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Memoirs as Writers' Resource

My company has just published Eight Decades from Busti to Baltimore, the autobiography of Norman Hazzard. Subtitle: A simple farm boy’s American journey of growth and discovery. Norm grew up on a dairy farm in the hamlet of Busti, N.Y. and became a math teacher and a mathematician and cryptographer with the National Security Agency outside Baltimore. After retiring, he went on to teach math at the local community college.

Most of us have no idea what farm life is like in this century, much less 70 years ago. If we’re going to write about it, we need resources like Hazzard’s memoir. How did a boy spend his days on a dairy farm in the 1940s and 1950s? Hazzard’s chapters on threshing, haying, maple sugaring, milking, and doing chores provide the descriptive details a writer needs to flesh out a novel about life on a farm during that time period. In fact, no matter what the place or time, finding a relevant memoir or autobiography can help the writer bring life to a thin chapter.

Emotions are another realm that can be enhanced by memoirs. Many people, including authors, have trouble verbalizing emotions. Some resist it entirely for fear of writing “purple prose.” But emotions give life to a character, help engage the reader, and make the reader care about a character. Emotions drive a story, providing motivation and urgency, but how do you write about them without sounding mawkish or spewing forth purple prose?

Author Kay Armstrong Baker wrote of losing her daughter in her memoir, Unspeakable! A Mother’s Journey. This personal account of grief, despair, anger, and hope is honest and heart-wrenching. Writing about a severe loss? This book might help you find the deep emotions needed to empower your own descriptions of the emotions your characters are feeling.


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