Julie McDonald Zander has always loved hearing the stories of her elders. When she was little, she learned about her grandparents (three of which had passed the year she was born) through the stories of her parents. “I loved hearing my mother and father talk about their childhoods,” Julie says. “I cherished those stories about my grandparents, since that’s the only way I ever knew anything about them.”
As a teenager she would listen with rapt attention to her neighbor, Florence Gibb, who had wonderful stories about her childhood in Montana, being a nurse, and marrying a much older doctor. It’s no surprise that, as an adult, Julie has made it her life’s work to record personal histories.
While working as a reporter and an editor, Julie recorded her first personal history in 1992 of her own family. Julie interviewed her father and mother about their lives. She recorded those onto VHS tapes. Then, for her mother’s 60th birthday, she made booklets sharing their adventures during a trip to Europe the two took in 1993.
When her father passed away, she gave each of the grandchildren a book of her parents’ stories, titling it “Their Story Is My Story.” And that’s how she got started with books.
“I interviewed my sister’s father-in-law and my sister-in-law’s grandparents and created books, what I called ‘family freebies,’” Julie says. “Those showed me how I could capture and preserve life stories.”
The Rest, as They Say, is History
In 1999, Julie left reporting and started her business, Chapters of Life. Since then, she has spent her life collecting personal histories and turning them into books. The one problem with doing what you love? Sometimes you forget to charge for your work.
“My first ‘real’ client was June Squires, a woman I worked with to serve coffee and doughnuts after Mass at St. Francis Xavier Mission in Toledo,” Julie recalls. “She was such a gem. She told me she’d hire me ‘only if you charge me the full price.’ She helped me because I loved what I did and tended to do it for free, but I also needed to earn a living.” June’s story titled June and Gordon Squires: 55 Years, One Month, One Day…And All Eternity was published in 2002.
To create these amazing memory books, Julie starts by interviewing the subject. She says it’s helpful to have an outsider interview family members because people tend to go into more detail than they would if they were speaking with someone they assume already knows the tale. How long it takes really depends on the subject and the family members who are editing the book. Some edit and respond quickly, Julie explains, while others take a long time. Then Julie takes the draft and corrects it based on the family’s notes. After that, photos and other memorabilia are added. When the book is exactly the way the client wants it, Julie sends it to Gorham Printing in Centralia for publishing.
In addition to helping families record their personal history, Julie has worked on many projects that record the histories of Lewis County. Titles include These Walls Talk: Lewis County’s 1927 Historic Courthouse, Chehalis: A ‘Can-Do’ Community, A History of Industrial Development in Lewis County, A History of the Chehalis Industrial Commission: A Community-Owned Not-for-Profit 501(c)3 Group of Friends!, Chapters of Life in Chehalis 1915, Chapters of Life in Bucoda and Bucoda: The Little Town With a Million Memories, to name a few. Julie also did a volunteer project recording the history of the Southwest Washington Fair, which took many years to complete. Links to purchase these books are on her website.
Currently, she is working on the history of Centralia College. She started this in 2011 she says, when they interviewed former faculty members of the college. “I did a lot of research through other books, publications and newspaper articles to ground the stories in fact,” Julie says. “The book melds the memories of people who helped shape the college with the factual history.”
Tips for the Budding Historian
Julie is a priceless trove of help and support for anyone hoping to record their own histories – or just to write in general. She believes everyone’s story should be recorded, for the good of future generations.
“It’s important to record the family history because the stories of our parents and grandparents help shape who we are today,” she explains. “Recording the stories links the past to the present and the future. We can learn from the mistakes of others, build on their successes, and ground ourselves in the rich pasts of people who laid the groundwork for our lives. I’m not a professional genealogist, but I admire those who dig through all those old records to find the facts. I have one colleague who says the stories provide leaves to the family tree.”
So how to start? Julie says the first thing is to get a good recorder. She says the ones that capture voice in .wav format are much clearer than the others – they can be found online for around $20. Also, she recommends having two and using both for every interview, in case one doesn’t record. Finally, she recommends placing one of the recorders around the neck of the interviewee, so it picks everything up.
If you plan on writing the histories yourself instead of hiring a personal historian like Julie, she recommends joining local writing groups for critique and feedback. For example, the Southwest Washington Writers group meets every Thursday at the Unity Church in Centralia. While this may sound intimidating if you’re just starting out, Julie says the members are very supportive.
“We follow the Toastmasters’ sandwich technique in providing feedback—we say what we liked, we offer suggestions for improvements, and we end with what we liked,” she explains. “It’s important to attend a critique group with the goal of improving what you’ve written and a willingness to accept constructive feedback. But it’s a terrific way to learn from others without investing a lot of money.”
Lastly, she recommends going to writer’s conferences, where you can learn about everything from writing and editing techniques to self-publishing and marketing. The ones Julie recommends are the Oregon Christian Writers Conferences (one in February and one in August) and the Willamette Writers Conference. Finally, the Southwest Washington Writers has their own conference at Centralia College in September.
Above all, she says to just write. “Nobody writes it perfectly the first time. That’s why people attend group meetings and hire editors. If you’re called to write, though, that’s what you do-write.” And if you are recording your family’s history, it doesn’t have to be on the New York Time’s Best Seller List. The important thing is to get the stories written down so they are not forgotten.