Monthly Archives: April 2010

Writing a Memoir – Research Part 2

In my last post I showed one way libraries can help with your research and touched on the Internet. In this techno-crazy society I don’t have to go into a lot of detail about how great the Internet can be with finding information – from the history of your birthplace to blogs by your family members. And then there is Facebook. So, I won’t go there. I just want to mention that some of my research on Canadian railways came from the Internet (much came from books as well) including ex-railway employees’ forums. If you’ve read an earlier posting, you know that my late father was a timekeeper for CN Railway, including during the 1950s and early 1960s. Until 1960, when diesel locomotives took over completely in Canada,  trains  were pulled by steam engines. And that was my most interesting Internet find – steam engines, complete with sound effects.  (See So you never know what you will find on the Internet. And (here’s my journalism background kicking in), just be mindful about what is fact and what is fiction.

I also mentioned that returning to your childhood home (or homes) can also trigger memories for your memoir. And for those of you who believe that you can’t go home, it’s not true – even if the home itself is torn down and replaced with a parking lot or high-rise.  You can at least revisit the site. I returned to my growing-up home. However, it was not without some hesitation. I had to do it in spurts – walk around the block at different times including once with my son when he was 8 (he saw the cat on the front veranda and  ran on the property and I had to tell him the house wasn’t mine anymore), a drive with a friend who stopped the car right in front of the house and I was scared the current owners would think we were casing the joint. Oh and the biggie. I moved back to Toronto to a house very similar to the one I grew up in. Location: about five miles east.

As I write in my memoir, You Can Go Home

Like the changes in a house, my gravitation back to my family roots and the house at 139 seemed to evolve in fits and spurts. I needed to return so I could finish reconnecting with my dead parents. I didn’t expect séances or even to see their ghosts. I don’t see ghosts. But I needed to get inside that house in order to feel their spirits so I could connect with our life together and move forward in mine. It just seemed that I was taking my sweet time to do so.

(Excerpted from You Can Go Home, Copyright 2010 Sharon Crawford)

But I have to “blame” my cousin Gene from Michigan for landing me at my former home.

It is time to peel away the remaining layers of 139 and reunite with Mom and Dad’s spirits in their old home. I’m not sure how to do this – both in courage and method, so I hide in the daily busyness of my life. But I send out a quiet “I need to do this” intent. And the Universe plops down my answer.

It’s a hot August Sunday in 2005 and cousins Gene and Kathy are visiting from Michigan. We’re off from my current house to meet Martin for dinner in The Annex. As we cruise along O’Connor, I mention that we’re passing the street where I grew up and could we drive along it. Gene makes a right onto “my street.” When I point out the house, he stops the car in front of the driveway, sends down the car windows, and forces me to talk to a man removing a bag from his car in the driveway…

So here I am in August 2005 at the end of 139’s driveway. I clear my throat and the man in the driveway straightens up and turns towards me. He appears to be in his early 50s, tall with short grey hair and glasses.

“Excuse me,” I say. “I used to live here; my parents were the first owners. I’m Sharon Crawford; it was ‘Langevin’ and these are my cousins from Michigan, Gene and Kathy.”

The man nods. “Owen XXXX,” he says.

“I was wondering if we could see the outside of the house, not inside, because we’ve just sort of landed on you.”


The three of us get out and follow Owen  up the driveway. I’m lifted halfway into the past and remain halfway in the present. As we near the back, the first thing I notice is the garage – it is not the old rickety one of my time and I nod internally that I did see the actual switch in garages.

Next, Owen is introducing us to his wife, Mary, pulling weeds in their garden. I stare towards the back fence. My mind’s eye sees mother’s garden – the rosebushes, snowball tree, divider hedge, and the actual vegetable and fruit garden behind it; my real eyes pick up their absence and try to implant in my brain, the current lawn, perennials and the walkway from the basement. To my surprise, I don’t find it unpleasant. But when I take another look at that garage, the garage where Dad stomped out a garbage can fire, something about it doesn’t seem just right.

“Did you put up the new garage?” I ask.

“No,” says Mary. “The previous owners did and I don’t know why they built it right up against the back fence.”

(Excerpted from You Can Go Home, copyright 2010 Sharon Crawford)

As you can probably gather, my homecoming was serendipitous from the getgo, including a weird incident with an umbrella and finally getting inside the house  a couple of months later. The most interesting part may be that for someone who doesn’t see or hear ghosts (me), on the 40th anniversary of my dad’s death, I heard his spirit whoosh into my current house. That helps me realize that it doesn’t matter where I am – my parents’ spirits are with me.

Next time round I will give some tips on how to focus your memoir and more ways to trigger memoiries.




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Writing a Memoir – Research Part 1

In my last post I touched on researching for a memoir when I mentioned the problem of family flak. But family can provide a wonderful resource. True, not all family members will see situations the same way, but it is also true that other family members may remember an occurrence that has escaped your not-so-perfect memory. And talking to family members also gives you the opportunity to let them know what you are up to and (hopefully) find out if they have any objections or boundaries. Again, true, it is your story which you are writing, but unless you are planning a revengeful digging-up-the-dirt memoir (and a possible lawsuit), it might be best to try to keep it as non-threatening  as possible – without writing bland.

Make sure you carry something with you to take notes – whether it be a notebook (electronic or the paper kind), laptop, digital recorder, camcorder – whatever you prefer to work with – even a digital camera for “now” family photos.

For my memoir – and this was in the days of writing the original version – I first went through my cousin who is the family genealogist on my mother’s side. That opened information doors on family trees and kick-started some interesting on-site cemetery investigations. For example, we found two spellings on the same headstone for a Strauss ancestor – Straus and Strauss. But it was further digging (pun not intended) on my part which clarified this discrepancy. I talked to another writer named Strauss (and we discovered we are not related, to our knowledge) who explained the mystery of the two spellings.

From the family genealogist I talked to my godfather (her father) who was still living then. When we visited him in the nursing home, my cousin put photographs under his nose and asked him who the people were and the circumstances of the photographs. That elicited a few stories.

Family may also have photographs that you don’t and they may know or have kept track of who, when and where the photos were taken. That opens more ideas and more questions. Ask these family members. They may also send you to other, more distant relatives who knew your parents, your grandparents, etc. and that can mean more fodder for your memoir.

I found it also helped to revisit the house I lived in and my grandparents’ farm where I spent some of  my holidays with my parents. However, finding out who currently owned this farm to get their permission to visit turned into a version of the long and winding road.  You needed the precise lot and concession number to check it out at the Ontario Land Registry Office in Walkerton. The family genealogist remembered only part of the legal location and when I contacted the area property tax assessment office and the church my grandparents attended, neither place had a clue.

But the local library in Walkerton, Ontario did. At least they had information on microfilm. I had to book the day and time on the reader (by Internet e-mail) and take a bus to Walkerton. And a couple of my cousins who live nearby, said they would take me to Grandpa’s farm if I could find out who owned it and set it all up. So I took the slow bus to Walkerton and arranged to meet these cousins at my motel there. The plan was they would drive me to Grandpa’s former farm. I gave myself one day to get the necessary information.

Didn’t work that smoothly. As I write in my memoir:

At 10.25 a.m. I finally enter the library and introduce myself at Information. The librarian has my reader booked, but she’s a fill-in and has no idea how to search land registrations on microfilm, or how to use the reader. Neither do I. She gives me the catalogue and six land registry tapes. We get the film rolling on the reader, but our mutual ignorance doesn’t matter. It’s hunt and hope to find the property. Boxes are labelled “Mildmay,” “Township of Carrick” and “Township of Carrick/Township of Kinross” without any index of concession numbers. The Town of Mildmay proper spreads throughout two microfilms. All six rolls contain random property selections, the owners’ partial history, followed by a few pages listing the upcoming properties. The quality of these original handwritten entries varies from scrawls to creative squiggles that could be Concession 6 or 8, B or D. I hunt through this mish-mash, trying to find an entry, any entry containing my Grandfather’s last name. I find information on the property Grandpa and some of his siblings inherited when their father died. But where is “Grandfather’s farm” that I knew or the other farm with the yellow brick house where my mother grew up?

I skip lunch. At 4.10 p.m., on the sixth microfilm, I see it and my Grandfather’s name with “the estate of” in front. I zoom in and there it is.

(Excerpted  from You Can Go Home, copyright 2010 Sharon Crawford)

However, the microfilm records went only to 1981, so I had to race up the street to the Land Registry Office and get the rest of the information. That went quickly and then I had to call the current owner. In my mind I rehearsed what I wanted to briefly say because I expected to get voice mail. Surprise! I got a live person and she was delighted to be able to meet us. The upshot is my cousins and I had quite the adventure re-visiting both of my grandpa’s farms…and of course, traipsing through another cemetery.

Next post… and I’m trying to write one every seven or eight days… I’ll talk about some other areas of research I used and tell the serendipitous tale of re-visiting the house where I grew up.




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Writing a memoir

I keep alluding to this memoir I’ve written about growing up the only child of elderly parents when your dad is dying of cancer. Sure, I’ve used some excerpts but I haven’t mentioned anything about getting the memoir published or some of the difficulties I ran into when writing it… like family flak. The original version was somewhat different, focusing on family history, some social and geographic history, and some of my story. I had just finished this version when one of my cousins blasted me about it. Writing my memoir was no secret to my family – I received family details and history from several of them and let them know what I was doing – the start of it even prompted a family reunion. But this particular cousin didn’t want the family history as real, but fiction was okay. She didn’t want the next generation to read about some of the past generation. History does repeat itself.

At the same time as this cousin took me to task, I had done a trade with novelist and short story writer, Shane Joseph (After the Flood, Fringe Dwellers published by Hidden Brook Press – I read and evaluated an unpublished collection of his short stories and in return he read and evaluated my original memoir. A few weeks after the devastation from this cousin, Shane returned my manuscript – his overall comment was “You have three stories going on here – your family history, some other history and your story. Your story is the most interesting.” Bless you, Shane. When one door gets shoved shut in your face, another one opens.

I followed Shane’s advice. Half the memoir got canned and I got to work on the rest. The family history of dead relatives, except for my parents and my grandfather whom I was close to, got ditched, the cousins (with names changed except for the Michigan ones who didn’t mind) got what we call in the biz – “less press,” just stories as they were involved in my childhood. And I went into my school days, which brought in the girl who bullied me in grade school. But I took a page from my cousin:  no real names, (except for Mom, Dad, Grandpa’s first name, and me) just fictional first names and the girl who bullied me is called “The Bully.” I realized that the first book was too grim, plus a lot that happened to me was funny – not then, but looking back, yes. So I lightened up in this memoir version, saving the sadness for the actual deaths of my grandfather, mother and father -but even some humour creeps in at my mother’s funeral with the bizarre antics of the priest conducting the funeral. Then, in part two, I went into the repercussions as an adult from growing up an only child of elderly parents when your dad is dying of cancer.

And some of the details of the dead family members canned from memoir number one? I’m taking bits and pieces and weaving them into short stories – just using the events but changing them and the people into fictitious characters and working it into fictional plots. The first of them is being published in an anthology with other authors from the Canadian Authors Association, Toronto Branch. The anthology is called “Gathered Streams” and is being published by Hidden Brook Press – hopefully it will be out in May or June of this year. I’ll keep you posted with links when it comes out.

And the publishing status of the new memoir version? Sitting at an agent’s but not accepted. I have been told it should be two books – something I am already working on in my mind, especially if I have to pitch to another agent.

Anyone else writing a memoir or who has written one and ran into family flak? How did you handle it? I’m interested in your comments.





Filed under Death and Dying, Hereditary, Memoir writing, Only child