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Guide to Writing and Publishing Your Life Story
Writing Your Life Story
Now is the time to start writing your life story. Here are some tips on starting, finding and keeping track of story ideas, and getting those ideas on paper. If you write a story a week for the next few months, you could have a book of stories to publish and distribute to friends and family.
It’s Your Life Story
- Remember you are not writing an autobiography; you are telling stories of your life.
- You can tell the story you’ve lived – it’s yours to tell as you want.
- You don’t have to do what other writers have done.
- Make your story your own.
Keep Track of Your Ideas
- Keep an ongoing list of story ideas.
- Write down every idea that comes to mind.
- This is the brainstorming stage.
- Make a quick note when a story idea comes to you. Write it down or send yourself an email, anything so that idea is not lost.
- Find a method that works for you to not lose ideas that come to you.
- When writing a story, write first, don’t stop to think. Just write as fast as the story flows.
- The key is not to break the stream of thought as you write.
- You can always fix typos later.
- If you can “tell” a story easier than you can write it, consider dictating and recording it. You could record it and then play the recording back as you type it.
- You could use one of the phone apps that translates speech into text. The apps get some words wrong, don’t stop talking to fix; just fix them as you clean up the story later in your word processor.
- If all that comes to mind is a paragraph or two, write it down and keep it. It’s likely you’ll use it later.
- Write your stories in the order of easiest first – the sections or chapters you are most comfortable with first.
- Once you have a handful of stories written, you will be in the swing of it and more stories will come to you.
- Leave putting your stories in order for later after you have a good number of stories written.
- You’ll have a “feel” for the format of your book then. Organizing and formatting will come easier.
Ways to Tell Your Story
Getting started is the hardest part. Every story you write will help the next story come easier to mind. Here are some ideas on getting started and deciding what stories to include.
What Order to Write Stories
- When you start writing your stories, do the interesting, fun ones first.
- It ’s easier to get started on stories that come to mind quickly and don’t require research to write.
- Once you have a few stories under your belt, more stories will come to you.
- Having a good start with some finished stories is motivation to continue to write.
- Gradually build a list of the stories you plan to write or that you believe should be included.
- As you see how stories are coming to you, start thinking about what you might want to include.
The “Whole Story” or “Periods of Your Life”
- The “Whole Story” would include:
- Family details and your early years.
- Schooling. Advanced education.
- Marriage and children.
- A “Period of Your life.”
- Choose a time period of your life that interests you or that you feel others would be interested in. For example:
- Commercial Salmon Seining, stories from ten years of Alaska fishing.
- Ridge Walkin’ in Alaska, stories of family hikes in Alaska. This is second of series; his first book covered his cats and dogs.
- Alaska Cruise 1909, stories covering a train trip to Seattle, cruise ship to Alaska, and return.
- A Sailor’s Life in World War II, a young man’s stories as a Navy pilot.
- Choose a time period of your life that interests you or that you feel others would be interested in. For example:
- There is no right or wrong way to write your life stories.
- Any logical, consistent approach is fine.
- If you write about a period of your life, you can always take up another period of your life and do a series of stories about that time period.
Stories You’ve Already Written
- Where to look for stories you’ve already written.
- Do you have copies of letters you’ve written?
- Maybe family members or friends kept your old letter.
- Check your email sent box. Do you have a friend you email regularly and tell stories to?
- Did you keep a journal as a child? Or maybe write your activities on a calendar?
- Anything you’ve written in the past is fodder for today.
- Take a story you wrote long ago and update it.
- Use an idea from an old letter as a prompt.
- Things friends and family wrote you can provide a timely reference.
- Get a quote to use in the story you write today.
- Find reminders of things you did together to write about.
Where to Get Ideas
- From others’ stories you hear told.
- From biographies you’ve read.
- From your photo album.
- Gifts from friends and family can be reminders.
- Ask friends and family what stories mattered to them.
Important Information to Record
- This need not be part of your stories but consider recording it for future generations.
- Background on family, ancestors’ details.
- Basic information on descendants.
- Places you lived.
- Genealogical details that would help future researchers.
Family Members and Friends Who Are No Longer with Us
- Recording memories of those who have passed on has great value to your family.
- You likely met and knew relatives who your children never met.
- Consider some stories about them and your memories of them.
- How did knowing them change your life?
- What achievements did they enjoy, what disappointments?
- What talents did they have: music, art, writing, sports?
- Do you see these talents in the next generations?
- What family traits do you remember?
- Create a memorial book with memories to share and preserve.
- Words spoken at a memorial service.
- Sympathy letters.
- Emails or letters you’ve kept.
Your History in Photographs
Your photographs provide both writing prompts and illustrations for your stories. Your existing photo albums as well as photos you take today will add to your story’s appeal.
Photographs provide a visual story
- Keep your old photographs even if you can’t identify the individuals.
- You never know when someone else might provide an identification.
- Keep taking photographs.
- No one ever says, “I wish I did not take so many pictures.” They regret the images that were lost.
Take care of your photographs
- Be sure prints are stored in a safe and dry location.
- Keep at least one backup of digital images.
- It’s best if you keep a second backup of digital images at another location.
Identify people and pets in your photographs
Don’t write so hard on the back that impressions show through.
- Consult with others so that you can get as many people and locations identified as possible.
- Make it a habit to identify those in photographs you are taking now.
Think of friends and family who might like copies of your images
- Consider getting prints made to share with family and friends.
- Use a scanning service to create digital copies of your photographs.
- It’s an easy way to share the images with everyone in a way the younger generation is likely to keep them.
- The digital images will be easy to include in your life story book.
- I’ve had good results from https://www.scancafe.com/
Review for story ideas
- Review your photographs for your life story ideas.
- Look for photographs of family members that you could write about – grandparents or aunts and uncles that your children may have never met.
Use digital images in your stories
- If you’ve scanned your images or have digital images, they are ready to import into your story.
- Resolution: If you are scanning your images yourself, remember higher resolution is best.
- You can always reduce resolution later but not increase without loss of quality.
- Digital images need to be at least 300 dpi (dots per inch) to print.
- If you enlarge a 2” x 2” 300dpi image to 4” x 4” the dpi drops in half to 150.
- The higher the dpi in the original, the more room you have to enlarge the image.
- There are “tricks” to increase the dpi. They help but are not a perfect solution to lost dpi. Try to avoid needing this.
Keep the original digital images or scans of prints safe
- Do not edit your original images.
- To use a digital image in your books, create a copy and use the copy. You can then crop or edit the copy to fit your needs in the book.
- Keep your original untouched.
- If you crop an image and save it, what you cropped out is likely gone forever.
- Every time you open a jpg image file and save it again, you lose some quality.
Presenting Your Stories
You can tell your story in straight chronological order from the start or you can choose to just write about a major event in your life. Consider just choosing to write about a time period when you did something unique. There are many ways to present your story.
Your Story in Chronological Order
- Start with an outline of major life events:
- Birth, early years, schooling, advanced education, marriage, children, retirement years.
- Write stories that tell some of your experiences during each portion of your life.
Your Story in Objects
- Read the BBC article and watch the British Museum presentation “A History of the World in 100 Objects.”
- Used objects starting from an Egyptian mummy from 200-330 BC to a solar-powered lamp in 2010 to illustrate and explain human history.
- Identify objects and family heirlooms that represent times of your life.
- Find objects that represent all periods of your life that you want to write about.
- Save images of objects or take photos of objects.
- The goal is to have an image of every object that represents a period of your life.
- Write a story about each of the images.
- Tell how the image represents that period of your life.
- How did you interact with the object?
- Was it a comfort to you?
- Did seeing it encourage you to try harder?
- Where is the object now?
- Did you give it away?
- Save it in a closet?
- Is it lost?
- Do you have it on display in your house?
Tell Your Life Story in Images
- Draw an illustrated map.
- Read https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/26/travel/how-to-make-an-illustrated-map-in-8-steps.html
- Make a map of your neighborhood, a favorite hiking trail, your best fishing hole, or somewhere you’ve spent a portion of your life.
- Pick some landmarks or spots that are important to you and add to your map.
- Caption or title the items so as to tell a story of your interactions with the location.
- Write a story that captures your favorite memory of the location.
- Create a photo story from family videos or images.
- Play the video on your computer.
- Use a screen clipper to capture and save the images.
- Create a photo story:
- Launch your word processor.
- Title your story.
- Insert an image.
- Caption the image.
- Insert the next image.
- Caption the image.
- Repeat to end of story.
- A video of a birthday party could be the basis of a photo story.
- Start with an image of the birthday person.
- Show guests arriving with images of guests as they arrived or sitting around the table or room. Capture each with the guests’ name, relationship and other details.
- Show the birthday person as they opened presents.
- Include an image of the birthday cake.
- Show the candles being blown out.
- Add some images of the birthday person playing with some of their presents.
- Combine photographs and images taken from videos.
- You can use any collections of images to build a story through pictures and captions.
- If a critical picture is missing, it might be possible to stage it, use a photograph of the room or create a drawing to fill the hole.
- Reedsyblog post in August 2020 gives many examples of memoir formats.
Prompt for Your Dream Team
Listing those people who helped you get to where you are today gives you a brainstorming tool for story prompts. The list can bring people to mind you may want to thank for their assistance. MovingUp is a website that gives you a few quick prompts – about the family, friends, influences, places, work colleagues and other sources of inspiration that made your life possible and aids you in constructing the list.
- Start by watching Bob McKinnon TedTalk.
- Read more about dream teams at MovingUp.
- Fill in the Dream Team form.
- Online at https://movingupusa.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/GaleWill_DreamTeam_Worksheet_V4-final.pdf
- Learning your Dream Team may help you identify important stories you want to write. It will certainly note the people and events who influenced who you became and bring them back to your memories.
Add Life to Your Stories
Description, dialogue and quotes add to your reader's enjoyment.
Use your words to paint mental pictures
- Physical appearance, height, hair and eye color, distinguishing marks.
- Activities you both participated in.
- What’s memorable about the person and time you spent with them?
- Quotes from their speech, letters or emails.
- Country or State.
- Landscape or City scape.
- What is the location is known for?
- What’s your memory of being there?
- Who was with you when you were there?
- Drive, fly or travel by train.
- Bike, walk or hike.
- Stay in a hotel or camp out.
- Most interesting or unique restaurants.
Dialogue adds dimension
- Create dialogue from conversations you remember.
- Talk to friends or relatives who were part of a story and see what they have to say today that you could quote in your story.
Finding quotes to include
- Review letters and emails for exact quotes.
- Remember that emails are usually written quickly without much attention to spelling and grammar. Fix when quoting unless the spelling or phrasing is typical of the person writing.
- Check your text messages.
- Ask family or friends what they remember about what occurred in your story. They may have an interesting twist you could add.
Tips for adding dialogue
- Dialogue should serve a purpose in your story.
- Reveal something about the person speaking.
- Pass information and/or instigate action in the story.
- Look for ways to create images while using the dialogue tag “said.”
- Instead of “‘I’m hurt,’ he cried.” try showing that the boy is crying. “‘I’m hurt,’ he said as tears pooled in his eyes and he held up his scratched arm.”
- Use body language or action along with quotes to show feelings.
- “I’m tired, let’s rest some,” John panted as he leaned against the gate.
- Remember or notice the speech patterns of those in your stories. What are some expressions they use regularly? Do they normally say “ain’t?” Use ain’t when quoting them then. This helps give each person a unique voice.
- Be both accurate and consistent in preserving each person’s unique voice.
- When appropriate, explain a person’s unique voice. Perhaps they grew up in the southern states where many people say “y’all.” Or did they learn a foreign language as a child and still use some of those words or phrases?
- Be sure the quotes you create are age and use appropriate. A person would speak differently as a child. A child would speak differently when speaking to another child as when speaking to an adult.
- After you’ve written dialogue, read it out loud. Does it sound natural?
- Let the quotes tell the story. Generally, avoid using dialogue tags similar to angrily, harshly, happily or grimly.
- Keep your use of dialogue brief and important. Avoid dialogue that does not convey information. Greetings are best left out unless there is a significant reason to include them.
- “Hello, how are you?” Mary said.
- “Fine, thank you.” John replied.
Create your own dialogue with yourself
- Add dialogue to your story with your thoughts or statements to yourself.
- I’ll never do that again! I said to myself.
- I miss the time I used to spend with Tom when he lived in Alaska, I thought when I got his letter.
A few rules for adding dialogue or quotes
- Use double quotes to enclose spoken words or quotes.
- Dialogue tags are outside the quotes and punctuation should be within the quotes.
- Karen said, “It’s a spring day.”
- “It’s a spring day,” Karen said, “and it’s finally sunny.”
- Use single quotes to enclose quoted materials within a quote.
- John said, “Karen said, ‘It’s a spring day.’” (Use a single quote followed by a double quote at end.)
- Remember quotes always come in pairs.
- Start a new paragraph with each new speaker.
- If the dialogue tag appears in the middle of sentence, use lower case after the tag.
- “It’s a spring day;” Karen said, “it’s the first sunny day.”
- Use em dashes (appears as a long hyphen) to indicate interruption of speech. Some word processors can be programmed to replace two hyphens with an em dash.
- Karen said, “It’s a sunny – ”
“It’s sunny because it’s spring,” Frank interrupted.
- Karen said, “It’s a sunny – ”
- Use ellipses … to indicate trailing off dialogue. Just three periods. If you add a fourth, it indicates the end of a sentence.
- When quoting a speech or presentation of more than one paragraph, each paragraph should start with an opening quote mark but only the final paragraph should have a closing quote mark.
Options formating internal dialogue
- There are a number of ways to format internal dialogue.
- Using quote marks along with dialogue tags as for spoken words.
- Use only dialogue tags
- Use italics.
- Learn more about formating at these websites.
- The Editor's Blog offers more tips on Inner Dialogue—Writing Character Thoughts.
- MasterClass describes many format methods for Character's Thoughts in Your Story. (Scroll down to find.)
- The most important rule: whatever format you choose, be consistent throughout your stories.
Engage Your Reader's Senses
Make the people and locations in your stories real to your readers.
Bring the Reader Along in Your Story, but . . .
Show, don’t tell
- Search for “show don’t tell” to find many sites and blogs discussing it.
- “Show, don’t tell is a writing technique in which story and characters are related through sensory details and actions rather than exposition. It fosters a style of writing that’s more immersive for the reader, allowing them to ‘be in the room’ with the characters. In his most commonly repeated quote, Chekhov said, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.’” (https://blog.reedsy.com/show-dont-tell/#show-dont-tell-a-quick-definition).
RUE is shorthand for Resist the Urge to Explain
- Search for “resist the urge to explain” to find many sites and blogs discussing it.
- Don’t tell the reader what they have already figured out. Some examples:
- The moonlight glinted on the water’s surface. It was night and the moon was shining.
- I walked through the red and golden leaves on the forest floor and watched as leaves dropped in the wind. It was fall.
- “I’m very sorry,” Mary apologized.
Reader's Senses — Help Them Feel Like They Are There
First, the usual ones: sight and sound
- What did you see?
- If you were outside, was it night or day? Sunny or rainy? Strong winds?
- Were you close to the action or observing from a distance?
- Do you remember the colors of the trees or balloons that were released?
- What colors were the decorations?
- What did you hear?
- Was there conversation, background music or other noises?
- Can you include some of the conversation in your story?
- Do you remember interesting statements someone made? Include them in your story as dialogue.
- Did someone say something that illustrates interesting elements of their character? Explain how.
Think then of the other physical senses: smell, touch or feel, size, temperature
- Were smells associated with your story? Describe them and what they reminded you of.
- Smoke from the campfire.
- Roasting meat on the grill.
- Hospital or dental office smells.
- Perfume. Was a person you are writing about known for always wearing a certain perfume or after shave? Does that smell still remind you of them?
- Did you physically touch or feel a person, animal or object? What was it like?
- Did the person have strong muscles? Were they comforted by touch?
- Did the dog have long silky hair or short spiky hair?
- Was the decorative rock unusually large or heavy?
- Was the fabric soft and smooth or rough and scratchy?
- Hot, cold or lukewarm?
- Was it a hot or cold day? How did the temperature influence what happened?
- Did the food burn your tongue? Was it very spicy with lots of chilies?
- Was there sweat in your eyes?
Remember the emotional senses: happiness, joy, fear, astonishment, sadness, loneliness, acceptance, resignation
- Was it a happy, joyful experience?
- Quote some expressions others used to express their happiness. Write as dialogue if appropriate.
- Was this occasion one you had been looking forward to such as the birth of a baby or graduation? Expected or a surprise?
- Was it a frightening experience?
- Describe the fear you felt.
- Explain how you dealt with your fear, it might help others deal with fear.
- Did someone around you have trouble dealing with their fear? What helped calm them down?
- Was it a sad experience? Do you miss someone still? Are you reconciled or resigned? Was someone injured?
- How did you face times of sadness? Can you share some examples?
- How do you remember someone you lost?
- What were your feelings when you were assisting the injured person?
When sharing your emotional responses, think how your story can help others
- Often people don’t listen to advice, but when they read a story, they absorb how others carried on and apply that example to their lives. They can adopt the methods used by the author without realizing they received advice.
Share many of the senses you experienced or felt in your story
- This makes your story real to the reader.
- Thinking of these things also helps you return to the time and remember more details.
- But remember RUE!
Starting to Organize Your Stories
After you have four, five, or more stories written, it’s time to evaluate where you are in the process and mark the way forward.
Evaluate what you have written
- Make a list of your stories including:
- Date period covered.
- General topic such as, family, friends, objects, or activity.
- Evaluate what you have written and see if there is a pattern.
- Are you on the way to writing stories in chronological order?
- Are your stories concentrated in one period of your life?
- Are most of the stories based around objects or photographs?
- Consider what you most enjoyed writing.
- What stories came so easily they almost seemed to write themselves?
- Which did you find most rewarding to write?
- If you’ve shared stories with others, think about the reactions you received.
- Now consider how you’d like to finish up your (first) book.
- First because there is no reason not to write a second after you print this book.
- Alternatively, you could use the collection of stories written in this class as a section of a larger book. The next section could cover a different period of your life or be organized differently.
Make a plan
- When you have settled on the organization method for this set of stories, it’s time to make an outline for finishing.
- Have you settled on chronological order?
- What major time periods are missing?
- Add those periods to your list with a box to check off as you write about them.
- Going to just write about a single portion or period of your life?
- Write an introduction to your stories identifying the period (college, child rearing, your trip to Antarctica, your Mt. Everest climb) and explain your choice of that period.
- Go through your list of written stories again.
- Identify and add to the list any stories needed to fill out what happened during that event or those years.
- Are your stories based on objects or photographs that signify life periods?
- Identify the periods that you want to include and be sure all periods are on your list. Add any that are missing.
- Find objects for symbols of those periods.
- Find or take photos of those objects.
- Write an introduction explaining your choice of objects or photographs and how they tell the story.
Start writing and checking off boxes for completed stories
Getting Your Stories Ready to Publish
First steps are cleaning up the formatting of your files. If you've written your stories using Word®, there are instructions for formatting here.
Publishing Your Stories
Check back. We'll be adding a page with publishing tips.
Questions or comments? Email us for answers.