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A “Launch” for a New Book: Lots of People and Cookies Shaped Like a Book By Lou Ellen Watts, author of Sleeping in Dixie’s Feather Bed: Growing Up White in the Segregated South

My book took just one year to be born. It was conceived at Eugene and Marilyn Glick Author Day at the Indianapolis Public Library, just a year ago, in a workshop I attended. There I got encouragement from the memoir workshop leader Lyn Jones and met the editor of the regional publisher Hawthorne Publishing. She became intrigued with the story I felt I had to tell: how a girl who grew up in working class neighborhoods all over the south slept comfortably on a racially stratified bed in southern states—and how she (I)  finally woke up to the Civil Rights movement. The editor agreed to help me develop the book.  Several drafts happened.

The memoir was born but now it had to be nurtured, cuddled, educated, and sent off to college!  Hawthorne Publishing decided yes, to release the book as part of its line, a departure from their usual Indiana Civil War books or biographies. Lots of refining and editing details followed. Then—the book was here! It was almost exactly a year from the time I sat around a table at Glick Author Day and discussed how my idea could possibly find publication.

A catalogue and flyer sent word around to Indiana libraries, and newspapers in my area.

Then my own touches could be added to the release. I was told that it was the duty of a regional book author to do her own publicity—with guidance and advice and publicity materials from the publisher. I had to find a place to have a “book launch,” so I contacted the Johnson County Museum of History in my town of Franklin, Indiana. After they read a copy of the flyer and spoke to me a bit,  they readily agreed. It was to be in October, but each Saturday was filled with other activities. We finally agreed on a date but my book was to come immediately after another speaker. Instead of 1:30 -3:00 we had to settle for 4:00-5:30, not the most desirable time for a Saturday afternoon speech. Still, we would make it work.

I now had from Hawthorne that synopsis of the book and a picture of the cover which I had printed as an attractive flyer. I placed these flyers in any store front that would accept them. I passed them out to all of the organizations that I belonged to in addition to the local libraries. I made “You are invited to” postcards and sent them to organizations in the community and about a week before the event I passed out “You are invited to” reminder cards to my own organizations and friends. I contacted the local newspapers and had announcements printed, set up dates to sign at local bookstores and the library. Notices were also sent to my college sororities and alumnae magazines.

All of that was taken care of, so now I had to think about the setting of the facility where the book was to be presented. Was there a podium? How was the mic set up? Were there enough chairs? Where would the signing table be? Where were the tables for the refreshments?

Then what would the refreshments be? I contacted the local bakery/designer for cookies a month in advance, since I knew how busy this excellent local baker was. The question was, “How many?” I just guessed, “Four dozen.” I would buy some already made cookies just in case.  We decided on a simple punch served from a regular punch bowl.  I made notes to remind myself to take ice, table clothes, napkins, cups and serving platters.

I read that props always add to the setting, so I made a little bed covered with feathers to place on the serving table along with one of the flyers propped up on a display stand. The signing table was covered with a black tablecloth. There my husband would sit on one end to take money, with me sitting at the other end to sign books. One of the major purposes of these book launches, of course,  is to sell the books you are introducing. The South?  I put some cotton bolls on stems with some magnolia leaves in a container in the middle of the table as a reminder of what people think of the typical South. Another poster was propped up next to the cotton bolls with my business cards in a little display case next to it.

Finally, it was 3:30 and I roamed the hall greeting each attendee personally. At 4:00 the curator of the museum stepped behind the podium and read the introduction that I wrote for her which gave some history of my past life.

Of course in my lecture I talked about life in the south, but I also tried to paint a picture of my Louisiana Cajun grandparents on my father’s side and my rural Arkansas relatives on my mother’s side. It was in their home that I actually slept on a feather bed in the 1940s. I also told the audience that it was at my aunt’s house in Arkansas that I was “introduced to the outhouse.” That description got a laugh. In another part of my lecture I put my hand over my heart and sang part of “Dixie”, “Oh, I wish I were in the land of cotton,” and told the audience that for along time I thought that was the National Anthem. I got a laugh from that too.

I closed with “This memoir tells about a journey in which I discovered a new view of equality that I want for my own life and for America.” Often, I believe, we grow up with views we absorb from our culture. It may be time to examine that process of “growing-up values” and think for ourselves in some cases.

As people came by to get a book signed I heard them say, “I never even knew there were black people nearby where I lived.” Or “I saw a Mammy when I visited my aunt in North Carolina.” Or “I played with a black girl who lived down the street.” It seemed like so many people had stories to tell and they were not intimidated to tell them. It was as if they were eager to tell their experiences or lack of experiences. Perhaps a few doors had been opened, and if that is the case the book is a success on that front.

It was such a rewarding night where I felt renewed to keep spreading each day my book message of equality and kindness. And, as my editor insists, “a truly good story.”

Lou Ellen Watts

Posted in Book Publishing, Writing Non Fiction |

Is your memoir publishable? How? Nancy Baxter discusses the possibilities of putting pen to paper and letting your life flow out. . .

We have talked about some of the essentials of memoir writing: first, including some scenery and history or chronology to set the stage of your memory story(ies). Then, focusing on a few key scenes in the life you are writing about which awaken in the reader experiences of the five senses: dwelling, in other words, at a few key moments on re-creating a scene or two you recall.

We’ve also said little moments can be important if they are treated with a writer’s skills and a view “through the keyhole.” Photos can be helpful in this visual age.

But what will you do with your memoir once it is completed? There are several routes for you, and you’ve probably already considered what you will do with your memoir from the first moment you decided you wanted to record memories. Here are some options:

  1. You are writing only for your own family and possibly friends. This means you can prepare the story, attach any photos you wish, and take it to UPS to duplicate either for stapling or putting in an attractive spiral binding.
  2. Even if it is a private printing, you may wish to consider having it edited and bound as a paperback (or hardcover?) book. Printers now have special departments to handle your manuscript completion process, providing final copy editing and doing digital printing quickly and for a small number of books. Price? About $5 to $10 a book depending on pages and how complicated your book will be. One suggestion: Thomson Shore Printers in Dexter Michigan. They are employee owned, helpful and reputable.
  3. Some memoirs can be published for a wider audience. If your subject would be of state or national interest or the figure you are writing about is known or should be known, you may interest a small press to pick up your book —or a larger one. You can consult Jeff Herman’s Guide to Literary Agents, Editors and Publishers in America, which guides would-be authors on the paths to book publishing companies. If you capture a publisher’s interest, they may offer you a royalty contract and put the book out to sell to their part of the book market.
  4. If you are writing about a certain area, town, county or city or state and have some writing experience, for instance if you have written for the local newspaper or believe those in your community will be interested in the memoir, nostalgic or personal, you can also put it out yourself for sales through your own author appearances and talks on the subject at clubs and organizations and libraries and church groups. Develop your own little book-selling business! Get it reviewed and generate interest!

Are there any pitfalls? Yes. Beware of self-publishing companies who offer too many services  for sale that you don’t need and don’t provide quality control. Read the blogs about them and investigate.

Be sure in all cases to think about the people you are writing about in your memoir. Are these relatives who will be startled or unhappy or even hurt by what you are telling? Better avoid that. Is anyone treated with a frankness that could get you into trouble? Keep the writing positive if it involves those still alive. And beware of the true difficulties in involving a process of creative non-fiction in your memoir. That is a yawning cave of troubles for you to fall into, I say and have seen the difficulties. Just tell the truth and write it well.

Nancy Niblack Baxter Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing. Her books are featured on this website.

Posted in Writing Memoirs |

Memoir: Endless variety! And an age of Electronic media to furnish material

We’ve said that a memoir needs honesty but also creativity. It should recapture memories of a life and let them live with vivid description and also create specific scenes which let us see, feel, hear and even smell the scene as you let us experience it.

My own long-time association in both reading and producing memoirs for publication is that the best ones do combine chronology, summary of events or happenings and vivid scene re-creation. Their scope can be a few days that were very important or a week or a month or months or a whole lifetime.

At this time we at Hawthorne are taking the opportunity to do our own memoir—of the president of the company. Art Baxter kept a diary in his sixteenth year in 1949—for just a couple of months. But what months they were! He attended meetings of his high school club, went to dances, failed his driver’s test and they took it so he could drive his new “Studie,” his Studebaker car, showed 16 millimeter movies in his basement to his friends, relished a new scientific device called a wire recorder, singing into the machine, finally got his driver’s license and—welcomed a new baby brother he hadn’t even mentioned before in his diary.

This memoir took the diary and using modern media recreated a segment of time in the life of a young man in 1949. None of this would have been possible a few years ago: pulling public domain photographs off the net and Wikipedia to show Art Baxter attending the Sonia Henie Ice Show, listening to the Lone Ranger, seeing a Robin Hood movie; visiting the league-winning Indianapolis Indians game. We see the church he attended, the state-of-the art new 1949 recording machine the dad brought in for the family, the state park where his boys’ club stayed and got into trouble with the locals by bumping a truck and fleeing—all of this can be illustrated to make a running, illustrated commentary on this diary. That is what we did in compiling and editing the memoir.

The new media, Wikipedia, and thousands of specific historic sites for reference and research are making backgrounding for memoirs easy. Facts about the setting and times are readily available by entering year and location. And the photos in historic sites enrich the story so that plenty of scenery for specific scenes in the memoir can come to visual life. But what about just taking a photo from Wikipedia or a specific website and featuring it in your memoir? Can we do that?  A qualified yes is the answer. Wikipedia is a multi-hosting site and these historic photos can usually be utilized for a limited publication. If your memoir is being issued by a large press and concerns an important national happening or is about a celebrity or famous person, your situation will be quite different, handled by the publisher, who will be careful to get permissions and not violate copyright.

Most memoirs are meant for limited audiences, however: family, friends, a neighborhood or state. These are the types of literary reminiscences that can use electronic media without much fear of copyright infringement. Though it is true that some photo sites say, “This photo may be under copyright,” many photos, especially historic ones,  have been widely distributed before, are not unique and cannot claim to be under copyright.

Recent photographs may clearly say that they must be purchased; a modest fee is due. In that case it is correct to pay the fee and use the photo with permission.

At any rate, there is a good deal more freedom for using photos and illustrations that aren’t for national publication.

And computers and photo scanning make entering memories easier than that process used to be. Just picture Boswell in the 18th century, sitting at a desk recording his memories of Samuel Johnson for the famous biography. He has a quill pen in hand, an inkwell on his desk (ink may spill over any minute onto his shoes) and Johnson’s huge dictionary by his side. Hours will pass for a few pages to be created.

We live in a great age for writing a memoir!

Nancy Baxter, Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing. Check out Nancy’s books by clicking back to the website.


Posted in Writing Memoirs |

Envisioning: What pops into your mind?

We’ve explored the motivations and basic extent of memoir writing in general; now we should get specific. Lyn Jones has advised would-be memoir writers to involve emotional content in creating scenes, and to achieve that, to focus on specific scenes from the past and describe each one fully.  How can we determine which scenes of our lives hold emotional content that we can recapture for readers?

Here’s a simple exercise.  Sit yourself down in a comfortable place, a chair with a piece of paper and pen or pencil handy. Relax, perhaps close your eyes. Let the words “I REMEMBER” enter your consciousness. What is the first thing from your past that comes to mind? Not the very first memory that you recall, two-years-old or so, but  a moment that rings always at the back of your mind, unsummoned until now. Is it a scene at your grade school? Boys gathered around bullying and teasing? Embarrassment when a piece of clothing was commented on by others or ripped or fell down? Something good—a birthday party with a grandparents unexpected visit from far away? I hope it’s something more exciting and emotionally interesting than the examples I’ve just given.

What pops into your mind absolutely first when you say the words to yourself “I remember. . “

There it is—the memory. Now start writing it down, in the present tense as if you are standing in the middle of it. Set the scene. What time of year, interior or exterior, weather, scenery. But more importantly, emotional context. Can you feel the heat in the room or beach setting, the expressions on the faces of people around you, your own reactions, pain, exultation, joy, sadness?

Here’s mine. Pops first and of course once that happens you can’t change it. It’s the default for life, darn it. I’m five years old and standing in our family home in Indianapolis. My parents have gone for a walk down the street and my sister must be in bed for a nap; she isn’t in the memory. I’m standing in front of one of those old-fashioned radiators that gave hot water heat to homes in the 1930s. That radiator is pretty hot but not enough to burn my hands. On the radiator is a pot I have gotten out of the cabinet along with a box of cocoa and a quart of milk. Some sugar is in a five pound bag nearby leaking  out from where I took a spoon and added sugar to the pot with the milk and cocoa.

I am going to make hot cocoa for my family, little housekeeper that I am, and I am proudly stirring the concoction, sticking my finger in it occasionally to taste it, and wondering why, since I have it on this hot radiator to cook, it isn’t getting much warmer. What’s the matter? I want it ready when they come in from the walk. They will be so proud of me.

But what’s this, they are here? I can hear the door closing; Mama and Daddy are beginning to take off their winter coats and hats and are checking me out. I start to say “I’m making cocoa”—but what is it—Mama is coming over here.

“What a mess. Look at this sugar? What are you doing, you’re going to spill that all over your Sunday School dress!”

I start to cry, to sob. They look at each other. “She was making cocoa for us,” They say. That’s the end of the memory.

Yes, I can feel the pain, and yes, as I have looked back when that memory pops up I can see in my little self crying away there over the radiator the me now who likes to please people. But in real life I have learned, I hope, not to expect a reaction that will please back. Do it because it’s good to do and gives you satisfaction.

Anyway, this exercise will be good for any would-be author of a memoir. Write it out, experience again in detail! Just don’t take your trips into the past too seriously! And remember, judge their importance to your full memoir ultimately not in terms of how the memory makes YOU feel, how much purging or cheering it gives you, but how it capsulizes your experience in life at that moment. It should throw light on the times you were experiencing, give insights into the background of your neighborhood or decade, let us live it and make us “be there,” through the evocation of the five senses you give us.

That’s part of a memoir that will live.

Nancy Niblack Baxter, Senior Editor at Hawthorne Publishing

Posted in Writing Memoirs |