Benjamin Franklin advised: "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing."
Most people don't have a problem with the second idea; every life has a story; almost every story is worth telling. But when it comes to writing that story — that's where many people get bogged down, says author and personal historian Dawn Thurston.
What many people do, she says, is compile data. They get down the basic dates, but most of the narrative is "he was born and then he did this, then he did that, then he did this. We call those 'pedigree chart' stories."
That's not a real story, she says. A real story has life and breath, makes you want to read it, helps you come to know the person better.
Thurston teaches people how to do that in classes at Santiago Canyon College in Orange County near her home in California, in classes at BYU Education Week, and in the book she and her husband Morris have written, "Breathe Life Into Your Life Story: How to Write a Story People Will Want to Read" (Signature Books, $22.95).
She will be a featured speaker at a one-day Personal History Conference, "Saving Lives, One Story at a Time," sponsored by the Utah Chapter of the Association of Personal Historians. The workshop will be held at Westminster College on Friday, Oct. 15.
Writing your personal history or that of your ancestors is important to you and to your family, she said in a telephone interview from her California home. "It's something that brings the family together, it helps develop family pride. It helps give you a sense of who you are."
But while no one intends to write a lifeless story, many people do, she says.
In her book and in her classes, Thurston focuses on six techniques that will help you write a more interesting story.
1. Show rather than tell. "This is a key to writing an interesting story. Pick up any book on writing, whether it's on writing a novel or non-fiction, and there's always a chapter on 'show, don't tell,' " she says.
Basically, it's a matter of adding details so readers can visualize what people and places looked like, how people act, etc.
"Instead of writing 'my mother was a beautiful woman,' describe her, how she wore her hair, how she dressed, how people reacted to her when they met her."
The same is true for places, she said. "My parents courted in San Diego during World War II. My children have a mental image of what the city is like today, but then it was a navy town, with soldiers everywhere in the streets. You could hear the sound of clanking street cars. Put in those details."
Another way to add detail is to create scenes and add dialogue. "My students often have a difficult time with this at first, but it's very effective. Any great memoir you read is filled with scenes."
2. Animate the people in your story so they become believable, interesting characters. "A lot of histories are filled with one-dimensional stick figures," says Thurston. "We all have strengths and weaknesses. It's the balance between them that is interesting. A rosy glow is not believable, because no one is perfect. Show the whole person. Be fair; tell reasons for weaknesses. But everyone deals with difficult issues, everyone makes mistakes."
It is not always an easy road to walk, she says. "After all, someone's reputation may be in your hands. But you have to balance your integrity as a writer with the truth."
3. Re-create your world, or your ancestors' world, so readers can visualize places, styles, attitudes and such. This requires some research, but it is a fun part of the process, says Thurston. You can look at old newspapers, go online, look at scrapbooks. "Try to create everyday life in that time. Look at what was going on in the world. Find things that were a cause for specific actions."
4. Write at the gut level, revealing how your experiences affected you, and infusing your story with warmth and humanity. "Sometimes we are afraid to do that. We're told not to air our dirty laundry. Some people also think that admitting weaknesses may give their children permission to do the same," she says. "But if you appear human, you will touch your readers more."
Talk about how you felt when things happened, how events shaped you, she says. Talk about lessons you learned.
"One of my students taught engineering at a university, and he said it well: 'My children only know me after I reached success. What I want them to know is how hard it was to get there.' "
5. Keep your readers turning pages by applying the techniques used by suspense writers. If you are talking about a crisis, don't reveal what happened right away, says Thurston. "Let your readers experience it with you. Most books try to end chapters on an exciting note, so you will keep reading."
6. Begin with a bang, with an opening that makes readers think, "This is going to be a great story!"
People often start with the backstory, she said. "It's better to start with a big event than with everything leading up to it. You can add that later. When Sheri Dew wrote the biography of President Hinckley, she didn't start with when he was born. She started with the press conference announcing he would be the next church president."
Family history has become a very popular pastime in recent years, says Thurston. She has been teaching for 15 years, "and I'm amazed at how much interest there is in doing it. But it is such a satisfying thing to do."
Most people want to write for their descendents, so those people will come to know them better. "But if you write a dull, lifeless story that no one wants to read," says Thurston, "that kind of defeats the purpose."