing with an agent, and contracts. Resources in the chapters direct you to more helps as does a separate bibliography.

Three appendices are special bonuses: an example of a family narrative and of reverse chronology structure, both with footnotes to illustrate proper citations; and a list of writing courses, contests, organizations, and conferences.

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is a certified genealogist and a partner in the research firm of Warren, Carmack & Associates. She is author of sixteen genealogical guidebooks and family histories, including You Can Write Your Family History.

Photo courtesy Sharon DeBartolo Carmack.

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