There are many reasons why you should write a historical memoir. Let me share with you one story. My neighbor-turned-friend, Ed Kuehn, was born and raised in Ripon, Wisconsin. When we met, Ed was retired, enjoying his free time, and doing family research. He’d come across his grandfather’s house deed, from the early 1900s, and was investigating some names and landholdings.
I was a California transplant and had moved to rural Wisconsin because of my husband’s work. Once we settled in, I found a job as the director of the Green Lake Country Visitors Bureau (GLCVB), managing marketing, communications, and publications. This job taught me so much about Central Wisconsin.
During our weekly garden-themed talks, Ed told me he had written a book about his father’s side of the family, the Kuehn’s. About their history in Wisconsin, that spanned almost four generations. Being an avid reader, I was curious to see it and learn something about them, and central Wisconsin history, of which I knew very little. The booklet had lots of black and white photos, personal recollections, and extensive technical documentation on land transactions. I remember telling Ed that I liked it but that it felt a bit too technical and dry.
In going through the chapters and looking at some of the images, so many more questions came up. I wanted to know so much more. I knew the questions I had probably required more research, but I also knew that they were answerable too. And if I had these questions, so would other readers. I found myself continually telling Ed, “You should turn this into a family memoir.”
“Unintended” editing begins
From a developmental editing perspective, Ed’s manuscript was missing small details and additional local historical information needed to create ambiance, stronger settings, and context. The historical context was essential. How so? Because buying a car might seem like a normal, everyday thing. But buying a car during the Great Depression, with money saved up by the two youngest daughters in the family, well, that added a whole lot of meaning.
Though the manuscript was not a memoir at that point, as a reader, I could strongly relate to its themes:
His great-grandparents emigrated from Prussia to the Midwest. Mine emigrated from Italy to Argentina. Then my parents emigrated from Argentina to the U.S.
The fond memories of visiting our grandparents and discovering their houses, knowing the parts of the house that brought us joy
Grandma’s home-cooked meals (always the best!)
The smell of our grandparent’s house
The strange tools and artifacts we’d found at our grandfather’s workshops. How we wondered what they did with them, and if one day they would let us use them too
What’s more, Ed’s grandparent’s farm life—to sustain themselves financially and to produce enough meat and vegetables to feed the family—was in line with my passion for a sustainable lifestyle. Home cooking, do it yourself projects, and an abundant vegetable plot that could nourish my family.
At every turn of the page, there was always more information I wanted to know. I would jot down lots of little notes on the margins to ask him about later. I specifically recall a line that gave me pause. It referenced the insufficient land size his grandparents lived on:
“. . . assuming the area taken up by the buildings was approximately ¾ of an acre (home, barn, tool shed, stalls) that left only four acres of tillable land, hardly enough to grow crops and provide grazing land to support the amount of income-producing cattle a family this size (seven members) would have needed.”
What did he mean four acres of tillable land was not enough to support a family?
My city-girl ignorance revealed itself. As a reader, I was hooked, but I still wanted to know much more. I wanted to know what profession each of Grandpa Charly’s kids had gone into. Who stayed back in Ripon, and who left? Did Agnes really marry a man and then had to leave him? Was she happy? Was Grandpa Charly as chill and kind as Ed was portraying him to be? And Grandma Hulda, what a strong woman! What is that white fabric on the headrest of the chair? So many questions the manuscript still didn’t answer.
The Memoir Proposal
I nudged Ed to turn this into a longer, more thorough book, and open it up to a larger audience. If we both continued researching what was needed to fill in the gaps, I could help co-write it and fill in the missing pieces. What Ed’s manuscript needed at this point was a developmental edit.
The drive to learn more about that time in the Midwest (late 1800s-early 1900s) kept me fueled. This story was not going to be Lewis and Clark’s expedition to the West or Little House on the Prairie. But, it was going to be the immigration from Prussia of the Kuehn’s and Bandt’s, and their settling into Central Wisconsin in the late 1800s. A journey most of us know nothing about.
Ed’s motivation was different. His low-key grandparents’ story was the gateway to understanding his family. Writing his memoir made his grandparents’, parents’, and extended family lives tangible, real. It was a puzzle he wanted to solve and know more about. As an avid memoir reader, I was sure there were people like me, who would be curious and receptive to this historical past. Readers who would enjoy discovering more about the Midwest without having to follow ten different Wikipedia links. Readers like me, who didn’t have the time to dig up a four-hundred-page historical tome at the local library and sift through it to get to the “interesting bits.” Readers like me, who enjoyed learning about a different family’s story.
Ed’s grandparents were both the protagonists and the medium through which we could see the world, and learn about a period of time long gone.
Finding Rural Historical Resources
Through my job at the Visitor’s Bureau, I facilitated monthly meetings with twelve local historical societies. The purpose was to promote Heritage Tourism, a valuable niche group within the tourism industry. These contacts gave me access to research documents and photographic details more thoroughly, with qualified and knowledgeable individuals.
The more I got to know each historical society, and visit their museums and exhibits, the more I discovered about their areas, their people, their pasts. Information that opened up the world in which Ed’s Grandpa Charly and Grandma Hulda lived.
Through my visits and during my meetings, I came across hand-made dresses, beautiful hats, shoes, photographs, stereoscopes, kitchen utensils, and toys used during the 1800s. Every single piece effortlessly transported me back in time to the life of Ed’s grandparents.
Seeing these items (and touching them when allowed) let me visualize walking down Princeton’s Water Street in 1894. I imagined meeting those people, hearing conversations in German and English. Being part of that reality.
It was clear to me that Ed should share this information, and the discoveries he was making along the way, with other readers like him, and authors who are writing about their family’s legacy.
To Ed, it must have seemed like a never-ending journey (how long can you research your family history without getting tired?). In the end, we had a two-hundred, double spaced, solid manuscript with images that we liked. We told the story of Grandpa Charly through a series of vignettes and made sure each piece had a historical context it could fit into (to add a stronger value to each small event). We also looked for reliable sources of information we could triangulate and depend on. This research would give the book, the story, Ed, and myself, credibility.
The Sense of Accomplishment
In the end, Ed discovered that writing a historical family memoir isn’t easy, but that all the hard work is definitely worth it. There is nothing more rewarding when after three years of research and writing, you can articulate your concept to a stranger (like a librarian, or store owner, or other writers we meet along the way). You get to see how all those efforts came to life into something tangible, like a paperback book. (Ed’s testimonial about working with me is here.) And when you get a positive review on Amazon or Goodreads, well, your heart is over the moon.
In October of 2017, Stepping into Rural Wisconsin: Grandpa Charly’s Life Vignettes from Prussia to the Midwest became available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and international print on demand. Rural historian Jerry Apps (author of “Every Farm Tells a Story” and “Cold As Thunder”) gave us a kind and positive review, allowing us to use his words on the back cover.
Everybody Wants To Know Their Family’s Story
You should write a historical memoir to preserve your family’s legacy. Our descendants, at some point in their life, will want to know about their ancestors. What did they do? How did they live? Where did they live? Your work will also be helpful to other readers who don’t have a book about their family and will rely on yours to understand their own past better. And, lastly, your book can provide historical information that may be of value to the communities it mentions. That Ed and I could collaborate and make it possible for one rural Wisconsin family from the 1800s to come back to life, is an incredible, rewarding feeling.
Are you interested in writing, or have you written, a historical memoir? How was your experience similar or different? For ten tips on how to organize your family research, to turn it into a book, see this post.
Linda Ruggeri is a full-service editor and project manager based out of Los Angeles, fluent in English, Spanish, and Italian. She co-authored the historical memoir Stepping Into Rural Wisconsin: Grandpa Charly’s Life Vignettes from Prussia to the Midwest and she can be found online at The Insightful Editor and on Instagram, where she reviews books and posts tips for writers.
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