Local memoir authors share ways to bring personal history to life

 By Kay Braddock

        When Milly Ross sat down to write her memoir she would later recall the primary motivation propelling the project.

“I did it for my girls,” Ross shared. “I just didn’t think they knew the circumstances of when I was growing up.”
Her nearly 91 years are encapsulated in a small soft cover self-published book relating stories and pictures of her life. Recollections of her growing-up years in McCone County describe a strict upbringing and her budding lifelong love of music. A description of her participation in high school basketball provides a glimpse into the conditions of sports for girls in the mid-1930’s. The now long-forgotten game rules that limited girls from running up and down the court, to prevent injuries, are indeed a page from the past and would likely be deemed an unfamiliar oddity to today’s female athletes. 
Brief accounts also highlight other segments of her life, including a short period as a young beautician in Terry in the late 1930’s, her courtship with husband David and their subsequent married life. It concludes with family developments of their three grown daughters – the same three who inspired her to undertake the memoir project. 
Eighty-six-year-old Dave Covert expressed similar sentiments when explaining why he decided to pen his life story on to the pages of his memoir. 
“The children and grandchildren had heard some of those stories before,” Covert said, “but the great grandchildren had never had a chance.”
With clarifying detail that only a natural born storyteller can convey, Covert brings to life experiences from his childhood days living in a log cabin near Mizpah, Mont., as well as offering descriptive accounts of his service years in World War II. In chronological order, the 155 pages also reflect on his subsequent return to Prairie County, his years working for his father at the family managed grocery store, and his marriage to wife Lucille. The couple would ultimately take over managing the grocery business while raising their three children.
Covert recalled beginning by writing short stories from memory. His daughters encouraged him to refine his written work to make them suitable for book format. 
“I just sat in front of the computer and wrote,” Covert shared. “I would be working outside or something and I’d think of some little incident that happened and I’d just come in at noon and I’d sit down and get it on the computer.”
The writing process took about six months.
“I didn’t do a lot of research,” Covert explained. “It was mostly tales from my memory.”
He then handed his writings to one of his daughters who assembled it, added pictures and took the manuscript to a print shop. Fifty copies of the spiral bound book were printed - each costing about $15 a piece. 
Today, with an additional 50 copies of the memoir distributed to family and friends, Covert adamantly encourages others to take the time and effort to record their own life story. 
“I think it’s a wonderful gift to leave for your family,” Covert shared.
Steps to follow when writing a memoir
But how does one go about embarking on such a formidable task? 
According to self-published author Karen Stevenson, the project may not be as daunting as first perceived.  She encourages would-be authors to first consider their goals.
“What’s your vision for your book? Do you want commercial success or personal satisfaction?” Stevenson asked rhetorically of those who may be considering a memoir project. 
In her own work, Stevenson decided she wanted both. 
The author of the memoir, “Elsie Fox: Portrait of an Activist,” Stevenson recalled opting to self publish her book due to time constraints.
“When you’re dealing with someone who’s a 100 years old, time is limited,” Stevenson said, referring to the subject of her book, Elsie Fox. Stevenson wanted to ensure that Fox would see her memoir in print. 
After spending three years interviewing Fox, compiling historical data and writing, Stevenson said she opted to contact iUniverse to self publish her completed work. The company offers “a road map.” But with each step, from assigning a publishing services assistant and offering editorial services to graphic preparations and marketing services, Stevenson reminds authors to again first and foremost consider their goal. That will determine how many services to use, and ultimately how much money to spend.
“The one thing about self publishing is you’re going to pay every step of the way,” Stevenson said. 
Although the self-publishing services offered are in par with publishing houses, including freelance editors who work with the nation’s top publishing companies, Stevenson reminds authors the end result rests on the author.
“Everything is on your shoulders,” Stevenson said. “If you don’t find that mistake, it stays there.”
Considering the publishing house option
Self-publishing companies can be found by the dozens when using a search engine on the Internet. But they’re not the only way to go. Stevenson encourages authors to consider printing their memoirs at a print shop if the intent is to provide a historical account for close friends and family. Publishing houses should be considered when an author desires to reach a wider audience.
“They have the experience and you don’t,” Stevenson said of publishing companies and the varying aspects required in editing, marketing and selling books.
One down-side to seeking a publishing house is the time it can take to see your project realized. 
“I do know enough about publishing to know that when you’re a first time author it’s very, very difficult,” Stevenson said. “It takes years of submitting and getting rejected.”
Publisher Chris Cauble agrees that the publishing process can be arduous. Of the 100 or so inquiries Riverbend Publishing receives each year, the Helena-based publishing house ultimately chooses between just six and 12 to print. 
“There’s a lot of people who think they’ve got a good memoir and they may have good stories, but can they tell those stories to make it interesting to people outside of their friends and family?” Cauble asked. “That’s the trick.”
Cauble explained those seeking to publish their memoir with a publishing company should send an e-mail briefly describing the book idea and writing experience of the author.
“And then wait,” Cauble said. “Wait for the publisher or editor to get back to them.”
If interest in the idea exists, a typical response to a new author will be to ask for a couple of sample chapters, table of contents and a description of the author’s writing background. From there, if the publisher likes the submitted material, the author is likely to be asked to submit the entire work.
“It’s another review process really,” Cauble said. “The two chapters must have been interesting enough and well written enough to grab the interest of the publishing company.”
But, Cauble warns, nothing is set in stone until a contract is signed.
It’s all about good storytelling
Regardless of the author’s goal, whether it’s to pass along a heritage of family stories to children and grandchildren or to let the world know of an interesting life led, authors and publishers agree it all begins one chapter at a time.
“There are beautiful, wonderful stories out there,” Stevenson said emphasizing the cherished memories shared in written accounts. She adds, “They’re a treasure.”
Cauble points to a recently published memoir that continues to sell year after year. Published about six years ago, “When the Meadowlark Sings,” is a memoir that Nedra Sterry wrote in her 80’s. It describes Sterry’s growing up years along Montana’s Hi-Line and is, according to Cauble, a memoir to emulate.
“(The author) describes the area and recounts conversations,” Cauble said. “She has very good dialogue and a good sense of timing. Each of her chapters is a little story into itself.”
Finding a suitable sounding board 
“She hated to tell me this, but I knew it …” Stevenson began as she recalled a critique she received early on from someone she trusted and admired. “ ‘Karen, it’s boring,’ “ Stevenson recalled her friend saying. “And it was.”
A writer has to have tough skin, Stevenson warns, but more importantly Stevenson recommends new authors choose their sounding boards wisely.
“Don’t let that manuscript go to early,” Stevenson said. “Don’t give it out willy-nilly.”
A tough critique on an early version can quickly shut down a new author’s confidence and ability to continue. It’s a lesson Stevenson said she had to learn the hard way. 
“The manuscript is still evolving,” Stevenson explained.
Stevenson’s “Elsie Fox Portrait of an Activist,” underwent nine different revisions – the first thee or four included significant changes.
The critique Stevenson recalled earlier was tempered with gentleness and although was initially painful to hear, it provided an opportunity for her to move in another direction. She had chosen a more apt critic than the time before, which nearly prevented the book’s completion.
“I needed a sounding board,” Stevenson said. “ But I needed a sounding board that made me move forward.”

Published April 7, 2010

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