Researching Your Memoir

Say what? Yes. Research your own story. Everybody has a story. And everybody’s story fits into some larger picture–family, community, corporation, school, world. How does yours fit in where?

Here’s an eclectic, but much thought about, list of things you might want to research as you figure out how to frame and position your story. I’ve also found that research can be a good cure for writer’s block or bump in the road.

  • Top 40 songs the month your memoir starts.
  • Headlines from your local newspaper or Time magazine for the period you’re writing about. What was going on in the world?
  • Everyday things–grocery prices, inflation rates, gas prices, college tuition.
  • The town(s) your ancestors/relatives emigrated from.
  • Who you were named after.
  • What your grandmother or grandfather did for a living. (I, for instance, come from several generations of crafts people and entrepreneurs. It turns out that not everything they did was entirely legal. Interesting for memoir or fiction. And good luck getting to the not entirely legal parts. It’s all whispers and innuendo.)
  • Family secrets.

You get the idea. Here’s a few things you might do with that research.

Hypothetical: you’re writing about the time you made early career and relationship decisions, right after college. You graduated from college in say 1970. You probably remember how much you made at your first job and how much you paid in rent. But do you remember how much a gallon of gas was? Or a pound of hamburger or brown rice? What was happening in the world the month you graduated? (I happen to have graduated in 1970 and many campuses around the country were shut down. But I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, and if I were to be writing about my personal history I’d want the details of Kent State and campus protests to be woven accurately into that story.)

Hypothetical: you’re writing about an event in your life that could be affected by your family history–perhaps how old your grandmother was when your mother was born. And the family Bible, your Aunt Edith, and your childhood memory of grandma’s stories are all slightly different. To my way of thinking, there’s a couple of ways of researching this part of the story and deciding what to do with it once researched. You could dig to the bottom per official records and go with that story. Except people often lied about their birth date or their children’s for a variety of reasons. You could gather all the information, pick one version, and write that into your memoir. And you could tell the story of your research and the conflicting stories that you remembered and found. A, B, C or all of the above!

What story about your life do you want to tell? And what’s the surrounding story? Research can help you find a way into your story. Research can help you find bits of your story that you don’t know you know. Research can be fun!

Write on!


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