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Researching Your Memoir: How to Mine the Material of Your Life
By Melinda Copp
Life is the raw material from which all writers work. Personal experiences and relationships with people often stir the urge to create and inspire the stories we put on the page. Whether you’re working on a memoir or a work of fiction based on your life experiences, the first place you will probably look for material is inside your mind, within your own memories.
But memories tend to blur and fade, making writing about your past difficult to do without research. Research can reveal details and eliminate inaccuracies that you may not remember correctly. Plus research helps you develop your material from a one-sided account into a multidimensional story so it resonates with people besides yourself and your family.
If you’re working on a memoir, or a story based on your life, consider looking in the following four places for information that will not only help shape your story, but also give it depth and dimension beyond what you can remember.
1. Personal Journals
As a kid, I was so worried that someone might find and read my journals that I often destroyed them. The thought of someone discovering my innermost feelings horrified me—after all, sixth grade can be pretty traumatizing. But now that I’m a writer struggling to know myself and my stories, there’s nothing I regret more than throwing my precious material into the garbage.
When assembling a memoir or other work based on your life, personal journals are often the most valuable resource you can have. So if you don’t already, start keeping a journal. Although you may not think you have anything significant to write about each day, just jotting down the date and a few notes about what you did will prove to be helpful for determining dates and timelines of events when you start writing your memoir.
If you have journals from your past, or even from your family members, you should haul them out of your attic and read them cover to cover. For writers, journals are like goldmines. They can help you recall events and your personal feelings and thoughts from that time in your life. A journal can even help you determine what your story is really about by revealing themes, potential story lines, and other important details about you and your life that you may not remember at first.
2. Photo Albums
Family photos are another invaluable resource for memoirists, so dig yours out and start looking. Photos help writers on several levels. First, they can help you remember people and events from your past. They can also be used to put faces with names, which can be used in descriptions. Photos can reveal personalities and clues about people and places that you may have forgotten or overlooked at the time.
For example, you might notice that your uncle isn’t smiling in any pictures. What does that tell you about his character? Is that consistent with your memories of him? You may also be able to mine valuable details about the locations where your life story unfolded, such as your childhood home, your backyard, or your college dorm. All these details will be captured in the backgrounds of your old photos.
Organizing photos can be a big job in itself and every person’s photo collections are likely in different states of order, so do your best to work with what you have and what’s applicable to your project. You may also have to contact family members and friends to put names with some of the faces and identify locations that appear in your collection of old photos.
3. Newspaper Archives
When researching family histories and personal stories, many writers look for obituaries and wedding announcements in their hometown newspapers. But newspaper archives can offer a writer much more than obits. If you’re looking for information about a specific event, newspaper archives are often the best place to look for a local perspective. And just leafing through the old pages—or microfilm reels—can stir old memories and ideas about your personal history.
You can use newspaper archives to help create accurate pictures of your life story’s setting by looking at what and who were making news at that time in your life. Clippings can jog memories of people and events that may have played a role in the story you want to write. Newspapers can even reveal interesting stories that deepen and expand your personal history.
Your hometown’s library should have a complete archive of the local newspaper, most likely preserved on microfilm or microfiche. The newspaper, if it’s still in operation, may also have a comprehensive archive. Many newspapers offer their archives online, but the available dates may be limited and the search functions may not be as extensive as you need. You may have to contact the newspaper for information about using their archives. If you no longer live in your hometown, consider visiting for research purposes because some newspaper archives aren’t available any other way.
4. Interview Family and Friends
Even though you may be writing your own life history, getting your friends’ and family members’ perspectives on the events you write about will help you create a story with more depth and breadth. It will help ensure the events you recreate on the page are accurate beyond your own memories, which tend to shift and blur over time. And your story will be less one-sided with insight from other people who witnessed the events of your life.
Start by talking to your family and friends about the events you’re writing about, and see what they remember. Parents and grandparents, as long as they’re still around and able, will be able to provide invaluable insight on events of the past. Even old friends and neighbors, if you can track them down, are great resources when you’re writing a personal or family history. They may even be able to refer other helpful people and resources, such as diaries or family photos that you may not have known about.
When you approach friends and family members for information, think like a reporter and create a list of questions to give your interviews some structure. Talk about what they remember, and cover everything from conversations that took place to weather that day. But let your interviewees go off on tangents that seem interesting or important. And make sure you take good notes or record your interviews so you can transcribe them later.
Telling Your Stories
Everyone is interesting, and everyone has a story to tell. But telling an interesting personal story means looking beyond your memory of what happened in your life and finding deeper meaning and different perspectives through research.
As you write your memoir or novel based on your life, search beyond what you remember and look for material that will round out your narrative beyond what parts stuck with you. Your research may reveal story lines, themes, and details that you may have overlooked. Research takes work, but the results will pay off with a story that resonates with larger audiences and reflects the events of your life with greater accuracy.
About the Author:
Melinda Copp is a writing coach, ghostwriter, and book editor who specializes in helping aspiring authors reach their writing goals. Visit her online at www.MelindaWrites.com.
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