PROVO — Most people would agree that Dan Brown's "The DaVinci Code" is a page-turner of a book.

And the goal of anyone writing a personal history — although not fiction — should be to make it as interesting and riveting as possible, according to Dawn Parrett Thurston, an author, lecturer and life story writing teacher who was a presenter at the recent Campus Education Week at Brigham Young University.

"Have you ever read a personal history that's a page-turner?" she asked audience members, who laughed at the question.

"The goal (of writing a personal history) is so that readers will know what it's like to walk in our shoes," said Thurston, whose topic was "How to Write a Page Turner — Giving It Some Pizzazz."

And our shoes don't have to be boring, she added.

She said there's an interesting way you can tell stories: Don't telegraph the ending and don't worry about your image. Do show conflict, and "remember to be human," she said.

So how do you begin your story?

With a hook, she said, because the beginning establishes your style of writing and storytelling. Don't start with your birth, because "middles and endings make better beginnings." Begin at a high point or low point in your life and go from there.

Thurston said the setting is important to a personal history. Places need to have personality, so describe them as they were when you were there, she said. Give a sense of place — the sounds, the smells and the way things felt to the touch. Developing the context to your life helps readers understand your world, she said.

Other hints: Ask yourself what readers would want to know, and tie historical events to your life.

Thurston raised the issue of telling the truth in personal histories and how much you hold back. If you gloss over family problems, "it takes away from the believability of our story," she said. As a writer, you have a responsibility, because reputations are in your hands. What you write can cause heartache and break up families.

So do we tell the whole truth?

"There are ways of telling the truth that are not so hurtful," she said. If we're too hurtful, we come across looking bad ourselves, so we should use humor, grace and forgiveness in our writing.

Two questions you should ask yourself as you're writing are: How much truth can you handle, and how much can your readers handle? Some family members can't handle anything that's not pleasant, she said.

She offered several points to consider as you handle personal and family "skeletons":

1. Its importance to your story. Thurston said her deceased brother was gay and to not tell that in her history would be disrespectful to him. It has to be in the story, she said. On the other hand, you have to be much more sensitive to problems your children might have, she said, because a relationship with a child is "more important than getting the story on the page ...."

2. Your purpose in revealing the information.

3. Your audience.

4. Your family.

5. Your tone of writing. You need to be fair to people and show both sides of someone, she said.

6. Your tolerance for criticism, rejection and the possibility of being disinherited. "Tell the truth with love," she said.

7. Make sure your facts are correct.

8. Avoid moralizing.

9. Let your readers form their own conclusions.

10. Don't exaggerate.

Thurston also advised writers to be careful about how much truth they tell about themselves. "We want to keep our children in the church," she said, so "we don't have to tell all the gory details" about ourselves.

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Some books that handle difficult issues well, she said, are "Angela's Ashes: a Memoir," by Frank McCourt; "The Glass Castle," by Jeannette Walls; "All Over but the Shoutin," by Rick Bragg; "This Boy's Life: a Memoir," by Tobias Wolff; and "When I Was Puerto Rican," by Esmeralda Santiago.

Thurston's nuts-and-bolts advice to personal-history writers:

1. Cut the clutter by deciding what's essential and what's not.

2. Write a tentative table of contents to help focus your story.

3. Write a tentative outline of your story.

4. Don't overdo the adjectives and adverbs.

After you're finished the writing process, have someone else read it. "Get a pair of fresh eyes," she advised.


E-mail: rwalsh@desnews.com