May 122014
Carol Baxter

  As genealogists we research  our family history and accumulate pages of facts and notes, some photos maybe some letters if we are lucky.
  Then it comes time to want to share your research, to produce it so it is available for the future generations, to tell their story, to bring them to life.
  So you sit down at the computer and try and start.
  But how to write it in a way that someone will actually read it?
  We have all read (well at least scanned to see if our names are mentioned) the family history books that read like a “who begot whom” saga.  The problem is no-one actually sits and reads them because they are a bunch of dates and places with no personality and definitely don’t bring our ancestors to life.
  So what do you do? How to write it so someone actually will read and know the people you have spent your time researching?
I have just attended the two day Unlock the Past Writing Seminar in Adelaide and would definitely recommend it for anyone who writes.

There were eight presentations given by Carol Baxter of History Detective fame. 
Carol has an impressive pedigree as she started her genealogical research at school and been involved in genealogy for more than thirty years. She is a Fellow of the Society of Australian Genealogists and an adjunct lecturer at the University of New England, and is now a full-time writer and speaker.

She has used her historical research skills to write and publish ‘popular history’ and is the author of four ‘true-crime thrillers’ . Three have been published by Allen & Unwin: An Irresistible Temptation: the true story of Jane New and a Colonial Scandal (2006), Breaking the Bank: An Extraordinary Colonial Robbery (2008), and Captain Thunderbolt and his Lady: the true story of bushrangers Frederick Ward and Mary Ann Bugg (2011), while The Lucretia Borgia of Botany Bay will be published in 2015. Also recently released was the “The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable” which I was able to get Carol to autograph for me.

So Carol was an ideal person to teach this seminar and this was very much shown to be true during the two days

We started Day One with a series of three seminars
How to become a skilled historical detective
Help! Which information is correct? Strategies for determining historical truth.
Solving the ‘unsolvable’

Carol’s easy interactive presentation style made it a pleasure to listen and learn. Her use of examples throughout gave not only the theory but also the practical applications and reinforced the messages.

Carol led us through the process and gave many essential clues on how to proceed:
“How do you start the massive job of writing your family history book : just like the elephant, one bite at a time!
“Communication is the essence of writing”

“Think of your audience before you start writing. Time spent planning now will produce a significantly enhanced end result”

“Personification a great tool for bringing your writing to life: rambunctious tug, lazy river, sleepy town”

“Timelines a writer’s friend for research and also when writing as you can put the timeline in the appendix therefore leaving out of the main test long lists of just dates and places”.


Then we moved onto  Structuring a family history or other work of non-fiction

This seminar focused on basic structuring techniques for writers. It included a general overview of structural necessities as well as guidelines for those writing family histories.

On the Friday we also heard from from Rachel Kuchel from the Lutheran Archives on their holdings and after hearing about the wide range of records from around Australia it really made me wish I had Lutheran ancestors!
Then Dr Karen George talking on Oral history for family and local historians, another very interesting topic.  South Australia allows people to borrow the recording equipment and they will archive a copy of the recording (which can be allowed to be on open or closed access depending on the wishes of the participants). Definitely worth finding out if your State library has a similar program happening. Recording using great equipment is the ideal but obviously even a not so great recording has to be better than no recording.

Tamara Wenham and Nicholas Gleghorn gave a presentation on “Finding stories inside the Commonwealth, State and Local Government archives” This was particularly interesting as it showed the range of records, particularly images that were available.
And that completed Day One!
Day Two we were all there early eagerly waiting for what the day would bring and chatting to the exhibitors and each other before the presentations began. 
Today’s first three workshops were about refining our work and understanding writing fundamentals.

  • Crafting a good book
    This workshop covered some of the tools found in a writer’s toolbox including authorial voice, narrative voice, style, tone, person and story-telling. 
  • Gripping writing
    This workshop showed how to use historical context, action, dramatic tension, dialogue and description to engage their readers. 
  • Sensory writing

This workshop showed writers how to engage their readers by drawing upon all of our senses, and burrows down to the individual word level.

  • Here we all are having a go!

We had opportunities in each of these for practical hands-on tries at doing what we had learned then hearing what some of us had written and this was a very valuable part of the workshop. I find that having a go while it is very fresh in your mind helps to cement the concepts.
The last of Carol’s presentations covered all the facets of publishing, taking us through the process of the mainstream publishers (I don’t believe that very many family historians will ever go this route) then onto the independent publishers, much more likely for family historians and the other ways of being published (niche, independent and self-publishing and then journals, newsletters and websites including blogs).

So many family history writers forget their family history journals as a place to publish their writings. 99% of the editors of these journals would love you for evermore if you submitted your articles and it is a good way to get experience. Also you have the extra benefit that you are telling people about your research and giving them the opportunity  to contact you with questions and additional information (remember to have a genealogy email with Google ie a GMail address that will stay constant regardless of what home internet service provider you may use). I have had responses many years after my article was published because I was able to be contacted.

We also had a presentation by the well known Shauna Hicks on “Newspapers: Finding Online Family & Local History News!” 

Shauna showed the range of resources that can be used and this fitted in very well with what Carol had been telling us as Carol has made wonderful use of newspaper, court and police reports in her research to get some of the specific details of what had occurred. 

Often inquests, divorces, murders, accidents are reported in the papers in much detail often down to the “he said, she said” stuff. All valuable detail that can be used in your writing to provide wonderful life to those dates and place facts and still do it in a historically accurate manner.

Marie Maddocks gave us a presentation on “Exploring people’s lives @ The State Library of South Australia”, another wonderful resource for South Australian research and remember each State Library has similar resource collections so if you haven’t had a check of their catalogues recently you should definitely add it to your to-do list.

I am very pleased that I flew down from Brisbane for this two day workshop. I found it very valuable and would very much recommend this workshop with Carol Baxter to anyone who is interested in writing history whether it be family, local, business or any type of historical writing.