Mosaic: Celebrating Diversity with Young Writers

Last spring, I was invited to be a judge for the Mosaic writing contest, hosted by Friends of the Library (Montgomery County MD).  This annual contest is held in partnership with the local schools and encourages middle schoolers to express their cultural identity through creative writing.

I was assigned about 40 pieces of student writing – poems, short stories, personal essays – to read and score. It felt like being back in the classroom again.

What struck out to me was not — as you might expect in a writing contest — the advanced skill level of the students. Admittedly, some of them were written in what may be defined as grade-appropriate skill level English, evidence of students in a new country, learning English as their second language, as was the subject of many of the student writings. What made me smile, laugh, and tugged at my heart a little bit was the honesty and the true emotions that the students expressed, whether in simple sentence structure or complex clauses and phrases.  The theme of “My Culture” was presented as stories about family, imagining returning home, celebrating holidays, getting used to a new home, and many many other creative turns.

Each were a unique display of the children’s personality, as well as their journey through identifying with their own culture. It was a special opportunity for me to read the work of these young people.

Last week, I received the printed collection of the winning submissions.This young anthology represents many students and their special courage to not only write about their personal experiences, but also to submit personal writing to be judged in a writing contest.

Congratulations to the winners, as well as all the students who extended themselves enough to enter.  I hope you continue to write for yourself and for others.

Find more information about the Mosaic Writing Contest, the winners, and how to buy a copy of the book online.

By |August 27th, 2017|Writing|Comments Off on Mosaic: Celebrating Diversity with Young Writers

How to Accept Writing Criticism

 I just published my second novel, and before it came to print, I ran it through the gauntlet that is my writing group.  Yes, they liked some pages, didn’t like others. But at some point, if you are going to be an author – you have to let someone else read your writing and it’s best if that first person isn’t your intended reader with the final printed book in hand. Let the first readers be compassionate, honest people who will give you constructive critiques, that you can take back to that rough draft and make it better. My preference is my writing group and I recommend a good group for other writers, as well.

I listed some tips on how to give constructive criticism in a previous post.  When done right, this should be helpful to both the writer and reader providing comments.

Accepting critique is the other side of that coin. It has to be done gracefully, for your fellow writers to want to continue to work with you. I know it’s hard. You’ve poured gallons of coffee and Pepsi, spent hours and hours, put in all your heart and soul into these pages,  and now you’re going to hand it over to people to tear it apart. It’s like making the perfect chocolate mousse and giving it to a kindergarten class—you don’t even want to look.  But trust that your writing group members feel exactly the same way about giving their pages to you. With constructive, honest and respectful dialogue, it will not be as much of a mess as you anticipate.

Here’s a few tips to keep in mind as you receive feedback from your fellow writing group members.

Don’t get defensive. Trust that you all are working together to improve each other’s writing. Don’t take comments as personal attacks (and they shouldn’t be given in that manner, either.)  You are in the group for critique, remember?

Know that everyone will not agree. Each member of your group, including you, may have an entirely different opinion on your opening paragraph, the closing line and everything in between. Listen to everyone’s comments, take it all in, sift it together and make a decision that works for what you want to do.

Don’t try to explain. It’s natural. As soon as someone says that they don’t really think a little girl will follow a rabbit down a hole, you will want to explain why she would. Or how big the hole is. Or how convincing the rabbit is. But what the critique demonstrates is the crucial point: you didn’t prove it in your writing. If you have to explain to the writing group why, how, what, who, where, when, then you didn’t do it well enough in the story so it needs to be fixed. Your reader won’t have you sitting there filling in the blanks. Wherever you have to explain to your writing group, make a note in bright red Sharpie for more.

Learn from your writing group.  You learn and improve not only by having people critique your work, but by being thoughtful about others’. I’ve had plenty of times where I’ve read something in someone else’s pages, didn’t think it worked well and realized I was making the same mistake in my own pages. Yes, the old log in your own eye thing. Or I thought “ahh – I see how they did that” and could apply it to my writing. Note – this is not about stealing ideas; if your writing group member’s heroine is being whisked away on a white pony, don’t stick a white pony in your urban legend.  Its more about mechanics. Maybe you like how they end each chapter with song lyrics or effectively use multiple points of view.  (Which is also the reason that writers must also be readers, too, but you probably are already doing that.)

Note the repeated comments. After several reads, you will start to notice a pattern in the comments on your writing.  Your group members will ask for more details, tell you to cut long passages, use less technical terms, use less commas.  We are creatures of habit, particularly our writing style, and tend to make many of the same mistakes over and over.  Keep the comments in mind as you write and edit, before you give to your writing group. You’ll start to internalize their comments and write better, in earlier drafts.

Change your writing. Or not. You don’t have to change it.  Perhaps you have decided that your character is going to jump mud puddles in her wedding gown as she runs away from the church and that man she didn’t want to marry in the first place. Your group members think she’d more likely hop back in the waiting limo or that it is impossible to jump in that dress you put her in.  You have the choice to:

  • Change something else so that you don’t have to change this part. Perhaps, she’ll wear a different dress better suited for puddle jumping.
  • Change everything. Maybe once you heard other’s opinions, it was obvious that it didn’t come off the way your wanted, so it really needs to be reworked.
  • Leave everything as is, it is your story afterall.

Write better. Yes, you love your story. You think its perfect. But the whole point of the writing group and critiquing process is to make your writing better.  Listen to your writing group members and learn from it.

Have fun!

By |April 21st, 2016|Writing, Writing group|Comments Off on How to Accept Writing Criticism

How to Critique Work in Writing Groups

In reading your own work, you of course, understand everything that you meant to say, know the underlying motives of all the characters, know how the furniture is arranged, and can see the beauty of the landscape. But how does it translate to the reader?

Writing groups are a great venue to try out your writing on someone other than yourself. If you want compliments, share with the family and close friends who love you. If you want honest feedback, work with a writing group.  I’ve been with my current writing group with three other writers for four, or maybe five, years. They were instrumental in drafting my first novel, Life in Spades, and have been just as insightful for my upcoming second novel.

In a previous post, I talk about how to form a writing group: who to include, when to meet, and all those type of logistics.  Now, what happens when you all get together? Let’s first talk about how to offer critique; in a future post, I will talk about how to accept it.

Rule #1 and the most important step: read the submitted work. Allow time to read the submitted pages and make thoughtful comments. Even better if you can read it a second time. On a second read, something that you questioned the first read might make more sense or you might catch something you completely missed the first time.

The correlating rule: follow your group’s rules on submitting work. If you are supposed to share 10 pages by Tuesday at noon, don’t send 25 pages on Thursday night and expect that everyone has read your pages by the time you meet on Saturday morning.

As you read, offer useful and constructive criticism.  The purpose of a writing group is to make your writing better, not to get beat up by fellow writers.  Something like “I don’t like this paragraph” is not useful. Instead, provide more guidance, such as “this event seems out of place in the flow of the chapter.”  Consider other useful comments, such as the following.

  • The character’s motive isn’t clear or her action isn’t consistent with what she did in the previous chapters.  She walked into the coffee shop, threw a cup of water in her best friend’s face and walked out.  You want to know why.  She has never thrown water in anyone’s face before, it doesn’t seem like something she would do.
  • The meaning isn’t clear; the wording is awkward.  The syntax is off or is cumbersome.
  • This is too long of a description and I skipped over it (yes – this is useful to know!), or the inverse – This is too short and rushed, I want to know more.
  • The point-of-view switched right here and became confusing.  You want to know who is talking or how does this person know what’s going on in the other room.
  • I don’t understand what this word/phrase means. If the writer is using jargon, foreign words or technical terms, you may not understand the particular word, but the context clues should help, especially if that word seems important. If not, point that out.
  • This is not factually correct.  Did the characters go to Sunday brunch to celebrate the first day of the new millennium? You might point out that Jan 1 2000 was a Saturday.
  • This can’t actually happen.  As writers, sometimes we make characters do things we, in real life, have no idea how to do. And sometimes we get it wrong. If your writing group member has a character knitting a sweater with a crochet hook, changing a tire with a wrench, or paddling a yacht and you know better – tell them.

As well as critiquing what’s printed, look for what’s missing.  Sometimes there’s nothing essentially wrong with the writing – its clear, its grammatically correct, the story flows, but there still might be something missing. Ask the writer questions about what isn’t there.

  • What does the character look like?
  • What did she say, what was her reaction?
  • Where are they? I don’t understand the setting – are they at the beach, at the bar, in an airplane – or how they got there.

Along with things to do in critiquing, here are a couple “don’ts’.”

Don’t waste time with fine-tune editing.  Its probably an auto-response for writers to check spelling and grammar. You can’t help changing “their” to “they’re” and putting in that comma. If you must, go ahead. But don’t feel compelled or spend a lot of time on it unless it’s a glaring error.  There will be so many changes before getting to the final and there will be the time for fine tune editing later. If however, you notice that the writer makes consistent mistakes, for instance they always uses “lay” and “lie” incorrectly, offering the correction could save them time and re-writing later.

Don’t try to fix or re-write the story. As you mark areas of question and offer critiques, don’t feel like you have to fix it. If a character’s motive isn’t obvious, don’t rewrite the section to make it so. Likewise, if you don’t like Juliet falling in love with Romeo, don’t suggest she find another dude.  Allow the writer to take back your comments and figure out what she wants to do with it.


And lastly, one last “do” – Do provide compliments. Although most of my points have been on giving critiques, also note the things that you like in the writing. Draw smiley faces, scribble “LOL” or other inspiring notes to indicate some of the good points. We all appreciate hearing that at least one line on those 10 pages is pretty good.


By |January 29th, 2016|Writing, Writing group|Comments Off on How to Critique Work in Writing Groups

Influence and Power of Readers

As an avid reader, I never realized the impact I could have on the book industry.  I’d go to the bookstore or the library and see what was there, what someone decided to write and put out there for me to read.

Now, as a writer, I realize the power that readers have. It’s like the tree falling in the forest question – if there’s no one to read your book, are you still an author?

A panel of authors discussed this very topic at the Black Authors & Readers Rock Weekend, hosted by the Reading Divas, October 2014 – Readers as Influencers in the book industry.  The panel included authors Austin Camacho, Nina Foxx, and Donna Hill who were asked how could readers support the authors they like?

  • Send the author a note about what you liked – or didn’t like – about the book.  Will it change the book in your hand? No, but it may influence the next one. And who doesn’t just love getting a personal note?
  • Tell 10 people that you read the book and liked it.  Word of mouth sells books.  How did you pick the last 5 books you read? For me, either someone suggested it (in person or a review) or someone gave it to me. Other than that – I found it on the library or bookstore shelf and was intrigued by the cover (I do judge books by their cover.)
  • Invite an author to your bookclub.  Having the author join you is a unique opportunity to ask all those questions you wondered about while reading the book, while giving the author feedback on the story.  This might make you nervous, thinking that surely an author wouldn’t come to your little bookclub, but you might be surprised. In my own book club, we’ve had a number of authors join us for discussion, including Pulitzer Prize winner, Edward P. Jones when we read The Known World.  What’s the worst could happen – he’d say “no.” As it turned out, he was local and available.  We’ve also had an author call in, since she was out of the country when we met.   Now, on the other side, as an author, I can say that sitting around with a group of readers, sipping coffee or wine, munching on cupcakes (there’s always cupcakes!), and hearing what people thought of Life in Spades is a wonderful experience. I’m often been surprised by different opinions of situations, readers’ favorite characters, and whether everybody ended up the way the reader hoped.  Plus, I’m amused by all the rules book clubs have!

Have fun with a theme in the book for your book club meeting.

  • Buy books – don’t share with all your friends. We all do it – we read a book and then give it to a friend to read. Individually, this isn’t too bad. But think on a large scale – sales are reduced, the market for books appears smaller. I know this sounds like a plea from authors to buy books so that we’ll make more money, and it is, but on a larger scale, it’s about more than just the individual author. This is particularly important for diverse authors, who are already battling the industry impression that minorities don’t buy books and there’s no market out there.  Consider it the same difference between you and all your friends buying a ticket to the newest Best Man or Denzel movie vs. one of you going in, videotaping it, and passing it on to everyone else. Not as illegal, but same effect.
  • Give books as gifts – especially for young people.  Our children need to be encouraged to read more than a screen-full of words at a time. Their attention span is so short and getting shorter with each tap of the screen. Give the young people in your life books and encourage them to read. And I like the Kindles & Nooks, but I really do like real pages for little people. There’s some tactile learning and understanding of how a book works for a little person to actually turn the pages.  Instead of the newest gadget that beeps or another set of pajamas – give the kids in your life a book.
  • Post Reviews for the books you read on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, and other book blogs, your own or others.  Make your review informative and constructive, if you have a critique (this goes for book club discussions, too.)  “I hated this book” doesn’t help anybody. Not the author as they prepare to write their next book, especially if it’s a sequel, and not for other readers. Did you not like a character, did you want more details or less, did you want the boy to not get the girl?  Sometimes the thing we don’t like has nothing to do with the author’s technique, but what we wanted to happen – explaining the difference is more helpful for everyone.  Also, and I emphasize this –  don’t give away any spoilers.  You’re read those book reviews that tell you the end – “and then Dorothy left everybody in Oz.” What? Now I don’t even need to read the book.  Write good reviews, give another reader an indication of what you liked or didn’t, but still leave the book for their own experience.
  • Ask your favorite authors for early release copies (galleys or Advanced Reader Copies) for their books, read it, and then write a review.  Authors, publicists, and publishers send these out to get a buzz going about the new book. Your accepting it and then sticking it on your nightstand doesn’t help. At the least, post it on your Facebook page and say “hey, look – a great new book is out.”  But really help get the word out about the new book by writing a review and posting it online.
  • Lastly – read. Keep reading! We need you to read.  And thank you for reading.

If you’d like to be on my mailing list to receive my blog posts, notification of my events and advance notice of the release of my next book, sign up here with your email.

(Read my notes on inspiration for authors from the weekend in my previous post, Black Authors & Readers Rock!)

By |October 31st, 2014|Bookclubs, Books|Comments Off on Influence and Power of Readers

Black Authors & Readers Rock

Authors and readers – we have a symbiotic relationship, don’t we?  We’re not much one without the other.  And as a relatively new author, I definitely appreciate every reader who has picked up Life in Spades.

Since releasing Life in Spades, I’ve been fortunate to have a number of bookclubs read about Gina, Cookie, Laura, and Sherry and invite us all to their meetings.  We’ve enjoyed great discussions about sisterhood, friendship, and romance over mimosas, sangria and wine, and of course, cupcakes.  It’s really been a pleasure hearing from readers what they thought of these ladies and their lives – and what they thought they should have done.  Thank you to all my readers for inviting Spades into your life.

Frances Frost with NYT Best-selling Author, Kimberla Lawson Roby

Frances Frost with NYT Best-selling Author, Kimberla Lawson Roby

Last weekend, I participated in a book weekend that celebrated the relationship between the writer and the reader, especially those readers in book clubs.  The Black Authors & Readers Rock Weekend, held in Bowie, MD by the Reading Divas, is a unique event which I think may be as enjoyed by the exhibiting authors, as the reader guests.  The weekend included a bookclub discussion of “Open Door Marriage”, by Naleighna Kai, a number of panel discussions with authors and publishers, and a keynote speaker, along with the opportunity to shop for books from the authors and Mahogany Books, sip drinks at the bar, and enjoy lunch.  The book club attendees came dressed in their matching t-shirts and outfits, lead by the Reading Divas who donned cute pink cheetah print scarves and their “Divas” bling-y pins.

I sat on the Movers & Shakers panel with a well-published group of authors, moderated by J’Son Lee author and publisher of Sweet Georgia Press.  At the table with me were: Shelly Ellis, Electa Rome Parks, KL Grady, Earl Sewell, and Nanette Buchanan. As each author read from or spoke about their novels – covering everything from romance, espionage, mystery, and of course, the girlfriend novel – it was quite evident that there is a wide berth of African-American books out on the market, and that, in fact, there is a market for diverse books, despite what some may say.

Black Authors & Readers Rock Weekend - Movers & Shakers Panel Moderator, J'son Lee

Black Authors & Readers Rock Weekend – Movers & Shakers Panel Moderator, J’son Lee

The second panel, Literary Trailblazers, was moderated by WHUR’s Harold T. Fisher. In this round, we heard from Rochelle Alers, Nina Foxx, Donna Hill, Kimberla Lawson Roby and Pat G’orge Walker. The authors talked about some of their own truths and “what no-one knows about me,” creating a new genre as Pat did with Christian comedy, the difference between romance and eroticism, and why the movie is never as good as the book (short answer: because the author rarely writes the movie script.)  Kimberla, asked if she ever thought of quitting, said that she does with every book, doubtful that it will be as good as the last.  This may seem odd, but that statement made me feel better about my own choice in pursuing this career of writing, knowing that that little wiggle of self-doubt is not uniquely my own.

Black Authors & Readers Rock Weekend - Literary Trailblazers

Black Authors & Readers Rock Weekend – Literary Trailblazers

Kimberla Lawson Roby was also the lunch Keynote speaker for Saturday.  Starting out in June 1996, she put together her debut novel after-hours while working her regular government job.  Once faced with selling her first shipment of 3000 copies of Behind Closed Doors, her husband encouraged her to make the big leap of faith from part-time self-published writer to full-time, then traditionally published, writer. She said she was nervous turning in her two-weeks notice and asked her husband what would they do if this writing career didn’t work? His message to her was one that’s crucial for anyone ready to step out on a dream – then you do something else, what have you go to lose?  Her upcoming novel, A Christmas Prayer, will be her 21st book.

As a new writer, stepping out onto this journey, it was exciting and inspiring to be included with this group of accomplished writers, as well as interact with bookclub readers.  This weekend really proved that Black Writers and Readers Rock!


 More on how readers can be influencers in my next post.

By |October 24th, 2014|Book events, Bookclubs, Books|Comments Off on Black Authors & Readers Rock

Gina’s Debate: Hair vs. Exercise (and Boyfriend)


In my novel Life in Spades, Gina expresses annoyance at not only training for a marathon with her boyfriend  but now she also has to rearrange her salon appointments to make up for all the sweating and unstyling her hair is going through.  The boyfriend is white, he doesn’t understand her hair struggles, she whines.  How many of us go through this same balance – physical fitness training and keeping a good looking hair style?

According to a 2012 study at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, hair styling and maintenance is a predominant reason for African-American women exercising less than prescribed.  There’s of course, implications for general health and weight maintenance issues when we neglect some sort of exercise regimen for the sake of our locks.  But it makes sense – who wants to spend hours at the hair salon, spend a good piece of your paycheck, and then go sweat it all out?  Is it worth a few pounds?

My hair is naturally curly, and admittedly, relatively “easy” as hair goes, but I still think about the hair styling issue when I’ve taken the time to flat-iron it or need to plan doing my hair into my schedule for the day.  Running or weight-training isn’t too bad – a ponytail, a headband, a bandana can keep the strands pretty orderly. But a swim or even a stop in the sauna and I’ve got to start all over.  I’ve found, however, that a rinse with water and a dollop of conditioner will hold a pulled back bun just fine until I settle down and wash my hair properly.

Thus, Gina faces the same question. Her boyfriend is sure that running this marathon will convince Gina’s mother about their commitment to each other.  But Gina’s hair appointment schedule is suggesting maybe there’s a better way. Granted, the workout outfit is cute, but still – the hair!

This all brings me to the Philly Natural Hair Show this weekend. I’ll be in the Literary Nook with Gina, Cookie, Sherry, and Laura enjoying Life in Spades – and hopefully picking up a few hair tips for us all!

Share in the Comments: How do you manage your hair and your workout?



By |June 4th, 2014|Book events, Spades Characters|Comments Off on Gina’s Debate: Hair vs. Exercise (and Boyfriend)

Maya Angelou – May Your Wings Fit You Well

I imagine that everyone will have a say on the passing of Maya Angelou.  A quote from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a line from Phenomenal Woman or And Still I Rise or some other favorite poem.  That includes me, just my thread to add to the story quilt of memories about this amazing woman.

On my list of life regrets, will always be that I never took her class at Wake Forest. Even though I was in graduate school for my MBA, it seemed like a thing I should do – wander over to the lecture hall and sit in, and listen to this legendary writer who shaped American literature and gave a unique voice to the African-American story.  In my first year, by the time I found out that THE Maya Angelou was a professor on campus, she wasn’t teaching. Then in my second, well… you always think there will be time, right? As another option, I imagined just walking over to her house (Winston-Salem is only so big, how hard could it be to find) and having a glass of tea while listening to her rumbling voice tell stories and sing poems.

I was fortunate enough, however, to see her speak once or twice. Something she said in one of her talks makes me smile whenever I have to speak in public. She said, “when you get nervous, just sing.”  And then she sang this little song about there always being a rainbow in the cloud.  Well, if there’s anything worse for me than speaking in public, it’s singing. But this makes me laugh to myself whenever I stand in front of a crowd and I smile and relax, so I guess her suggestions works just the same.

I’ve shed a few tears today, for I feel like I lost a friend.  But whenever I get a little nervous, I hum a little melody-less tune and hear her voice, reminding me to sing.

Dr. Maya Angleou – we pray that your wings are gonna fit you well.  Rest in peace.

May 28, 2014



By |May 28th, 2014|Books, Literature, Uncategorized, Writing|Comments Off on Maya Angelou – May Your Wings Fit You Well

A Raisin In The Sun

What happens to a dream deferred?

I had the pleasure of seeing Raisin in the Sun on Broadway this past weekend. Set aside for a moment the fact that Denzel Washington stars as Walter Lee Younger, our flawed dreamer. The message of the Langston Hughes poem and the play that expands on the question is one that we each must answer.

For me, it was perfect timing, as I celebrate this week the 1-year mark of publishing Life in Spades, my debut novel. This idea of being a published author, was for a long time, a dream put off, set aside, unrealized.  It’s a dream that I’m still in, that is becoming more true everyday.

In brief, Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, Raisin in the Sun, is about a working class family, who upon the death of the father, is the recipient of a $10,000 insurance benefit payment. This sudden influx of cash allows everyone to dream, for a moment. The mother embraces the idea of a garden. Walter Lee, the adult son, married with a son of his own, wants more than out of life than driving rich White men around and, instead hopes to own his own business. Beneatha, the adult daughter, wants to be a doctor. And Ruth, Walter’s faithful wife?  We interestingly never hear directly what her hopes are, other than moving out of the apartment that they all share.

The play explores this idea – what happens when we feel constricted and restrained in our dreams? What does it do to a person to see everybody else being able to fulfill their potential, and they are stuck doing the same thing they did yesterday and the same thing they will do tomorrow? How does a man define himself, see himself, when he can’t provide for his family in the way that he wants to? And what does it mean for a woman to support her husband in his desires, and at what cost to her? In the play, we see how when 1 person’s dreams seem just beyond their grasp, how their frustration, turmoil, and emotional pain can affect every life around him.

Think about this in terms of our own lives. What dreams are we holding onto, not sure how, if ever, we will ever attain them? In not pursuing our dreams, whether because of fear or lack of resources and opportunity, there is a change in who we are. Perhaps the frustration makes us blind to other options. Perhaps the pain causes us to lash out at the people we love. We can’t celebrate the success of others because we are filled with jealousy of their achievements.   Does the idea of a dream deferred answer the question of what’s going on in our inner cities? Are those who commit crimes and use drugs trying to achieve something they don’t seem to be able to do in a legitimate manner?  What happens to our heart and soul when we feel that we are not all that we could be?

When dreams do not seem to ever come true, do we at some point stop dreaming at all? Or, as Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry suggest, do we explode?

By |April 14th, 2014|Literature|Comments Off on A Raisin In The Sun

Looking for Family in the National Archives

I recently read an article in the Washington Post about the documents verifying sale and “shipment” of Solomon Northrup, the author of the memoir, and now Oscar winning film, 12 Years a Slave.

The excitement, and validation, of reading an ancestor’s name written in that old-style, curly, elegant handwriting, on a century’s old document reminded me of my experience as a part-time, amateur genealogists conducting my own family research. I literally almost screamed when I finally found my family listed in census records, and cried when I eventually located the actual marriage certificate of my great-grandparents, bearing their “X”s, in a courthouse in Virginia. Even my mother was impressed. I mention the idea of knowing your family’s history in my novel, Life in Spades, as one of the characters tours a family plantation.

Check local courthouses for personal records such as marriage licenses, birth certificates, and death records.

Check local courthouses for personal records such as marriage licenses, birth certificates, and death records.

In case you have been inspired to look up your family, here are a few lessons learned from my time spent in the National Archives and country courthouses.

The Census is a good place to start, to give you a general picture of where people were when and with whom. The records will tell you who is in the household – head of family, spouse, children, anyone else living there, family or not, and all their personal data – age and/or birthday, occupation, race, number of children, etc. This information is free in the National Archives and you get to use those microfiche skills you learned in school that you always wondered when you would ever use (yes, I’m telling my age there).

The 1900 Census provides plenty of personal date: names, relationships, race, age, place of birth, relationships, occupation, literacy, and home ownership.

The 1900 Census provides plenty of personal date: names, relationships, race, age, place of birth, relationships, occupation, literacy, and home ownership.

Select which side of your family you are going to work on – maternal or paternal, before you even start your research. Write out in chronological order as much information as you know – names, ages, cities lived in, spouses, children. Make notes of information you aren’t clear on – “maybe married” “about 25 years old.” On my first days sitting in the National Archives, I became very frustrated not being able to find anything about anybody, but finally realized I was looking in the wrong cities at the wrong times for the wrong people.

Look for spelling changes of surnames, especially with foreign names. Genealogy data is often coded by what the Last name sounds like, the “Soundex” code, because spelling changes and can be recorded “incorrectly” over time. For instance – the surname “Johnson” may be coded the same as “Jonson,” “Johanson,” and “Jonsen.”

Organize everything. I had a binder and folders, with a tab and sections for each family name. I kept a family tree, that I updated, in the front of the binder. Once you get through several generations and several branches, it can get confusing. Especially once you realize that folks in each generation were all named after the same ancestors. Our family has at least one James, Joseph, and William on every branch. If you are using a software system (and I advise that you do if you are doing this seriously) each person will be given a code to distinguish between granddad Samuel, Uncle Sam, and cousin Sammy.

Use blank census forms for note-taking.

Use blank census forms for note-taking.

Read several pages from your family’s census listing. Old census were taken by a person who went from house to house, so above and below your family will be their neighbors. It was common for families to stay near each other, or perhaps, you will find that your ancestor married their neighbor – now you have all of the “in-laws” information, too. As an added bonus, you may find the census taker’s notes on the records; I have one with “Mulberry Street” scribbled along the side.

Use several sources to verify information. Just because your family name is Blacksmith and you find a Blacksmith in the records, look for other proof that that is your family. Ages, occupations are pieces of information that can help.

Use historical data and maps to help you figure out your story. Searching for records in Richmond, Philadelphia? It would be helpful to know when there were major battles and what buildings and records were lost in fires. Male ancestors in their late teens or twenties during the 1910s, 1940s? You might look for military records, too. This one stumped me – why don’t the older relatives have Social Security numbers? I’ll let you do the research on that one.

Make some smart assumptions and follow that lead. I found a deed of sale for a parcel of land, purchased by a White man with the same name as several of my ancestors in the county my family is from, in 1880.  County records list the property as a plantation.  Is this the home and employer, or plantation and owner, of my father’s ancestors?

Land records provide useful information about location and ownership.

Land records provide useful information about location and ownership.

Fill in your statistical date with family stories from your living relatives. The records will show your family moved from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, but your relatives will tell you why. Your research may spark some memories, hopefully pleasant ones. And the stories will add life to your research.  Who knows, all your notes and research may become your next book.

Are you inspired or have you already started researching your family? Let me know in the Comments.

By |March 4th, 2014|Relationships, Research, Writing|Comments Off on Looking for Family in the National Archives

Good Rules for Bookclubs

One thing I’ve really enjoyed since publishing Life in Spades is meeting with bookclubs. I’ve not had a group yet that didn’t have a good discussion about not just what was going on in Gina, Cookie, Laura, and Sherry’s lives, but how all that resonated with them and the glimpses of their own lives.

This weekend, I met with a group that calls themselves the Diverse Divas and they each have a Diva name, such as “Bossy Diva,” “Quiet Diva”, “Deputy Diva”, and “The Diva”; the host was “Foxy Diva.” That was really fun – and has me pondering what would be my diva name? The group has been together almost 10 years and reads across genres. As the meeting went on, I realized that there were actually some rules to this group – much more than my own bookclub. Some of the other groups I’ve met with also had rules for the club.

If you are in a club, starting one, or trying to restore some order to your’s – here’s some of the rules I’ve come across in various book clubs.

-The first person to arrive, receives a prize. From whom? The last person to arrive, due at the next meeting.

– Anyone who doesn’t read the book, pays the hostess a fine.

– Specific genre for book selections ( my book club generally reads women of color)

– A designated person provides discussion questions – could be the hostess or another member

– An application process for membership

– A membership fee (not sure what it covers, perhaps refreshments?)

– Bookclub t-shirt/attire for group outings

– The person who suggests a book must have already read the book

What other rules does your bookclub have? What rules should your bookclub have?

By |February 25th, 2014|Bookclubs|Comments Off on Good Rules for Bookclubs