Category Archives: Research memoir writing

Only Child searches for Dad’s history

Only child's Dad when he worked for the railway

Only child’s Dad when he worked for the railway

I am trying to piece together my late father’s history – his ancestors and his life in Toronto before I came along. Not too easy when Dad was born in Montreal and the family moved to Toronto when he was a child.

A year ago I began this quest – one of my cousins had started a trace on the Langevin (and Verey – the latter her direct family connection, not mine) ancestry on www.ancestry.ca. I’m not on there yet but one of my friends is and she offered to do some checking there. She found my cousin’s partial family history and also an anomaly – further digging by my friend found another last name (maiden one) for my paternal grandmother. Which is the correct one?

I am not close to my Dad’s side of the family and it has been over five years since I talked to some of my cousins. But I emailed the family genealogist using an old email address. You guessed it – the email bounced back as no one at that address.

However, life jumped in, including dealing with the horrible boarder living here last year, house and house-related problems, plus one pleasant thing – finishing rewriting my first mystery novel Beyond Blood (published fall 2014 – Warning: plug coming. See my publisher’s website www.bluedenimpress.com for more info and my other blog www.sharonacrawfordauthor.com).

As 2014 drew to a close and 2015 rushed in, I feel much urgency to continue on this quest for Dad’s history. I have been spending some Saturday afternoons at the Toronto Reference Library looking in old City Might Directories to find where Dad lived and to try to nail down when the Langevin family did move to Toronto. (I had some idea what street so that was a start.)

And found myself on a very enjoyable but puzzling journey.

Picture me sitting at a table on the library’s second floor with Might Directories piled up in front of me. The shelves where they are stored are behind me, but I can only carry four books at a time. It is difficult with my health issues to get down to the floor to pick out the directories on the bottom shelf but I am compelled to do so.

You are not allowed to photocopy the contents – not a copyright issue but the delicate nature of the pages. These are old directories, circa early 1900s (Dad was old enough to be my grandfather) and the pages are amazing. Almost like parchment with back to back pages which appear glued together. Back then, the “technology” did not allow for any other way to do this. The print is around the same size as print telephone directories, perhaps a smidgeon larger. With my bad eyes and old glasses I have to use a small magnifying glass to read the type.

It is worth it – this going back and forth from the street listings to the name listing and I finally find my late grandfather. Thanks to my cousin’s information on ancestry.ca I now know his first name. But another Langevin surfaces in the Might Directories – a Charles Langevin and I have no idea where he fits in, except my grandfather and grandmother and their offspring lived with him for a few years. My grandfather (Eugene Langevin) shows up in the street address listing at some point and then in a later year, Charles has disappeared. Then my aunts and uncles and my dad show up living at the same addresses, including my cousin’s great grandfather (she is a cousin once removed to me). And it lists where they worked and the position they held. The listing criteria seems to be it didn’t matter if you were male or female as long as you held a job.

I find my father not only worked as a clerk at Canadian National Railways but that previouslyhe worked with the Grand Trunk Railway before CNR gobbled it up. I finally find where his office was located – as I suspected right in Union Station in Toronto. One of his brothers, Uncle Paul also fought in World War 1, which I never knew. The directory has him still at the address but they classify him as “away on service.” And yes, he came back from the war. I also discover the Langevin family moved to Markham St. (where my cousins, their parents and my late maternal grandmother lived when I was a child) many years earlier than I suspected.

Then I get carried away and start to trace my mom’s time from when she moved to Toronto from the family farm near Mildmay, Ontario. Not sure which year so I’m working back from 1938 the year before she and Dad married. The address she lived at then (renting in a house) is in the area of Toronto where she and Dad lived when they were first married. Next investigation is to find out if the addresses are the same. An old photograph I have might give me the answer.

I can see my memoir will need some changes.

And I finally realized why I am compelled to do this family history investigation now. 2015 (November) is the 50th anniversary of Dad’s death.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

Only Child Writes

Only Child and her late dad on the veranda of 139 in happier times

Only Child and her late dad on the veranda of 139 in happier times

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Filed under Beyond Blood, Beyond the Tripping Point, Canadian National Railway, Dad, Family, Hereditary, Libraries, Memoir content, Mom and Dad, Nostalgia, Only child memoir, Railways, Research memoir writing, Toronto

Only Child on too much research in memoir

Only Child's Dad when he worked for the railway

In last week’s session  in my Crafting the Personal Memoir taught in my home, I covered incorporating research information to the actual memoir without overdoing it. I used an example from my memoir and the old version is a doozie.

Old version beginning of Chapter  Riding the Rails with Dad:

If you’re going to travel on the train with my Dad, be prepared to get up early and arrive at the station long before the steam engine is fired up, long before the conductor and trainman arrive, and long before anyone else stands in line for Platform 7 or 9 for Guelph. Dad had to be first in line at Union Station and that dictated our family schedule during the late 1950s and early 1960s when we travelled by train to my Grandpa’s and Aunt Rita’s farms.

What did I expect when Dad worked as a timekeeper for Canadian National Railways since 1918? Just before the 20th century, Canada had three transcontinental railways: the Canadian Pacific Railway – the one tied in with Confederation, the Grand Trunk Railway and the Canadian Northern Railway. From 1900, railway lines had increased from 27,000 to 77,760 km (16,777.02 to 48,317.82 miles) but the extra construction and World War I had the latter two railway companies rolling on shaky financial tracks. So, in 1917, the federal government followed a Royal Commission recommendation and joined the Canadian Northern Railway with the Canadian Government Railways. The year my Dad Joined CNR, this amalgamated railway took on the moniker of Canadian National Railways. One year later another railway, the Grand Trunk Pacific jumped tracks to become part of this federal family.[i]

As timekeeper, Dad must’ve had his work cut out for him. Sure, the merger had reduced railway operating expenses, but the equipment to keep the railway running needed a big overhaul. The purchase of 8,450 new cars, 163 locomotives and 200 passenger cars,[ii] required much re-scheduling of train runs, both freight and passenger. Dad didn’t actually stand outside on the platforms and time trains coming in and going out – not like a bus inspector. He worked in the CNR Office on Front St. West, adjacent to Union Station in Toronto. He kept track and analyzed train run times from reports. Railway schedules were based on the Uniform Code of Operating Rules, until 1990 when the Canadian Rail Operations Rules came into effect. Despite “Rules,” train accidents occurred, and in 1907, the year my Mom was born, nearly 600 people, most of them railway employees, died in train accidents. Again, Dad entered the CNR workforce at an ideal time for him, as the total number of railway accidents declined after the Frst World War. [iii] But his clerk’s salary was lower than that of the more skilled engineers or conductors who actually rode the rails as part of their jobs.

(Copyright 2005 Sharon Crawford, excerpted from You Can Go Home: Deconstructing the Demons earlier version)

Yawn. As you can see it even included footnotes (which I’ve deleted here.) Too much information and while I tried to connect it with my Dad it just doesn’t work. After the feedback from the summer workshop with Ken McGoogan at the University of Toronto in 2005, I made several changes. Below is the version in the manuscript I’m now pitching to agents.

Chapter 7 – Riding the Rails with Dad

If you’re going to travel on the train with Albert Langevin, be prepared to get up early and arrive at the station long before the steam engine is fired up, long before the conductor and trainman arrive, and long before anyone else stands in line at Platform 9 for Guelph, Ontario. My Dad has to be first in line at Toronto’s Union Station. His “typical CNR” style dictated our family schedule during the late 1950s and early 1960s when we travelled by train to my Grandpa’s and my godmother’s farms.

On the way to Union Station, Dad sits in the front seat of the taxi, the better to play navigator. Mom and I, with my doll Darlene, sit in the back. 

“The best way to get to Union Station,” Dad says, looking down at his watch, “is to take Broadview down to Eastern Avenue, then take Eastern Avenue to Front Street.” He scowls over at the driver. “We don’t want to miss our train.”

Not likely. Unless we get stuck in traffic on this pre-Don Valley Parkway day in the late 1950s, we will arrive an hour and a half early at Union Station.

The driver makes a right turn and Dad jumps into attack mode.

“I said to take Broadview to Eastern. We’re on Gerrard St. now. Turn left at Parliament and go down Parliament to Front Street.” Dad removes his watch and is practically shaking it at the driver.

(Copyright 2011 Sharon Crawford, excerpted from You Can Go Home: Deconstructing the Demons).

As you can see I deleted all the railway history here – some of the other history is still in the chapter later on but in narrative as I saw it back then, not as my research now stated it. The watch was incorporated as narrative in this version and more on the watch and Dad as timekeeper is incorporated into narrative in Chapter 1. The rest is as they say, history.

The idea is not only to connect the history to you but to do it in a way that is more in story-telling mode than lecture-mode. Also make sure that the history you are including is really relevant and necessary to your story. For example, does the reader really care how many railway accidents occurred when my Dad started working for the (then) CNR?

I welcome any comments on this and how others deal with research in their memoir or have difficulty dealing with the research. I call too much research “researchitis.”

Cheers.

Sharon Crawford

Only Child Writes



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Filed under Albert Langevin, Canadian National Railway, Memoir writing, Memoir writing course, Only child, Only child memoir, Railways, Research memoir writing, Sharon Crawford, Union Station Toronto, Vacations

Only Child on preparing a memoir writing course

Only Child with some of the books for her Crafting a Memoir Writing Course

I decided to expand my mini-workshop on Crafting a Personal Memoir. I’ve been teaching this one (and still am) for a year at branches of the Toronto Public Library. Many participants wanted something more and longer, so I’m doing it on my own, through my East End Writers’ Group (a writing critique group which also runs workshops) as an experiment. So for those who have signed up – I guess you are “guinea pigs.” So am I.

I’m running it from my home. I’ve done this before for day-long workshops and used my large rec room for the location. However, with six sessions, two in the evenings and in October, there is the temperature of the rec room to consider. True, I have a radiator and a heater down there and have used them before. And the lighting is fine. But I’m playing it by ear. We will probably be at my kitchen table for the two evening sessions but I’m hoping to put the two double sessions on two Saturdays in the rec room. For the Saturday sessions I ask participants to bring a lunch (they can put it in my fridge, use my micro wave) or they can go up the street to the local chicken take-out or Pizza Pizza. Heck for the last Saturday, I might be generous and order in a pizza (if we all eat pizza and it will have to be gluten-free thanks to my allergy).

The advantages: cheaper to run so I don’t have to bump up the fee. I’m also offering a fee reduction for those who sign up by Sept. 28 and so far it is working.

And I didn’t put all sessions on three consecutive Saturdays because I figured who would be able to make all three? Turns out I might be the only one who can’t because of a high school reunion on the middle Saturday. A few participants have to miss evening sessions or part of evening sessions so they get their session outline and handouts ahead of time. And in the last session we do a review as well as having extra writing time, so some catch-up can be done then.

I’ve had to do the prep work for the actual course – in between all my editing work (I’m a freelance book editor) plus all the house stuff (see my previous posts). Here’s how I did it.

I expanded the content from the mini-library workshops – basically what I taught there made up parts of Session One and Two. Then I did a brief summary of what I wanted to cover in each session, considering lecture, discussion, exercises, writing time and handouts – an outline and extra-related material. Most are available electronically but all will be in hard copy. From the outline I expanded what to cover. And I use published memoirs as well as my memoir You Can Go Home – Deconstructing the Demons which is now in the “pitch to literary agents” stage (more on that in future blogs). We can all learn from what others have already done as well as our own mistakes/wrong turns (one of mine deals with family flak, another blog posting from last year).

So, I’m looking forward to doing this. And anyone in the Toronto, Ontario, Canada area, who is interested can post a comment and I’ll send you the course outline – it is less than a page but here’s the shorter blurb I post online.

The East End Writers’ Group presents…

Like Your Family Before You – Crafting a Personal Memoir – the course.

Always wanted to write your story – how you overcame an addiction, growing up in a large (or small) family, your mom and dad’s life story, a unique travel experience, sailing solo around the word? Whatever your life experience, if you want to write a memoir about it, writing instructor and Canadian Authors Association Toronto branch Writer in Residence  Sharon Crawford will show you how. This six-session course is expanded from Sharon’s introductory Crafting a Personal Memoir workshop taught at several Toronto Public Library branches and will include: getting started on your memoir; doing research and how to use it in your memoir; writing a killer beginning to hook your readers; writing your story so it reads like fiction but remains your truth (characters and dialogue, point of view, creating scenes and character); naming names and dealing with family flak. Each session will consist of instruction, discussions, and some hands-on writing including exercises connected to each session’s topic as well as in-class time to work on your memoir. Some critique of participants’ memoir excerpts will be given. E-mail contact with course-related questions is welcome between sessions.

It starts this Saturday, Oct. 1, with evening sessions Tuesday, Oct. 4, Wednesday, Oct. 19 and then the final two sessions, Saturday Oct. 22.

Who knows? Maybe next year I’ll expand to Webinars.

Cheers.

Sharon

Only Child Writes

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Filed under East End Writers' Group, Memoir writing, Memoir writing course, Only child, Only child memoir, Research memoir writing, Sharon Crawford, Writing courses Toronto, Writing groups, Writing workshops

Only Child on writing memoir from photos

Only Child's late father under the rose archway

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So if you’re stuck or flying all over the place about what to write in your memoir, you might want to look at old family photos – one at a time.  In my Memoir Writing workshops we do a couple of exercises with photographs. Some participants who don’t bring a family photo get to pick one of mine and superimpose their own family situations on it. And it is surprising what they can remember even with someone else’s picture. In one workshop, a woman was moved to tears looking at a photo of my parents and me in front of my childhood home.

And that’s what we do with the first exercise – no not cry, well, not at first. We look at the photo and list the memories it evokes and the feelings we experienced with it. As we do this we can ask ourselves questions as prompts. I list the memories and their emotions on a flip chart and we talk about them. In the next exercise we write the actual scenario as it might appear in a memoir using both narrative and dialogue and our own unique style. That is, if we haven’t done that in the first exercise which often happens. This means the photo has really sent us deep into our memories. Then we read some of them out loud. Many are very powerful.

Let’s look at the photo of my late dad under the rose archway situated at the entrance to the backyard where I grew up. My list of memories and emotions include:

Dad –  How does he appear? Like a guard to the rose garden. Old, like he was my grandfather.  Emotions/feelings: love, security, and even sadness (at both my dad and the rosebushes long gone. The deeper emotion is that it is all in the past, all gone, except from memory and the photo).

The archway and rose bushes – more my mom than dad because the rose bushes were her babies. Mom fussed over blackspot, cut off the dead roses and pruned the bushes. And the colours (the archway ones were a deep red) and fragrance. I also remember another rosebush on the other side of the yard by the neighbours0 driveway. I write about this in my memoir:

“The leaves have too much blackspot,” she says. “And this rose is finished.” Snip, snip go her clippers, then, “Oh, good morning, Mr. Swenge.”

I stand beside my mother and nod a “hello” to Mr. Swenge. Old, heavyset, and banished outside by his wife so he can smoke, he stands silent in his driveway on the other side of the fence. Between puffs on his cigar, he nods, and continues to stare at us. He gives me the creeps; he’s like a harbinger of what’s to come on our side of the fence. I stick my nose in the rosebush, but all the sweet flowers in the world won’t overpower the cancer connection with smoking. The multiple rosebushes and the other scented bushes seem like a rectangle of protection my mother’s subconscious dredged up. However, smelling the flowers doesn’t keep the black spot from attacking my Dad’s lungs and brain. Why are daffodil sales used to collect funds for cancer research? If it’s their colour, yellow, supposedly the colour of healing I can tell these researchers that it won’t work. Although yellow is the colour of the radiant sun, the yellow roses, forsythia tree and tulips my mother grew didn’t keep cancer away. When I combine the paltry results of my mother’s tulip-bulb planting, the life cycle of the forsythia (yellow flowers first, leaves second), the roses (red, rose, pink, white and yellow), maybe mother’s garden was sprinkled with omens of the disease and its future colours of hope. Certainly the cause permeated throughout, not just the neighbour’s cigars, but the cigarette and pipe smoke my Dad inhaled and exhaled. As a garden grows based on what you put into the soil, so can cancer grow from what you (or your environment) put inside your body.

(Excerpted from You Can Go Home – Deconstructing the Demons, copyright 2011 Sharon Crawford)

As you can see I got carried away into the narrative. Everyone’s memories and narrative will be different in perspective and in what actually occurred. Even with common denominators such as the writer’s age, era he or she grew up in, etc., something will differ. And the telling will also be different – it could be humorous, serious (or both) filled with dialogue, mostly narrative, told in present tense, told in past tense, perhaps include some poetry, and the emotions can range from anger to laughter to sadness. The characters will all be unique and the situation will come from your memory and your perspective in looking back.

So haul out an old family photo, immerse yourself in it, and start writing.

Cheers.

Sharon

Only Child Writes


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Filed under Family, Gardening, Health, Memoir writing, Only child, Only child memoir, Research memoir writing

Only Child looks at research in writing a memoir

Two of Only Child's many cousins. The one on the right is the Canadian family genealogist.

The upcoming Memoir Writing Workshop I’m teaching for another Toronto Public Library branch is filling up fast. That tells me memoirs are still high on the trend list. A Google search of  “Memoir Books 2006 to 2011” produced a hit list of 5,300,000.  This continuing popularity gives me hope about getting my own memoir You Can Go Home – Deconstructing the Demons published.

What about memoir writing itself? I’ve covered some ideas on what to write in previous posts (See https://onlychildwrites.wordpress.com/2010/05/). But writing a memoir isn’t just mining from your memories. Research is involved and sometimes where to begin can overwhelm you. Do I go through all those unsorted family photographs? Do I have to become a genealogy expert? Should I talk to family members? Do I…?

Hold it right there. Before you do your version of a chicken-with-no-head, focus. Make sure you have narrowed down what you want to write about in your memoir. Subject matter will determine research. If you’re writing about an area of your childhood and/or your parents, you might want to talk to family members to get the bigger picture. Maybe someone in your family is doing the family genealogy. On my mother’s side of the family, two family members – one close (as in relationship and in distance) and one in another country are researching family history.  Neither knew about the other until another cousin met the United States-based one and connected him to the Canadian one. This connection brought out one point. The Canadian cousin was researching both the Strauss and Schefter sides of my mom’s family. The US distant cousin was researching only the Schefters. On my dad’s side of the family, a cousin once removed (I hate that expression; sounds like the person was kicked out of the family) is doing a bit of research. If I hadn’t talked to several cousins (Although I have no brothers and sisters, I am blessed with many, many cousins) I would have been blindly going where no one has to go. (Sorry, Star Trek fans. I’m one, too).

As I seem to be wearing my teacher’s hat today, let me list some of the things you can do when researching for your memoir.

a)     Sort through old photos, diaries, letters, etc. for what is relevant.

b)    Read the diaries and letters you keep out. Make some notes.

c)     Talk to relatives (the older the better), especially the family genealogist. Bring a notebook, digital recorder or laptop to take notes. Or communicate via Skype and webcam, Facebook or e-mail.

d)    Talk to people with the same last name (yours and your mother’s maiden name in particular) even if you don’t think you are related.

e)     Look at the photos and see what stories they trigger about the family and friends in them. Bring photos when talking with relatives, preferably someone in the photo(s). Or post them on Facebook or on Flickr for online checking with family members.

f)      Visit the cemetery or cemeteries where your dead relatives (including those ancestors) are buried.

g)     Look at photos of the house where you grew up and see what stories that triggers.

h)    Revisit the “scene of the crime” that old house. See if you can get an appointment with the current owners. Compare house stories.

i)       Library – (Disclaimer: I am not a librarian – ask a librarian for more info on what to look for) Some things you can use here – books on areas you want to cover. Digital and micro-fiche records of old newspapers which might have stories about your family, and the time period you are writing about. Your memory isn’t 100 per cent.  If you have a library card, you can access digital files of newspapers from your home computer. Micro-fiche records of the ownership history of the house you grew up in, or at least the lot number may also be available at your library.

k)    If you must do some genealogical research, try: http://www.genealogy.com/index_n.html and Church of Latter Day Saints  (new site) https://www.familysearch.org/ which links to (old site) http://www.familysearch.org/eng/

Those are just for starters.

And for those in the Toronto, Ontario, Canada area (shameless self-promo here) I will be teaching that Memoir Writing workshop at the Bloor/Gladstone branch of the Toronto Public Library, 6.30 p.m. March 31. Check out my website http://www.samcraw.com and/or the Toronto Public Library http://www.tpl.ca.

Cheers.

Sharon

Only Child Writes

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Filed under Cousins, Family, Genealogy, Memoir writing, Only child, Only child memoir, Research memoir writing, Teaching, Writing workshops