how to write a memoir: the ultimate 13-step guide

How to write a memoir: the 13-step ultimate guide

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Families are fragmenting.

When our parents were growing up, their families used to live in the same street.

Grandma would pop round to babysit, and Grandpa would call by to help decorate. They’d have a roast dinner together on Sunday and spend Christmas in the same house.

Does this sound like your family? Or do you have parents and grandparents you rarely see, and you want your children to know where they come from?

Then writing your memoir could be the most important thing you ever do.

You may have a fantastic memory — or a memory like a sieve. Either way, unless their life experiences are down on paper, your children won’t even have a chance of remembering them.

By the end of this article, you should be confident enough to know how to write a memoir, record life experiences, and turn it into a real book.

This is the process I use when writing my clients’ memoirs. I’ve turned it into an easy step-by-step guide, filled with writing tips.

1. Make a memoir timeline

How to write a memoir: start with a timeline outline
An Elephant Memoirs timeline that we create during the planning stages of a memoir.

You may want to get stuck straight into the war stories and learn about life on the home front, but stop right there.

Making a dateline of the important events will make everything easier later on. You can use it as an outline when writing your memoir.

You could think along the lines of Family, Health, Work, Homes, Travel, National events.

2. Do some research

researching the peast for writing a memoir with history books and encylcopedias
Some books I use to research the past when writing a memoir.

The time when your parents were brought up is the distant past. You may think you know what life was like then because they’ve told you often enough. But you don’t.

You’ll need to use your local library, or Google it, or order some books from Amazon.

What happened 70 years ago is now history. So you need to treat it as such. Read up on twentieth-century social history. It’ll suddenly seem much more interesting than it did at school because you’ll be applying it to people you know.

Your parents may have been brought up in another country with a different culture. These are the most exciting stories to write. Try to work out what it is you don’t know about this place.

If you have an understanding of national and world events, you can fit your parents’ stories into them. You have the benefit of hindsight. You may actually have a better understanding of what happened to them than they did. You’ll know how the story ended. You’ll probably end up with lots of questions you want to ask.

3. Make a list of questions

The key to a good interview is a list of good questions.

Questions that are thought-provoking. Questions that show you know what you’re talking about. Questions that jog the memory.

The best questions will tell you some of what you already know. And lots of what you don’t yet know.

There’s a good list of questions here that you can help you write about yourself or other people.

There are certain questions that can be applied to any period of a person’s life. Once you have established WHO did WHAT, and WHEN and WHERE it happened, you can go on with general follow-up questions such as:

  • WHY did that happen?
  • Can you DESCRIBE the people or places so we can imagine them better?
  • HOW did you manage to do that?
  • How did you FEEL afterwards?
  • What did OTHER PEOPLE have to say about it?

Ideally, the answers to these questions will be things you’ve never heard before. And things the speaker hasn’t mentioned to anyone in years. This is how the writing will be fresh.

Some of the old family stories will have become a bit frayed around the edges. You want all the necessary details to be there this time. You want the stories to make sense. You want the storyteller to look back with fresh eyes and interpret the events in a new way.

4. Plan the interviews

How to write a memoir: the 13-step ultimate guide 1
Plan the memoir interviews out. I use an online calendar like this.

You need to plan this project. You’ll need to book the interview sessions in your diary, and make sure the dates are on your parents’ calendar too.

Once they know to expect a session with you, more and more things will come to mind in between times. The memories will come flooding back.

Writing a memoir is a long process. If you don’t commit fully, it’s easy to sidetrack the project and forget about it. It’s no easy task to write a book.

5. Record the memoir interviews

How to write a memoir: the 13-step ultimate guide 2
Having a good recording device is essential. Being able to clearly hear the interview makes transcription easier. I use these.

Your parents or grandparent will think of interesting things to tell you. But they’ll also think more about the words they use to describe them.

They’ll be stretching their vocabularies and exercising their minds in many ways. It’ll be like therapy.

After a while, they’ll look forward to their sessions with you. These times together will be really special.

But remembering the stories and details won’t be enough. By the time you come to write it down, you’ll forget the good bits.

So you’ll need to buy a voice recorder or get a mobile phone app. If your device is reasonable quality, you won’t need a microphone.

Pointing a mike at someone tends to make them feel self-conscious and kills the conversation flow. So it’s better to place the recorder between you on a cushion.

6. Transcribe the interviews

Finally you’ve finished the interviews, and uploaded them. Make sure you have a good filing system for the transcripts, the drafts and the edited versions.

Transcription is very time-consuming.

As a rough guide, it takes three times as long to transcribe an interview as it does to listen to it.

You will need to make decisions about where sentences begin and end. Where paragraphs start and finish. And what the chapters are going to cover.

Older people tend to have minds that wander, so you’ll find yourself talking about the 50s one minute then the 80s the next. You’ll want to slot memories into the right files and folders on your computer.

If time is short, you could use an online transcription service. An example of one is rev.com.

7. Scan the photos

How to write a memoir: the 13-step ultimate guide 3
With a good scanner, even small old photos can appear high quality on screen and on the page.

You’ll need a place to store away all the photos, documents and scans that your parent shows you. It’s better to scan these precious mementoes in their home so no one worries about losing them.

You can use your mobile phone for this, but it’s better to have a portable scanner. Then you can scan at a high resolution like 600 dpi. This means you can enlarge the photos when you put them on the page.

A lot of old pictures are very small compared to the 7×5” prints we’re used to. But a good scanner can make them look great on a screen or in a book.

8. Edit the story

How to write a memoir: the 13-step ultimate guide 4
The Elephant Memoirs memoir editing station.

This is when you’ll want to go for a thorough edit.

You may have started each chapter in a chronological way, but now themes are emerging. You could collect all the details about holidays or homes, in their own chapters, or have family and career in separate sections.

Or maybe the whole life has a theme you want to draw out. It would be impossible to include every detail of a life, so you have to select.

If you have a common thread running through the life then you can make this the story of a journey. If every detail tells us how the person arrived at a certain place, then it’ll be a more satisfying read. For example, the destination might be settling in another country, or overcoming a disability, or finally learning to read.

You need to be professional about editing. Stand back and try to be objective. Like a journalist planning a big interview, or a ghostwriter doing a best-selling autobiography. You want to make people want to keep reading.

You need to think of this life story almost as if it’s fiction. You need to use techniques that novelists use. Suspense, description, action and dialogue.

You also need to think of your parent as the hero of their own story. As the hero of their own life. It’s lovely to try and think of them in this way. When they read the book, they’ll thank you for it.

9. Formatting

The final step is to format all the Word documents so they look like the pages of a proper book. Think about the gutters, the margins, the pagination, the fonts, the size.

Once you present the story in a professional way, you’ll start having higher expectations of yourself as a writer.

Here’s a guide on how to format your book.

10. Proofreading

No matter how many times you read through your book, you’ll keep finding mistakes.

You can find the errors easier if you read the words in a different format.

Reducing the text to A5, so it’s ready to be printed, helps a lot in this respect. So does converting the document to PDF. It will look larger on your screen and you’ll be able to spot problems with the spacing and layout, plus the usual typos.

Best of all is if you can get someone else to do the proofreading. A fresh pair of eyes will notice things you keep skimming over.

There’ll be a bound proof to check further down the line, and a final online proof. You’ll have plenty of chances to make everything perfect.

11. Print the memoirs

How to write a memoir: the 13-step ultimate guide 5
Printed copies of a few Elephant Memoirs books.

In the old days, self-publishing was expensive. Because of the expense of setting up printing, you’d have to get hundreds of books printed. That’s the economical way to print in volume. But lots of books would be left unsold.

These days, for short runs you can use ‘print on demand’.  

Because the files are digital, print companies can keep the costs down. You can order a run of only ten books. Or twenty so the whole family gets one. If you’re not trying to sell your book to anyone, just give it away to friends, then this is the best way to do it.

When you approach a printing company, you’ll have various choices to make. Do you want hardback or paperback? Would you like a dust jacket? Do you want to have the photos on inserts in the middle of the book, or embed them in the chapters?  

Bear in mind that printing colour photos will push the costs up.  Most of your parents’ old photos will be black and white. You can improve the quality of the printing by choosing paper with a satin finish.  

12. List on Amazon

How to write a memoir: the 13-step ultimate guide 6

If you want to share your story with the world, you can.

The printing company you choose can help you list your book on Amazon, or with another online retailer.

That way, anyone out there with a special interest in the subject of your book will be able to buy a copy too. You can print your book on demand for them too. Even for one copy.

You’ll be able to set the price yourself when you list it. Your book might end up giving you a steady income. Although, more likely the numbers involved will be small.

13. Present your book to the family

How to write a memoir: the 13-step ultimate guide 7
You could present the memoirs to your family member in the style of a book launch.

The big day has arrived and you receive a delivery of your parcel of books. It’s a big thrill to see your work in a proper book, like you’d see in a bookshop.

Your parent will be even more excited to see it. In their day, publishing wasn’t something that just anyone could do.

To mark the occasion, some people like to present the book at a little book launch.

Make it a special occasion with invitations, speeches, a buffet and drinks. And finally, the unveiling of the book itself. Don’t expect to get much conversation out of people once they have it in their hands.

Heads will go down and the room will go silent.

If you now feel inspired to attempt your family story by yourself, I send you my best wishes.  Good luck.

Maybe you’ve started such a project in the past, but abandoned it. Or maybe you’ve already written it and have a first draft.

If you need help pushing on, then I can assist. I can take over the project at any stage and bring it to completion.

I offer a free first session to discuss your project, and get to know each other. You can book it here.

Please click one of the share buttons below to share this article with your friends, so that more people can learn how to record their family histories.

Ready to start your memoir with a free introductory interview?

Sharing your story with a stranger, and the world, is a big decision to make. That’s why I offer the first interview for free, so that we can get to know each other before you commit.

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