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Who Cares About Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will Care
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
April 2012
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
April 2012

At this year's AWP conference in Chicago, Ellen Cassedy and Nancy K. Miller were part of a panel organized by the University of Nebraska Press on Family Stories.  Kamy Wicoff was in attendance, and loved what they had to say on the subject so much (memoir writers, don't miss these wonderful posts) that she asked Ellen and Nancy to summarize their remarks in two posts for She Writes.

Today Ellen Cassedy's -- and stay tuned for Nancy K. Miller's tomorrow!

"Who Cares About Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will Care"

by Ellen Cassedy

I love books based on family stories – especially those that provide me with a perch, a home, and intimate place from which to experience a larger culture or a bygone era.     

For me, the vibration between the ordinariness of everyday life and the sweep of history is not only a pleasure but also a political and a moral matter.  Observing what happens from the point of view of unfamous people, we learn that human history is made not only by generals and kings but by each one of us.

That said, who cares about your family story, or mine?  Here are ten ways I’ve discovered to keep readers engaged with the story that engages you.


1.  Step back.

When my book first began to take shape, what was foremost in my mind were my own feelings.  On my family roots trip to Lithuania, the land of my Jewish forebears, shivers went down my spine in the old Jewish cemetery, and tears overtook me in the now-empty market square.  

I was writing about what I cared about. But that – simply that – was not a story, and certainly not a book.

Paradoxically, what enabled me to shape my raw experiences into a narrative was detachment. 

When I stepped back, I was able to place my family story within the broader context of a nation’s encounter with its “family secrets,” its Jewish past.   

My particular family story came to illuminate something larger.  And that’s what made it a book. 

I came to be motivated by my responsibilities to my readers – which leads to the next point.


2.  Take care of the reader.  A diary can help.

Put yourself in her shoes.  Telling a true story, rather than inventing one, can make it harder to see what you know that your reader doesn’t. 

As my journey progressed, I kept a diary, writing down everything I was seeing and learning and thinking day by day.  That way, even when I knew how the story would end, I could look back and see what my readers would be wondering at any given point along the way.  


3.  Give the reader a home, or homes. 

In the difficult moral and historical terrain into which I led my readers, I realized we needed places to catch our breath – familiar touchstones to hold onto, places to rest.

The classroom at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, with its rows of battered wooden desks, became  one such place, and my kitchen table in Vilnius, with its knobby cucumbers and its loaf of black bread, became another.

These recurring images gave my narrative a rhythm, like the refrain of a song.


4.  Create vivid characters.  

With a first-person narrative, that means creating yourself as a character.  Ellen Cassedy, the reader’s trusty guide, has to be as vivid as Uncle Will with his grizzled chin and his secret past, or Ruta, the passionate young woman driving a Holocaust exhibit around the country in her pickup truck.


5.  Create vivid scenes.

Just like a work of fiction or a play, a memoir needs places where the narrative slows down and draws the reader in close.

In addition to jotting down in my diary everything I could see, hear, and smell, I took pictures with my camera.

Later, at my desk, when I was conjuring up, say, the old man who wanted to speak to a Jew before he died, I could see his green cap, his aluminum cane, and the blood-red gladioli that framed his front door.  


6.  Focus. 

In writing a story from life, I found I was less a builder than a sculptor, carving away everything not needed. 

My side visit to Poland had to go. The amazing yoga class in Vilnius had to go.  Even my discovery of my great-grandfather’s grave had to go.  Deeply moving though it was, it didn’t advance what had become the real story.  


7.  Create suspense. 

In my first draft, I revealed Uncle Will’s fearsome secret on page 3.  Now I make the reader wait till page 51 for even the first clues.


8.  Blend the personal and the historical.  

Break up what Ursula LeGuin calls “the lumps in the oatmeal.”  Instead of requiring the reader to swallow background information in big chunks, find ways to stir them in.  Make them go down easy.


9.  Be honest. 

It’s been said that “writing begins with taking notice.” That means noticing what’s going on inside you as well as outside

In writing my book, I trained a microscope on the minutest details of how I was began letting go of the cross-cultural hatreds I’d been taught as a child.


10.  Pay attention to every word. 

It goes without saying that I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote.  Because I cared – and I wanted my readers to care.   


If you’d like to comment on this blog post, please do I’ll choose one comment at random and send you a copy of my book. To read an excerpt from my book, go to my website and click on About the Book.


* * *

Ellen Cassedy’s book is We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press, 2012). Her first post for SheWrites was “Who Cares about Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will Care.”  Her [TIPS OF THE TRADE] series appears monthly. See all of Ellen's Tips for Writers.

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  • I am hungry for tips like yours.  I am writing a series of prose poems based on five generations of women in my family, each of whom speaks in her own voice.  It is really more of a creative non-fiction than a memoir because I have scant actual details to go on in some cases, and have to imagine the emotions of each "reality."  Providing a place for the reader to go, to rest, to take stock of the story is a super tip.  Currently I am working through the lens of paring away information to create much stronger poem units.  Providing suspense and creating a story arc from the series of voices as I weave them into an organic whole will be a challenge, but necessary if these poems are to work as a story.  Thanks for your post!

  • Lois K. Herr

    Appreciate the structure.  In contrast to "Sharin" I have a wealth of family information - hundreds of letters, photographs, and ephemera covering the years from 1850 to 1950, with especially good stuff about 1890-1930.  I've written about my own or family experience before (Women, Power and AT&T: Winning Rights in the Workplace and Dear Coach: Letters Home from WW II) but this is different.  I face the good problem of too many stories within a story.  I am especially drawn to the story of the generations of interesting women.  However, I feel the need to archive what I have before I start writing. .  .   so many photos to scan and sort, so many letters (70 notebooks full) to figure out how to organize, etc.  I find that whenever I write I LIVE in the era I'm writing about, whether I want to or not.  The 10 steps outline will be very helpful, especially the need to focus and trim away what I don't need.

  • sharin\'

    Thank you for structure that is what I need to do archive and family search. I was boggled with the limited info on my family and the ancestral roots from Poland seemed overpowering but not sure where to turn on a framework.

    Congratulations on your publication eager to read the book!

    Sharon Dryjanski

  • Julija Sukys

    Ellen, this is great advice. I've passed the link on to a colleague working on a family story. Even when we know, it's good to be reminded.

  • Marcia Moston

    Appreciate the valuable tips, especially the one about creating a home or landing place. Good post

  • Jennifer Worrell

    I've got way too many lumps in my oatmeal...must rewrite! Great article with really helpful advice. Thanks!

  • Jan Nerenberg

    Just finished reading your excerpt:  "Suddenly a great black cawing thundercloud of crows filled the heavens."  Brilliant!  I've got to read your book, your style is not only beautiful, it pulls the reader in immediately.

  • Jan Nerenberg

    Thank you, Ellen:  I'm working on a historic myth and found your information very helpful.  As I think about POV and how to weave an ancient setting into a contemporary one, your words opened new thoughts and ideas.  Thanks for sharing.

  • Dedria A. Humphries

    Talk about rewrite. Ellen, I have been working on my grandmother's story for a decade. Slowly, I'm getting it right, I'm excavating it in the fashion Stephen King talks about and the I dust time away, the more vivid the people and their story becomes. At first, I told the story from my grandmother's point of view because I knew and loved her. But my Ohio editor pointed out that she was a kid and it was her mother, my great grandmother who was the mover and shaker, the decider of how things in their family would go. And telling the story from her point has made all the difference. The tip of yours I'm taking to my next writing session is #3, Give the reader a home, a place to rest. And I know just the place. 

  • Terri McIntyre

    Your guideline is what I've been looking for. Concise and clear. Thank you!

  • Darlene Foster

    Thank you for this valuable advice.  Your book sounds wonderful and I would love to win a copy.

  • Excellent advice here. I chose to write my latest book, Reflection: A Long Walk Into the World of Love, in the form of a fairy tale, to make it appeal to readers, both men and women, without all the personal memoir details that might get in the way of the reader's thoughts of their own live and loves. There are so many challenges in telling our stories, and fairy tales hold special charm.

    More at kielsonmedia.com

  • Jean Powell Vosper

    Thanks so much for sharing your expertise. I've been contemplating expanding several personal essays into a memoir and your list is a great help. Detachment is definitely necessary for relating personal stories in order to avoid over-dramatization, but stepping back from one's life is not an intuitive talent - it requires an ongoing conscious effort. I applaud your determination and success. I also enjoyed your beautifully written excerpt and have added your book to my "read soon" list.

  • Virginia Lloyd

    Hi Ellen, thanks for this valuable list of practical tips for memoir writers. Your surprise in what had to be left out (#6) resonated with me. There were so many things I expected to include in my memoir that did not make it into the final manuscript, because they simply did not fit. A memoirist must be extremely selective to stay focused on the central thread of story. This post makes me want to read your book. Congratulations on your book's publication!

  • B. Lynn Goodwin

    Well stated. Thanks for sharing this.



  • Cynthia Hartwig

    I took a writing class from fiction writer, Michael Byers. Michael retold a story from Catullus about a foggy night when Caesar's army was encamped outside a German town. Caesar and some of his aides went info the town in disguise the night before battle, wearing  cloaks and hoods so they wouldn't be recognized and they walked around getting the lay of the land. But the fog rose, and they got turned around in the streets with no idea where they were. A man on his way home ran into their little group and he genially walked the group back to a place where they could find their way with no idea that he had encountered the great Caesar.  What if that man had told the story of his chance encounter with history?  We all have a story and it's up to each one of us to tell it well.

  • Beth Lane

    Great tips - the quality and readibility of memoirs would improve greatly if everyone followed these ten.

  • cheryl stahle

    fabulous advice

  • Carleen

    Excellent advice for memoirists!

  • Jennifer Johnson

    Thank you for the insights!  I haven't tried my hand at a book yet, just little snippets here and there, and postings about our trips and adventures.  I'm going to see how to incorporate your advice into my writing.