Last week I was looking at a beautifully designed personal history and though “we can do this, too”.

I consulted with my co-worker, Kurt, who has a lot of experience interviewing, writing, and publishing and while, and now we are on our way.

Step 1: Establish a Goal

Our Goal: To create a beautiful 200-or-so-page book with my mother-in-law’s life stories

That sounds like a real goal, but I quickly realized that I needed to refine this. Of course I want it to be top-notch. It’s going to be our show piece. Fantastic layout, a couple of amazing videos, photos, sidebars, attractive time line, one or two maps. But how do I want our master piece book to be read? Do I expect anyone to read it like a novel, in once setting? Probably not. For that it would have to be …. well, a novel with a captivating plot, and no offense mom, a personal history isn’t quite that.  I want this personal history to be interesting enough that my children will want to pick it up and read in it, maybe a story or chapter, maybe two. I want them to enjoy their bite-sized consumption of the book so that they want to come back for more.

A couple of weeks ago I was reading in a personal history. I really enjoyed the initial story, but then it was followed by many, many anecdotes. At first they were very enjoyable, but after a while they started to blur and I eventually closed the book rather exhausted. What do you think is the likelihood of me opening that book again?

I plan to spare my readers this ‘fatigue experience’, by splitting the book into independent, yet connected, chapters. Each chapter is going to focus on a character trait or a lesson learned and will incorporate multiple stories and anecdotes for illustration. I will order the chapters chronologically based on where the main story of the chapter fits on the time line. I may not follow that perfectly, but that is my general vision. I don’t mind adjusting and changing that vision, but I do need to have one to get me moving and to keep me organized while I am moving.

Step 2: Make a Plan

Our plan is to do a lot of interviews, 45-60 min each, over the next 2-3 weeks. Family will be in time for the holidays, they will probably contribute stories, too. We will use smart phones to record the interviews and use to transcribe them. It’s cheap and does an acceptable job.

As we collect stories we will begin to sort them by theme or topic and as soon as we have enough stories for a particular theme we will start writing the ‘chapter. I’m hiring my 25 year old daughter to do this. She is a good writer and is looking for some extra cash.

While my daughter is doing the interviews and the writing, I will also get photos scanned. We’ve been wanting to digitize all of my mother-in-law’s photos anyway, so this is a nice by-product. I will probably ask another daughter to then sit down with her grandmother and identify and annotate the photos we might want to use for the printed book.

I want to include 2 or 3 videos. Mom gave me a video tape of her performance in My Fair Lady. We’ll get that digitized and edited. That will be one of the videos. A couple of years ago my son made a really nice video of how his grandparents met. That will be the second video. And then I think we will want to add a more current interview.

That’s not a very detailed plan, but it’s good enough to get us started.

Step 3: Execute Plan

Today was the official first visit with my mother-in-law. I took from her the first batch of photo albums. After going through them with my wife tonight we’ll hand them over to our local ‘scanner lady’ at

We also did our first 45 minutes of interviewing. It was a little helter-skelter at first, but after a while we got into the grove of asking good questions and she was spitting out memories faster than … [something fast].

Uploading the mp3 files from the phone to was super easy and within an hour we had the transcriptions. They are not super accurate, but definitely enough to help us remember what was said and to provide input into the stories.

We will conduct another interview tomorrow and in the meantime we will review the first interview and organize the stories and thoughts by topic/theme. That should help us identify the chapters later and quickly locate the stories that should go in each chapter.

I feel we are off to a good start. I’ll post another update next week.