Family stories are profoundly meaningful. They can also be riveting, best-selling books. Bringing that history to life is one of the most rewarding things you can do.
But how do you do it? That’s what this course is about.
Techniques You'll Learn
Tackling a family story.
You’ll learn how to zoom in on a particular story to make it come alive. How to put your story into a wider context. And why (strangely!) the smaller a story is, the bigger it is.
Finding your subject and scope.
The key to any family story is understanding what sparked you: why does this particular story excite you? Working on that will lead you down the path of researching and writing.
Primary and secondary sources.
How to take old letters, genealogies, snapshots, and weave them into a meaningful story that will enrich you and others.
A sense of place.
Where did your story take place? Let’s get there. Tips for using the location to put yourself back in time and bring the past to life.
The most exciting and scariest part of doing family research is interviewing family members. We’ll unlock the secrets: How to get people to open up. How to jog their memories. And most of all: How to deal with relatives who don’t want you to delve!
How do you know when you’re ready to move from research into writing? We’ll dive into the basic types of beginnings. And we’ll delve into the importance of play — keeping lightness in your work, even if it’s dark and scary.
You’ll learn the trick to finding the central action of any story. How to zoom in and locate the central event in a person’s life, the thing that makes them who they are.
Make history come alive.
We’ll get specific, and really focus on how to bring all sources together to bring a moment of the past back to life.
Changes and drafts.
Every good story is complicated. We’ll uncover the trick to handling complications. (Hint: Complications are good!)
It’s simultaneously the hardest and the easiest part of writing a family story. We’ll open up the box of secrets and give you insights into the perfect ending!
What the Course Covers, Class by Class
- Welcome (1:53)
- Teacher Introduction (3:02)
- Lecture: How to Put a Story into Its Context (2:55)
- Assignment: Context
- Lecture: What's Your Family Story? (1:16)
- Assignment: Larger Family History
- Reading: "My Papa's Waltz"
- Lecture: The Smaller the Story, the Bigger It Is (4:59)
- Assignment: Family photo
- Lecture: How the Course Works (0:46)
- Conclusion: What You're Doing Is Important (0:37)
- Quiz: Story
- Introduction: Finding Your Subject and Scope (1:49)
- Lecture: Identifying the Subject and the Scope (1:44)
- Lecture: The Spark (2:24)
- Assignment: Subject, Scope, Spark
- Lecture: Let Your Spark Ignite Your Research (4:05)
- Lecture: Let Your Spark Inspire You (2:07)
- Lecture: Know Your Material and Know Yourself (2:34)
- Reading: "Dead Man Laughing"
- Lecture: Three Family Stories (1:46)
- Project Assignment: 3 Stories
- Conclusion: Family History is History (0:43)
- Quiz: Preparation
- Introduction: Primary and Secondary Sources (0:21)
- Lecture: Genealogy (4:58)
- Lecture: "The Truth" (2:38)
- Assignment: Record a Story
- Lecture: Primary Sources (5:03)
- Lecture: Artifacts as Source Material (4:53)
- Reading: "Inheritance"
- Lecture: Secondary Sources (5:06)
- Project Assignment: Primary and Secondary Sources
- Conclusion: "The Truth" Again (0:45)
- Quiz: Primary Sources
- Introduction: "People Are Trapped in History, and History Is Trapped in Them" (0:53)
- Lecture: Can We Talk? (1:12)
- Assignment: Interview Questions
- Lecture: Record Your Interviews (2:06)
- Lecture: Sometimes You Push, Sometimes You Let Them Talk (4:50)
- Lecture: Listen (7:15)
- Lecture: How the Mind Works (2:07)
- Lecture: Tools for Jogging the Memory (1:24)
- Extra Credit: Memory
- Lecture: The Perfect Question (1:13)
- Lecture: What Do You Do With This Information? (0:57)
- Assignment: Transcribe
- Lecture: Things Will Get Emotional (1:17)
- Conclusion: Work Through the Hard Stuff (0:41)
- Quiz: The Perfect Question
- Introduction: Beginnings, (0:42)
- Lecture: When Are You Ready to Start Writing? (4:26)
- Lecture: Find the Center of Your Story (2:27)
- Lecture: We Are All Characters in a Story (2:52)
- Lecture: Types of Beginnings (5:16)
- Project Assignment: Beginnings
- Project Assignment: Share
- Conclusion: Don't Forget to Play (0:54)
- Introduction: The Middle (0:24)
- Lecture: Find the Central Action of Your Story (6:05)
- Lecture: Find the Key to a Person's Life in Your Research (5:13)
- Lecture: Give People Their Complexity (5:48)
- Project Assignment: Key Events
- Reading: "The Beautiful Struggle"
- Conclusion: Listen to Your Story (0:38)
- Introduction: How to Make History Come Alive (0:36)
- Lecture: How to Get Personal (3:44)
- Lecture: Solving Historical Puzzles (3:42)
- Project Assignment: Make Your Project Come Alive
- Lecture: Bringing a Moment of the Past Back to Life (4:55)
- Conclusion: Finding Details and Stitching Them into a Narrative (0:37)
Hi, I'm Russell Shorto. I'm a New York Times bestselling author of seven books of narrative history and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. My books have sold half a million copies and have been published in 14 languages.
For my latest book, Smalltime, which is the basis for this course, I spent years researching my family. The book tells the story of my grandfather and the smalltown Mafia.
I was thrilled when none other than the legendary director of the Godfather movies said this about the book:
“Russell Shorto's Smalltime draws a convincing portrait of a time when Italian Americans weren't permitted to live in certain neighborhoods or rise too high in the political firmament. This remembrance of his grandfather's and great uncle's lives - of slots and pinball machines and places like the Melodee Lounge and City Cigar - mixes great history and lovely, lingering memories: 'long conversations about spaghetti sauce and aunts who kissed you on the lips; those were the ways we were Italian.’” – FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA
Using my experience in researching Smalltime, I created a family history workshop that I taught at Baruch College in New York City.
Now I've taken all of that experience and put it into an online course. Join me and learn the ins and outs, the tips and tricks, of how to Tell Your Family Story!
In ten briskly-paced classes, we’ll cover everything you need to produce a rich and vivid family story, including:
- What kind of story should it be?
- How to interview family members.
- How to work with old documents.
- The ABC’s of storytelling.
Sign up, and let’s get started.
"Professor Shorto's expertise in family narrative provided me the support and advice I needed to tell a story that has been 101 years in the making - the story of my Great Uncle Ludwig who grew up as a refugee in World War I and served in Europe in World War II. I was finally able to weave all his stories and experiences together within the timeline of real historical events. This was done through constant revision and re-readings, both with my peers and Professor Shorto giving their critiques. With their help, I was able to create a piece that my family will cherish for generations!"
- Jessica Kraker
"I cannot emphasize how much I loved Professor Shorto’s Creative Nonfiction course “Writing Family History.” What made it so special was the professor himself. Shorto was able to expand my knowledge of and insight into the power of details and history that makes a nonfiction written piece a work of gold. His passion for his work and this field as a whole is truly inspiring and motivates you to absorb everything he has to say. Lastly, he makes the class a lot of fun!! He encourages constructive criticism, discourse and a comfortable environment among his students, keeping the attitude light and comedic."
- Olivier Dumont
We offer a 30 day money back guarantee.
If you are not satisfied with the course, then let us know within 30 calendar days of purchase, and we will give you a full refund.