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How to Write a Memoir

Travel Memoir – Hike in the Cotswolds, Part 2

dsc_0022That afternoon we explored the charming town and photographed its hand-hewn stone houses, some covered with climbing roses and others with thatched roofs perched like well-coifed wigs.  We ate the first of many pub dinners together that evening at the Eight Bells Inn, savoring fish and chips or bangers and mash.  Then we retired early to our private rooms at the 300-year-old Noel Arms Inn to rest up for our eight-day walk to Bath. 

The next morning, after a full English breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausages, kippers and dry toast, we left our bags in the hotel lobby for a taxi pickup, strapped on our little daypacks filled with water and rain gear, and headed across the street to the arched 18th century market hall that stands at the beginning of the Cotswold Way.   We posed for a photo there together and then started off down the street in high spirits.

At the edge of town, we found the first wooden trail marker with a distinctive acorn carved on its face.  A small arrow on the post, labeled “Cotswold Way” pointed toward a broad hill.  For the next eight days, we looked for those markers at every juncture where the way crossed a local footpath or road.   While the markers were well placed along the trail, sometimes they were swallowed by tall wild flowers, so we had to refer to the maps Andrew had given us to be sure of our route.

For the first five miles we walked together, three or four abreast, watching our steps as we passed through rich farmland dotted with sheep.  We stopped often to take photos of panoramic vistas and to listen to the insistent bleating of baby lambs.  Together, we learned how to scramble over stiles and negotiate “kissing-gates” one at a time to gain access to the trail that wove through walled private fields. 

Around noon we spotted the Broadway Tower, a five-story turreted structure that sat atop Beacon Hill.   Known as a “folly,” the medieval-looking tower was actually built as a viewing platform in the 18th century.  Two couples from our group decided to climb the tower to overlook the countryside and see historical museum inside.   The other four couples, stomachs grumbling, decided to skip the tower and push on to The Swan pub for lunch in the town of Broadway, which marked the half-way point of our 10-mile walk for that day.  After dining on salads or fish and chips, we carried on for five more miles to the pretty little town of Stanton, where we would spend the night. 

As we settled into our private room in the 17th century stone-block home that once served as Stanton’s post house, my husband’s cell phone rang. 

“We’re lost,” said a man with an American accent.

“Oh dear,” Tom said, recognizing Ron’s voice.  “What do you see around you?”

“There’s a long stone wall with an iron gate and a pasture full of sheep.  Any idea where we are?”

Ron’s plaintive wail became a running gag throughout the trip, as we strolled through countless walled pastures with sheep.  The tower climbers eventually made it to their B & B in Stanton and joined us for a superb dinner at the town’s Mount Inn, which is said to be a favorite dining spot of Paul McCartney and his daughter who lives nearby.  A pony-sized dog lay in the doorway like a rolled up rug, but the bill of fare offered a sophisticated menu of fresh haddock, sirloin steak and locally sourced vegetables.  Best of all, the English ales were cold.  After dinner some of us sat out on the restaurant’s hillside patio with a cold one and watched a sunset that turned the sky the color of amber stout. 

Read more of Kay’s travel memoir about a 70-mile walk through the Cotswolds in her next blog, January 1, 2017.

How a Trip Journal Can Help You Write a Travel Memoir

IMG_8351Many of us keep a journal when we travel. At the end of each day, we try to jot down where we went and what we saw, recording names of the places we visited and new information we learned. We tend to write about what impressed us most, but we don’t often say why.

Back home when we want to write about the trip in more depth, we turn to our journals and often are disappointed. Our notes are sketchy. Memories have faded.

How can you write about what you felt when you saw the Taj Mahal for the first time if you neglected to record your original, raw emotions? How can you describe the interior of the Palace of Versailles and its effect on you if you didn’t take detailed notes?

To improve your travel memoirs in the future, think about taking more time to record your experiences in your trip diary when they are fresh. Here are three suggestions to think about as you write your notes each day:

1. Write detailed descriptions of the places that really impressed you. Even if you only write in phrases, capture the specific characteristics as you remember them including the sights, smells and sounds.

For a castle in Portugal, I jotted down such items as: “stone brick façade inlaid with green, pink and yellow tiles; deep bell chimes each hour; mosaic ceilings made of stones, shells and tiles; second-story cobblestone porch with view to the sea and smells from the sea carried by breeze; six-foot-long bathtub in fully tiled bathroom.” These details later helped me describe the incredible castle and the eccentric king who built it, making the story of my travels there more compelling.

2. Write about how you felt when you were there. What were your emotions? Later, when you are home and writing your memoir, you can tap into those emotions and perhaps see more clearly how they may have changed and inspired you. Travel is about more than just where you went and what you did. There is an inner, parallel journey going on too, and that is the most valuable aspect of travel.

I recently walked the last 70 miles of the Camino de Santiago in Spain with six friends, all of us around 70 years old. Along the trail I spent some time meditating about how the trail was a metaphor of life, with its ups and downs, never revealing what lies on the other side of the hill.

As I walked, I felt the wonder of traversing the same worn path where thousands have passed since the 11th century. I thought about the last years of my life and how I want to approach them with courage and grace. The swinging of the huge incense burner at the Santiago de Compostella cathedral at the end of the walk made me gasp and choke back tears as I realized the symbolism of the smoke carrying my aspirations to the heavens.

3. Write about the people you met who influenced or impressed you. What did you discuss? What did you learn? After you return home, you may see these personal encounters as the most enriching events of your trip.

During my walk on the Camino, I met people who told me about their lives. One woman talked about the two children in Ethiopia she was sponsoring by sending money for clothing, school and food. A man from Guatemala described the orphanage he ran there. A Swedish woman shared how she worked to save the elephants at a reserve in Botswana. After a while, their stories ran together in my mind. I’m happy I wrote down the details soon after our encounters.

The next time you travel, take along that trip journal and write in it each night, but take more time to think about the details, emotions and insights that can turn your jottings into a meaningful memoir of your travels.

Give the Gift of Family Stories


In my first blog this year (January 1, 2015), I made a commitment to create an illustrated book about my parents and grandparents that I would give to my children and other family members for Christmas. In my blogs throughout this year, I have shared ideas for creating this family memoir. Some of you have written to tell me you are creating books of your own following these ideas.

My blogs this year have suggested ways to interview living relatives, write authentic family stories, conduct genealogical research, identify important memorabilia, sort through old photos and write captions.

Now it’s time to create a book filled with these items to give to family members for the holidays. In my last blog (Nov. 1), I suggested a layout for the book. It starts with a genealogical family tree that shows your relationship to the relatives you feature in your book. Then I proposed gathering the following items for each family member’s chapter: a timeline of important life events, stories you have recalled and written about that person, followed by certificates, awards and photos (with captions) from various stages of the person’s life.

Following are a few ideas for printing your book:

  • Create multiple, identical scrapbooks with photos and typed or handwritten text. You will need to make copies of all the pictures and text pages so you can create these books. Purchase good quality scrapbook albums with acid-free plastic sleeves to protect the photos and copied text pages.
  • Create one book and have it copied at a shop like Kinkos or Staples. You will need to lay-out the pages of the book and design a cover. Have the copy shop print your cover image on thick paper stock and copy the book’s text and photos on fine-grained paper. Have them bind the book with a spiral binding.
  • Create a hard-cover book using an online book-builder program. Find free downloadable software for a book from one of the many companies that offer these programs, such as:,, or All of these programs offer four-color printing, a creative choice of layouts and a variety of book sizes, with professional (perfect) binding and several hard-cover options. The software is easy to use. Try to complete your online book as soon as possible to avoid the Christmas rush. If you do it soon enough, you should receive the books by mail approximately one week after you submit the finished design.
  • Prepare your book with a computer layout and design program such as Microsoft’s Publisher or Apple’s Pages. Then, either print the designed pages of the book and put them in a three-ring notebook or copy the book onto a disk that family members can read on an iPad or other tablet computer. You can share the book easily using email or through social media, such as Facebook. This may appeal most to the younger generations, as the creators of the comic, Crankshaft, have noted.

I hope you are motivated as I am to finally complete a family history memoir. Remember, you are the only person who can pass along this information and if you don’t, it may be lost to future generations. Don’t put your incomplete manuscript pages on the shelf where they may not be discovered or valued. Create a finished book now that will be a treasure for generations to enjoy. This could be the most important and remembered present you give to your family.

Connect with Family History

photoHow are you coming with your book about your family? I started in January with the goal of writing a book about my parents and grandparents in one year. I busily researched each one and wrote time-lines of the important events in their lives (see my blog 6-15-15). I visited the places where some of them lived; Minnesota, Indiana and Sweden (see blog 9-1-15).

Now I want to write about their lives, to make them real – more than just names and old photos. I want to help my grown children and grandchildren relate to the lives lived by their ancestors. Where to start?

  1. The first step is to make a list of the stories I remember or that I have learned from my research about each of my parents, my four grandparents and some of my great-grandparents. My sister has researched our family tree and has extended it back several centuries. Her 15-year project is an incredibly valuable addition to our knowledge and appreciation of the family. So now the names and the dates are confirmed, but the accomplishments and experiences of most of these ancestors have been lost in time. I know that if I don’t write about the lives of the family members I do know about, their life stories will be lost too. I am starting with a list of what I know.
  2. Next, I plan to write as much as I can about each of the story topics in my list. My stories may be short – just a few paragraphs, or several pages. I will add photos to the stories when possible and if not, I will find illustrations on the internet. For example, I found a drawing of a horse and buggy from the 1880s to illustrate a story about how my maternal grandparents from different European countries met at a train station in North Dakota (my grandfather offered a ride to a young woman who stepped off a train and later became my grandmother). A photo of a telegraph machine will accompany a story of my paternal grandfather’s successful career as a railroad telegrapher back when telegraphy was cutting-edge technology. These stories will be the core of my book. They will give flesh to some of the many names on my family tree.
  3. In addition, I will plan some activities to help my children and grandchildren connect with their ancestors, and then I will write about those. Janet Hovorka has created a delightful website to help grandparents with the clever title: “Zap the Grandma Gap” She suggests that if we have a greater awareness of the traits that helped our ancestors navigate life successfully, we will be inspired and empowered to use the traits that have been handed down to us. In other words, knowing you come from a long line of good cooks or good writers or good athletes can give you confidence to succeed at those things yourself.

Hovorka presents a variety of ways to connect grandchildren with the family’s past. One of her many ideas that I have used with my granddaughters involved introducing them to my mother and grandmother through their possessions that I now have, such as their dishes. My grandchildren will inherit them someday, so I decided to use them to build memories with me now. When the “Grandgirls” visited us last summer, I planned a tea party with those Depressions-ware blue plates and we talked about how my grandfather bought them as a surprise for my mother at a time in history when they and other people had little money. I wrote this story for my book and illustrated it with a photo of the girls using their great-grandmother’s dishes.


picAs we continue through this year of writing about our families, I hope you have been inspired to write some insightful and entertaining stories about your parents. In this blog space, I have reviewed books written about mothers and fathers and have suggested a number of ways for you to approach writing about them.

Now it’s time to move on – to the subject of grandparents. Writing their stories may be more difficult than writing about your parents. Fewer and fewer of us have lived near our grandparents or seen them on a regular basis. Sadly, by the time we are truly interested in their lives, they may already have passed on.

Mom – Twenty Questions to help you Write Her Story

FullSizeRenderBefore you write about your mother, you need to do some research. One of the best ways to find out more about her is to ask some targeted questions – ones that require a thoughtful answer, not just “yes” or “no.” If your mother is still alive and able to respond to your questions, you are very lucky indeed. Create a list of questions and find some time to sit down with her. Ask each question, then listen and don’t interrupt. You can take notes and/or record her answers with audio or video. Show her you are interested, and she may be willing to talk on and on.

DAD – How to write his story

IMG_4382If you are like me, you have lots of memories of your dad, yet you haven’t taken the time to write them down. You may have general memories, but don’t know where to start to describe the kind of man he is or was, and the lasting impression he has left on you.

Why did your parents do that?

FullSizeRenderNow that you have created a timeline for each of your parents (see blog, Jan. 1, 2015), you have an outline to help you start writing about their lives.

WRITE your thanks this year

images[1]With Thanksgiving around the corner, it’s time to consider what you are thankful for this year. Counting your blessings is supposed to be part of the holiday’s activities, but sometimes it gets lost in the rituals of stuffing ourselves with too much food and watching football.
Some family traditions require everyone around the dining room table to say what they are grateful for. What would you say if you were asked this year? How can you prepare for that question so your thoughts won’t come out half-baked and you won’t dissolve with embarrassment like a puddle of thin gravy?


Los Angeles, USDid you ever notice what directional adverbs people use to refer to places on earth? The words usually reveal the speakers egocentric and cultural view of the world. Take those of us who live in Southern California, for example. We don’t say we’re flying east or to the Midwest. We talk about going BACK east, or BACK to the Midwest, as though we are not just traveling east, but traveling back in time to a past we left behind, which some of us did.

But when we travel to places that are east of here but a bit closer to California, we use the word OVER, as in, “We’re going OVER to Las Vegas for the weekend.” We would never imagine going BACK to Las Vegas. Maybe no one comes from there.