Creating a memoir from old family letters and photos can get complicated. You start out with good intentions and then find yourself sorting through hundreds (even thousands) of letters and old photos trying to find a way to make a manuscript. Scrapbooking has been around for years, and it is a convenient way to take said memories and put them together in a pretty package. However, the printed edition is usually not sharable, unless you start mailing it around the country. Our family ran into a similar problem, as multiple people wanted copies at once. That’s when the idea of me creating a memoir came to fruition.
With over twenty years in the publishing industry, from the role of a journalist to that of a book editor, I’ve had plenty of experience in taking information and crafting some form of publication. When the Hildreth family wanted something that could be shared among other family members and readers wanting to see a different side of the Vietnam War. A peaceful one. I’ve had people ask me for tips on how to do their own project, so I thought I would write something up. Here’s how I built To Lenorah, with Love using samples from a family collection.
How It All Started
My father was always full of stories. When the mood struck him, he never met a stranger. We used to wait, bemused, for him to finish telling the clerk in the checkout line a story about his truck varnish or to finish talking with the waiter about the wonderful soup he had in 1972. Conversely, he was also a man who worshiped the silence. He was a paradox at times, but underneath it all was a kind, stoic man who was both as gentle as a lamb and as strong and stubborn as an ox. He had always wanted to take his old letters and photographs from his time in Germany and photos and create a book that would last beyond his lifetime. To Lenorah, With Love was the culmination of that dream.
After he passed away on January 2011, my mother began archiving his personal items. Among these were a series of letters written to and by our father that none of us had ever read. He had kept these tucked away in a small box, as quiet and silent as he always was when it came to emotional memories of the past. He was also an avid photographer, the type to keep a camera with him at all times. The first camera was purchased when he was 15 and had one with him in his truck the night that he passed away.
Reading these letters was a healing experience—we got to know our father all over again. He came alive through the small tidbits of notes and anecdotes, and we got to see his world through the lens of his cameras, which I still possess. We also learned details about individual family members and about events going on around him that we never knew. For example, “Who was Linda?” or “Wait, he went to college? Where? When?” I was unaware he had even been to England, albeit for a brief time. They also give the point of view of a soldier stationed in Germany during a time of rebuilding, when the role of the military police was as peacekeepers.
Creating the Book
There were more than 800 letters in the original collection. Using all of them would have resulted in a vast, expensive volume. I was aware of how what family members at the time wanted to pay, and a $50 coffee table book was not going to cut it. Also, many of the letters were stained and faded with time. I transcribed all of the letters and made a few editorial decisions regarding which letters were to be included. I took the liberty to edit the letters for misspellings, name clarifications, and punctuation. However, for the large part, they were as they were back in the day.
Wanting to create something similar? Here are some things that I learned while creating a memoir from old letters, postcards, and other text-heavy items.
Before you begin, it’s easiest to create folders labeled by date. Start in the “Documents” folder or cloud-folder and first name the folder as the name of the book (i.e., Smith Family). Then create folders for each year. After you get your first letter digitized, keep it in there. Save each letter and image into these individual folders.
Letters and Postcards
- Organize First. Get all of the letters in chronological order before you begin. If they are not already organized into a binder, sort them out on the floor and try to get them organized by year, month, and day.
- Select the letters/postcards to include in the book. You might be tempted to use all of the letters. Trust me that can get tricky unless you are doing an anthology. If you find some that are basic, “everything’s fine here, dear, hope you had a good week,” discard them. Also, look for potentially embarrassing letters that might cause some family drama. Just use common sense, even in this age of oversharing.
- Type (or hire someone to type) out the text. It sounds like a pain, but you will have a faster time typing out the letter rather than using a scanner. OCR scanning has come a long way in recent years, but it still has some issues. This is especially true with old letters written in cursive. Typed letters will scan better, but you’ll still have to edit it heavily. I learned quickly that typing it out and editing it at the same time sped up the process. I used Microsoft Word but feel free to use Google Docs or other similar programs. Just be sure to choose one that has automatic backups to some cloud storage. [Note: I realize that I am a fast typist, so it is easier for me to say that. Hire a transcriptionist or bribe a friend if necessary.]Also, you can try just scanning the letters and placing the scanned images in a book. If you do that, be sure that the text is legible; sometimes old letters do not scan very well, and the document may be very faint. If you want to create a Kindle or eBook, the file will be too large if you just have pages of scanned letters. It’s a giant page to type it out, but it helps with the editing stage. You can always scan a letter or two and include it in the book as an example.
- Edit carefully but keep the voice of the author. What does this mean? If the writer uses slang like, “You’ll be good,” or “May God keep ya’ll safe,” leave it in. Slang can help set the voice for the reader, and it keeps the unique voice of the person you remember from the letters. Otherwise, run spellcheck and check for punctuation, etc. Also, if these are family letters, use some sensitivity. If certain members are still alive, but the letters have snarky (or controversial) gossip in them, it’s best to leave them on the cutting room floor—unless you like drama. I ran into that with my Granny’s letters. Some gossip was fairly banal, so I left it in, but there were a few places where she bashed her in-laws or called one a few sordid names. There was no need to bring up old wounds that she had already apologized and atoned for. [I also removed the statement where my father rebuked her for saying that about said, in-law. I didn’t want the woman, who is still alive in 2019, to read that and wonder exactly what was said.]
- Save the document by date (and maybe author). Why? You’ll want to create folders or some type of storage system so that you know this letter is from April 1960, for example. It’s also helpful to list the author of the letter was just for quick reference. It is most critical to save it by date rather than document 1.docx or theoneingermany.docx as they do not give you any idea about what the book entails. Instead, save as 1960_April_23.docx.
Do this upfront, and you’ll save yourself time down the road.
To add visual interest, it’s good to include photos from the period. In To Lenorah, With Love, I included photos that my father had taken in Germany during his time there. For his earlier letters, I also included family photos that related to the time period. For example, my aunt Lillymay’s family graciously gave me family photos from my father’s childhood in the 1940s. My cousin Debbie gave me pictures of her father. Her father Walter was a great man with a somewhat quirky sense of humor who served during World War II and was the family jokester. All of these photos were extremely useful in setting the tone for the book.
- Organize. Like with the letters, try to get the images sorted by date before you begin. You probably do not need to include all of the pictures, especially if you are scanning them. So, try to find maybe one or two per letter (if short) or maybe one per month or season if the letters or longer. Grab some sticky notes, etc., and try and write down as much identifying information as you can. Later, you can easily pull out these notes when creating captions for your book. Let’s say an image that you manage to identify as being from April 2, 1943, and in lousy penmanship can barely make out the words, Steve and Bucky. Carefully write the date and the other details on a sticky note and attach it to the backside of the photo.
- Scan. You have two options here. Use a photo scanner or all-in-one printer with a scanner land then save them as necessary. Places like Kinkos or even Walmart have places where you can bring in paper images, and they will scan them for you. Expect to pay around 40 to 60 cents per image with those services. Depending on the cost, it may be cheaper to invest in a good image scanner and do it manually.The same can be said for converting video to digital. My father had some old roll of films from the time, so I used a local service to scan in the old film strip. Paying to convert the video to digital was much cheaper than it would have been to scan all of the photos that I wanted.
- Rename by Date. Like with the digital editions of your letters, don’t leave the images lying around labeled as 0038382.jpg. Change the name of the file by right-clicking on the image and hitting “Rename.” Then, name it something like 1943_April_2_Steve_and_Bucky.jpg. Okay, you don’t have to include the names of the people in the photo, but at least include the date. Here’s an example of a letter from Steve from April 1943 that I typed up along with an image of Steve and Bucky.
So, as you begin putting the files together in Microsoft Word, InDesign, or one of the other programs, you’ll have it all sorted by date and image.
Putting it All Together
Once I had all of the text written and edited, the photos scanned, and the coffee brewed, it was time to sit down and start piecing it together. I used Adobe InDesign to put in the letters and photos in order. You can also use a program like Microsoft Word or even Google Docs to do so. However, be sure to check for templates from where you are planning on publishing. For example, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing has manuscript templates available for paperback formatting. You can also hire graphic artists to put the book together for you. It’s much cheaper if you provide them with the text and images ahead of time rather than hiring them to do the entire process.
Once I finished, I created a free account on Createspace (now Amazon KDP). I uploaded PDF files and then selected the size of the book, etc. I’ll create a detailed walkthrough later on how to use Amazon KDP. KDP, IngramSpark, and other print on demand wholesalers are useful so that you only print the number that you need. This helps prevent you from having a whole bunch of books sitting in your garage. As soon as someone orders the book, KDP prints it and sends it to them with no effort on your part. You can also order author copies at the base rate that you can use to hand out to family and friends.
Need more information? Feel free to reach out to me and I’ll be glad to help.