The global pandemic that killed thousands. The deliberate murder of a black man by a police officer in America. This is 2020, and this is now, but historians in 50, or 100 years will need first-hand experience and eyewitness accounts to understand the impact of these terrible events on real people — people like you and me and our families. It may be deeply personal but it will also be tomorrow’s authentic and valuable social history.
The tragedies we have witnessed in the past weeks and months might already be prompting memories of experiences and frustrations, missing loved ones and past lives lived. Maybe people and events you haven’t reflected on for years have bubbled to the surface. Telling your truth can be a helpful way to process those thoughts and validate your feelings.
I’m a journalist and freelance writer, and when I worked for a local newspaper I spent much of my time interviewing people on my patch and telling their stories. Occasionally I had the opportunity to write a detailed account. Even back then I knew I could never be a fiction writer because to me real people’s lives are more fascinating than anything I could invent.
Writing about yourself and your family is exactly that territory. Real people, real events, in a specific period of past time. I told it like it was for me, as a child in London during the 1960s and for my mother, adopted as a newborn in 1930, following a tragedy that robbed us both of a significant part of our history. It turned into a book.
I did it and you can too. There are so many more books, crying out to be written and read on the impact of 2020’s multiple tragedies.
As mentioned, I wrote for a newspaper where much of the time I had to write as briefly as possible. There was always a limit on space. Writing a book requires much more detail than I was used to writing. Frankly, I doubted my ability to be able to produce a sustained piece of writing, comprising upwards of 200 pages and to make it so interesting that people would want to read to the end. Maybe, if you’ve read this far, you are wondering how you could do that too. I’m here to tell you, don’t count, don’t worry about the number of pages and how you will achieve it because once you make a start, the ideas and the words will flow and the pages will mount up without you noticing.
There is no right or wrong way to approach this. There is only the right way for you but the following ideas, based on ‘who, what, where and how,’ might give you a way in.
Who are you writing this for?
There are some choices here. Write for a specific audience, comprising just your family and your circle of contacts. Or self-publish your story and release it globally. I chose to write for myself and decided on a wider audience once my material took shape.
Who are you writing about?
Start with yourself. You are part of your family’s larger story. Future generations will want to know how you lived and learn about the challenges you faced. Readers want to connect on an emotional level with characters and be drawn into their world. As writers we want our readers to feel something, to identify with the situations and issues, not just be reading an account of the facts.
Who is telling the story?
If you are the narrator, you will be writing in the first person and then using the third person when talking about your family members. Or you could let a family member tell their own story. Where are the grown-ups? is part-lived experience and part social history. In some parts of the story I am the narrator and writing in the first person. In the parts of the story that are outside my direct experience but based on research, I am writing in the third person but with my knowledge of events I am expressing the feelings and thoughts of the characters in the story.
What is your story?
If you’ve chosen your principal characters you need to decide what their story is about? You will need to show development of your characters through the story — their triumphs, failures, their relationships, losses, the personal conflicts they experienced, and the resolution they found. The overall story may give you a bigger theme.
Investigating and immersing yourself in the emotional truth behind the facts may suggest a wider theme, but this may emerge as the writing progresses.
It wasn’t until I’d completed the first draft of Where are the grown-ups? that I could articulate what my book was really about. My principal characters are myself, my mother Sylvia and my grandmother Rose and my story explores the impact of a domestic tragedy on three generations of a Jewish family.
I didn’t know if it would interest a wider audience than my family and friends. At some stage it’s a good idea to seek feedback on your work from an objective group of fellow writers. You will know from their response if your story has a universal quality that may appeal to a larger community of readers. It’s best not to ask friends and family as they are inclined to tell you your work is brilliant when you need constructive criticism in the first draft stage.
Where is your story?
Are you involved in a Black Lives Matter protest in Washington? Did you lose a much loved family member,to COVID 19 in a hospital or care home? Were you a frontline worker in ICU? Are you calling out acts of racism you suffered as a student on a forum and compelling your university to investigate and take action against those accused? Perhaps you’ve lost your job and are concerned with how you will find another. Or are you still caught up in a lockdown, far from your home country, due to travel restrictions?
How will you tell your story?
To bring your experience alive, use what you know to create scenes and dialogue that show you and your characters living and breathing in their own time.
You will have much more factual information than you need to use. Be selective as not all of it will contribute to the story as a whole, but you need to have done the research to be able to immerse yourself in that world and write about it convincingly.
Focus on life-changing events, the turning points that shaped who you are and give readers a straight route to the emotional heart of your story.
Create some intrigue by starting at a point of interest and not telling the story in strict chronological order. You can go back and forth in time and take your reader with you if you make it clear in the writing.
Finally, I’d like to suggest some writing exercises to prompt memory and give you a place to start.
Think about three significant episodes in your own life and write down your feelings at the time. Looking back at our own experiences from a distance is a helpful way to give them meaning and insight and gives your writing authenticity.
Thinking about those three significant events in your life that shaped you as a person. What were the news headlines at those times?
Now draft those three scenes, give them some subtle historical context and include some dialogue between you and another character.
Think about the geography of your childhood home and in your mind walk through each room and write down what you see. Look at the furniture, textures, material, colours and objects. When you recall an object that means something to you, focus on that and tell the reader what you know. Which room is it in? Is it visible or inside a cupboard or a drawer? Can you pick it up or is it too big? Explain its significance to you. Is it something you still have?
Looking back at your childhood, write about one significant experience, as you remember it today.Then write the same scene, exactly as you experienced it as a child, in the present tense. What are you seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling as a child?
If you can work through some of these exercises you may have an early draft of several scenes that you can keep working on and refine. They might not appear in the final draft of your book but they will help you to start thinking like a writer with a story to tell.