Feb 042016

Stories of the heart - heart specialists We all knew that I think that stories of the heart are the future of family history, but I have some good company. Steve Rockwood, CEO of FamilySearch International emphasized that in his opening keynote for Rootstech.

Serious genealogists made up the majority of the 12,000 in-person audience. (Estimates including online audience range up to 125,000.) “To get and keep non-genealogists’ attention,” Rockwell explained, “you have to focus on the person, not records.” He also emphasized that stories need to be short and meaningful–stories of the heart. Continue reading »

Feb 042016

Rootstech Innovator Showdown logoPart of the mission of Rootstech is to attract third party innovation to the pastime of genealogy. Today’s innovator summit served the dual purposes of helping innovators develop new products as well as to introduce recent innovations to the family history market. A big part of that introduction was the Innovator Showdown Semifinals.

Over 50 developers entered the competition for over $100,000 in prizes. The 12 semi-finalists presented their technology to a live audience.  On Friday, the final six compete for the grand prize.

How do the Innovator Showdown judges choose?

I asked FamilySearch’s Paul Nauta what parameters the judges would use. The benefit to genealogy as a hobby? The marketability of the product? Or is it their simple personal preference?

Paula answered that with a ‘yes.’ RootsTech assures all those aspects are considered by the backgrounds of their judges. There are judges from organizations like Family Search who could be expected to look at the value of the innovation to the pastime. Others are venture capitalists who look at things like marketability. They come from different backgrounds and demographics.

When RootsTech attendees get to vote at the showdown, another aspect is taken into account. The value of the app to the attendees personally. Even if you’re not at RootsTech, you can participate online and vote for the product you’d most like to see in the marketplace.

The innovator showdown will be lived streamed at Rootstech.org/showdown and online visitors can vote via text messages. (Friday, February 5 at 10:30 AM Mountain time.)

The Innovator Showdown Finalists

Ancestor Cloud developed by Wesly Eames is a “marketplace of family discovery.” See Ancestor Cloud’s submission.

JRNL, developed by Nick Jones, is a journaling app, built to “record life’s memorable moments as they happen.” See JRNL’s submission.

Studio (by Legacy Republic), developed by Michael Chang, is a portable album scanner that seeks to solve “America’s billion photo album problem” Read Studio’s submission.

Tap Genes, developed by Heather Holmes, offers “the convenience of keeping all your family health history in one safe and secure place.” Read Tap Genes’ submission.

The History Project, developed by Shanarae Goodwin, believes that “capturing our life stories shouldn’t be as fragmented and overwhelming as it is. Read The History Project’s submission.

Twile, developed by Paul Brooks, not only generates family timelines, but is “a secure place to record and share your family memories.” Read Twile’s submission.

Your Turn

As FamilySearch puts it, you can shape the future of Family History with your vote.” Tune into Rootstech.org/showdown and vote for your favorite innovation.


Feb 012016

Writing Your Family Story in your MemoirI was excited and honored to join Linda Joy Myers of the National Association of Memoir Writers to discuss how to writing your family story in your memoir on January 22, 2016. The initial airing was membership only, but Linda Joy has offered me an audio transcript for my readers. Continue reading »

Jan 282016
Innovator Showdown Semifinalists and showdown

2015’s Innovator Showdown, image courtesy of RootsTech

This time next week I’ll be in Salt Lake City, walking around with a giddy feeling in my stomach. Having looked forward to and prepared for RootsTech for it for months, I’ll be trying to absorb all the family history, storytelling, and technical insight I can.

A highlight of the RootsTech conference will be the Innovator Showdown. Family history innovators from all over the globe compete for $100,000 in cash and prizes. For attendees, it’s like watching a Shark Tank for family history technology. In other words, way cool and fun.

Currently, there are twelve Innovator Showdown Semifinalists. By Thursday, February 4, that field will be narrowed to six. At that point, conference attendees get a big say in who wins the grand prize and bragging rights. Continue reading »

Jan 252016
Plot of your family story in library

Looking for the plot of your family story?

Christopher Booker postulates that all stories encompass only seven plots. It’s interesting reading and makes me wonder if the same is true of family stories. If you had to choose, how would you describe the plot of your family story? (Hint: You don’t have to choose just one, plotlines are like roots—they love getting tangled up.)

As the number of ancestors grows exponentially, so do the plots. One line of the family might embody a completely different narrative than the other. And, rather than intertwining, those plots might have collided in an epic crash.

Why do I ask? Should you try to shoehorn your family’s past into a common boot?

Of course not. But… As you chase down individual stories in your family tree, often a larger story of the family comes to light. An identity. For those just getting to know it, explaining the overarching plot of your family story can frame your family’s history eloquently. Continue reading »

Jan 182016
how individual is your story Venn chart

Most of us are like human Venn charts. Our individuality is unassailable, yet our every action, our very circumstances, have a sphere of influence on those around us.

How individual is your story? Sounds like one of those “Eh?” questions. Your story is absolutely individual. Unique. No one else has felt it like you have. No one else can tell it like you can. It’s yours. But perhaps not only yours.

Most of us are like human Venn charts. Our individuality is unassailable, yet our every action, our very circumstances, have a sphere of influence on those around us.

It’s nothing new. John Donne’s “No Man Is an Island” expressed this eloquently back in the 17th century. The individuality of our personal story is at best a contradiction—perhaps even an illusion.

For argument’s sake, let’s take death, the ultimate individual event. We all face it alone. Yet, its aftermath is anything but. Think how many lives are affected by a loved one. And, when the death was untimely, violent, or it happened to a child, the waves of life-changing grief and horror grow exponentially.

The uttermost individual rite of passage can bring entire communities to their knees.

It works two ways. We impact others’ lives and they impact ours. We bump up against others as they journey, and that contact influences our own story. Sometimes in almost imperceptible ways. Other times the collision of bodies causes a life-changing alteration in our orbit.

How Individual is Your Story? What Freud Would Say

How individual is your story? No man is an island.Cue the Austrian accent, as Freud rubs his chin and repeats the question. “How individual is your story? Just look at what your mother did to you! “

In fact, that’s been the theme of more than a few memoirs. Despite that, many of us hesitate to include others in our stories. We gloss over the roles others played if those roles were anything but idyllic.

I’m not trying to start any family feuds. I recognize that writing about others is a personal and sensitive decision.

On the other hand, think hard before you ignore these corollary stories. Think of the power they might have for your readers. For instance, a sibling of the exact same circumstances that turned out quite differently than you can illuminate your choices. Resentment of a great aunt might actually be a story of protecting or advocating for someone else.

These are precious opportunities to connect with others. To share not just benchmarks and love stories, but stories of heartbreak and resilience. Stories that connect and resonate.

When you don’t tell your story—or leave out important parts, you do a disservice to that Venn chart that the rest of the world sees. You leave it without labels. You’ve given it no explanation. Others are left to make all sorts of assumptions about the person you are, not to mention the road you had to travel to get there.

A chart isn’t humanizing. A story is. Especially a story that isn’t pretty and perfect.

Your Turn:

How individual is your story? How individual do you want it to be?

Jan 112016
Attend RootsTech 2016 for free logo

Rootstech 2016 combines family history and storytelling.

It’s not hyperbole. Family history and storytelling will come together at RootsTech this February. RootsTech, the world’s largest genealogy conference, attracts thousands of professional and hobby family historians annually.

Family History and Storytelling

Continue reading »

Jan 082016
Happy New Year: Year End Letter

My wish for each of you …

Holidays make a great time to share stories. There’s no question about it. When we’re thinking of loved ones—or better yet spending time with them—stories connect us and express our bonds.

But it’s not just stories that we tell. There’s something about that calendar page turning over, the new digit on the end of the year, that makes us want to provide some sort of a recap. A snapshot in time. In fact, the chapter in my book about compiling a holiday or year end letter is titled “Easy Snapshots in Time.”

So, I should be able to pull together a “Happy New Year” letter, originally meant to be a Christmas letter. This year, I’m struggling with the concept. As people draw together, celebrate together, and look forward to the New Year, I want to be included in their thoughts. But I’m torn about whether or not their plunge into the New Year should include reading a litany of my family’s year. Perhaps I’d be better off just telling them a story that reflects us in a moment of time. Continue reading »

Dec 142015

innocence lost illustration Innocence lost is supposed to be a traditional coming of age story. An assuming the mantle of adulthood story. A stripping of the naïveté of childhood.

For most, that maturity takes place over time. Too often, though, it turns on a dime. Everything changes as the bubble of invincibility pops.

OK, our youthful idea of invincibility was a mirage. But the mirage lent us a feeling of security in an out-of-control world. We knew bad things, even terrible things, could happen. However, until the shoe dropped very close to our backdoor, we were able to view the possibility through a protective gauze of denial.

Once you’ve experienced it, other stories of innocence lost evoke a deep empathy. Watching the news, we realize the victims’ stories could so easily be our stories. We can imagine, with an unhealthy vividness, the phone calls that came in the night. Or didn’t get answered.

A Story of Innocence Lost

Just the other week, a soccer buddy told me her 9/11 story. (We all have them you know. See post Remember When — Exactly, Precisely When). This story touched me more than most. In 2001, she was a recent widow. She and her three children had already lost any feelings of invincibility. Cancer took the person they most loved and doctors were powerless to stop it. My buddy, then newly widowed mother, took her three children to Disney World to give them a break from grief and to make new memories.

As she told me the setting for her little family’s story of innocence lost, the music of her life cued in my head. A bizarre call and response between a requiem and It’s a Small World, eventually drowned out by other happy Disney music.

Coming out of a ride—she didn’t specify which, but my imagination has it pegged as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride—she and other park attendees were told to exit the park. They were stymied by the sudden announcement that the park was closing. As park workers herded them into waiting shuttle buses, the worst thing she could imagine for inexplicable closing was a bomb threat.

She and other parents started asking the bus drivers which other Orlando attractions were open. (The music in my head slows. Disney tunes now play at slow speed, overlapped with a dun dum, dun dum à la Jaws.)

How terrible it must have been for park employees. Watching happy families go back to their rooms, knowing what the TV screens would show them. In my buddy’s case, she did get a hint. “Nothing is open. There’s been a terrorist attack in New York.”

By the time she got to her hotel room, she didn’t get the slow experience of hearing of the planes hitting the towers one by one. She didn’t see footage of people escaping and first responders rushing in. The towers were gone. The world was different. It was a place without bubbles: not even Disney World was exempt.

Your Turn:

What’s your story of innocence lost? Why was the story so poignant? How is it like other stories of coming of age? How does it differ? Go ahead—Write it down!

Dec 092015
Typewriter writing someone else's story

What point of view will you use to tell someone else’s story?

It’s seems counter-intuitive, especially for a collection of memories, but telling someone else’s story is something we do all the time. Think about Christmas. Family stories. We tell stories that have been passed down over generations, even centuries.

We tell other people’s stories because their stories have had a bearing on our journey. They have touched us, informed us, or inspired us. And sadly, we often tell someone else’s story because they never got around to preserving it themselves. The audience becomes the storyteller.

Choosing a Point of View to Tell Someone Else’s Story

Point of view simply refers to what “voice” we use as we tell stories. We can choose between first person (such as “I went to the store,” or “We adopted a puppy.”) or third person (such as “She had her ninth baby in 1921.”).

Third person

Third person, the voice of a narrator, offers an intuitive choice for telling someone else’s story. You can take the voice of a bystander, removing yourself from the story. This allows the facts themselves to inform and teach. The reader can form his or her own conclusions. (After all, this is the voice of parables.)

Journalists prefer third person because it projects a lack of bias. Note the emphasis on projects. Make no mistake. You can still influence the reader through your word choices.

Third person works well for stories that have been passed down. You can let your audience read or hear the story the same way you heard it.

First person

Too often, we overlook opportunities to use first person to tell stories. We remember our English teacher in high school telling us that it’s too informal.

I beg to differ. First person offers a warmth and personality difficult to achieve in third person. By using first person, you insert yourself into the story or volunteer yourself to act as a filter for readers.

In his article, 25 Things You Should Know About Narrative Point-Of-View, Chuck Wendig points out that the choice between first and third person often determines the level of intimacy between the storyteller and readers. Third person, though objective, provides a small window through which readers can witness the story. First person, on the other hand, allows readers to experience the story along with you, the narrator.

Telling someone else’s story in first person makes a warm invitation into your family’s past.

Comparing First and Third Person

I’ve used both first and third person to tell my grandmother’s story. Compare the two narratives.

Third Person Narrative

Grandma Wilkinson’s mother died when she was six. After that point, because her father ‘elected not to raise her,’ Grandma grew up in a children’s home. She had no memories of her father—she could only remember his surname was Dunaway.

First Person Narrative

My Grandma Wilkinson’s mother died when she was six. After that point, she said, her father ‘elected not to raise her.’ Sadly, at the turn of the century—this would have been 1902—it wasn’t unusual for a father to drop a child or children off at an orphanage if they weren’t able, or willing, to raise them. This, grandma said, is what happened to her.

Late in her life, due to what her doctors called arterial sclerosis, Grandma repeated herself often. This is one of the stories she’d retell. I can remember it, plain as if it were yesterday. Grandma in “her” chair, mom on the sofa and me in the floor. Grandma pulling a tissue out of her bra—that’s where she kept them—dabbing her eyes and struggling to remember. “Dunaway,” she’d say through her tears. “I think my father’s last name was Dunaway.” It was heart-wrenching to watch.

Not only was there no genealogist in the family—there were no memories. There was no knowledge of her relatives.

A void.

Your Turn

You choose. Which point of view will you use for your next story?