The Challenges of Reconstructing the Past
Nancy R. Hinchliff
Before I wrote my first memoir, I had been writing mostly journal articles and personal essays in-between running a bed and breakfast. The idea to write a memoir came from my readers. I was publishing articles on a popular writer’s site and had gotten interested in blogging. Eventually, I married the two and starting writing about my life as an innkeeper. I have a penchant for wry humor and soon discovered my readers liked my sarcasm and writing style and encouraged me to write more of the same. This led to a regular series of essays titled Tales from the Innkeeper’s Crypt. Up to that time, writing a book had never entered my mind. It wasn't until after much urging from my friends and readers, that I decided to turn my innkeeper stories into a memoir
My first challenge was deciding which of my scenes and stories to include. I began by identifying and pulling out those I thought were the most interesting, odd, and funny. I ended up with between twenty and thirty of them and some were pretty long, so the next challenge was organizing that amount of material into some sort of loose chronological order. Up to that time, I had never written anything longer than a few thousand words. The events at the bed and breakfast spanned a period of around twelve years and eventually ended up encompassing twenty. My stories had to make sense within that period of time. Some needed to be pared down, others embellished. They all had to be connected with appropriate transitions, unless I constructed them as stand-alone vignettes. I finally decided to leave them as vignettes, probably because it was easier at the time.
I soon came up against another challenge; I had to interject myself into my scenes and stories. When they had occurred, I was mostly on the outside looking in, a voyeur of sorts. I had to get inside my stories. This was pretty tricky. Although I’d gotten in touch with my voice when I was blogging, I had to focus on creative description so my readers could see and hear me, as well as my other characters, as we moved around and interacted within the various scenes. This required some knowledge and experience with fictive writing. I needed to represent the characters and settings with enough descriptive detail, gestures, and dialogue, so as to make the scenes more visual and present to the reader.
After gathering the stories together and doing some re-structuring and re-writing, I did a bit of editing for grammar, punctuation, and clarity. Then I enlisted a few alpha and beta readers for feedback. I was looking for ways to possibly connect the individual stories. I did a second re-write then put the memoir away for a few weeks. I wanted to go back and look at it with fresh eyes. When I returned to it, it was clear that self-reflection was lacking in my writing. I started reading every memoir I could get my hands on to see how the writers handled this challenge and how they connected their scenes and stories. I ended up doing a third re-write and changing the vignettes into chapters, attempting to connect them in a chronological order. By that time, another year or so had past and I had more stories.
My memoir was starting to take shape and I began to catch on to the “self-reflection” thing…as well as how to write dialogue. When I got through the third re-write, I decided to submit to a selection of 30 editors for publication. I devised a book proposal and took the plunge. Although I didn’t lock in a publisher, I received answers from nearly all the editors, some asking for my manuscript and giving me very encouraging feedback, but no book publishing offer. Refusing to be discouraged, I took the feedback and went back to the drawing board with the idea of doing a fourth re-write.
This time, I did a complete restructuring of the book based on a suggestion from one of the editors who thought I should give the opening chapter a stronger hook. I started working on it and ended up shifting the first five chapters around so that what had been the first chapter was now the fifth. I then backed up chronologically and started the book at an earlier time. That first chapter ended up being quite reflective and descriptive with a pretty good hook. And it had made more sense to start at that point.
By this time, I’d been an innkeeper for nearly fifteen years and was more than ready to move on and re-invent myself as a writer. But my business, which had plunged in 2008, had taken a swing upwards so I felt I should take advantage of the increase in income. Because I had to spend more time overseeing the operation and interacting with guests, I stopped writing completely and temporarily put the book to rest. After a six month hiatus I could no longer resist the urge to start writing again, but wasn’t ready to pull out my first memoir so I started on a second one which had been in the back of my mind for years. I was amazed at how much better my writing was and realized it was a result of those more than three years of intense work on the first book.
I decided to do a fifth re-write, carefully crafting my manuscript. During the hiatus, I had learned a lot more about memoir from webinars, informative books and articles, and feedback from other writers and editors in both workshops and on line. All of this really helped in sorting everything out.
I am still amazed that I wrote an entire book. It took a long time for me to even consider it seriously. But now, after publishing the first one, I am excited to be working on the second.
BIO: Nancy Hinchliff was born in Detroit, but spent most of her life in Chicago. She was fortunate enough to earn undergraduate degrees in music and education and graduate degrees in music, science of education and special education before teaching in the Chicago Public schools for 30 years and in the school of education at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
Ms Hinchliff has been writing all of her adult life, mostly journal articles, essays, and creative non-fiction and has been published in newsletters, local magazines, and as a guest on many blogs. In 2008, she co-authored Room at the Table, a coffee-table cookbook written for the Bed and Breakfast Association of Kentucky which won their president's award.
In 1995, at the age of 65, she purchased a turn-of-the-century Victorian Italianate mansion in Old Louisville, Kentucky and turned it into a bed and breakfast. She remained in business there until 2015, when she sold her inn and moved to Vermont to be close to her family and write full time.