A student in my Memoir class recently asked for some tips before interviewing her parent for a family history. It’s a common dilemma: “Where do I start??”
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, of course. But here are the suggestions I sent her – I hope they help you, too!
(1) People: One easy place to begin is to ask the person to describe people who were important in their life. (Typically you’ll hear about a parent, a grandparent, or a teacher — someone your subject was especially fond of, or who influenced his/her life. Be sure to ask what that special person looked like, and what their personality was like. Is there a particular event your subject especially remembers that involved this special person in their life? One story here often triggers another!)
(2) Places: Ask about a place that was especially memorable when the person was growing up. (You might hear, for example, about their first house; a swimming hole; their grade school. Or you might prompt stories about a special vacation, a grandparent’s farm, or even a favorite ice cream parlor. Often it’s easiest to start talking about a happy spot — perhaps a treehouse where the local kids used to gather! Ask them to describe whatever they most remember about that place.)
(3) Historic Context: Our life stories don’t take place in a vacuum. Ask about the time period when your interviewee was growing up. What was going on in the world, and how did that affect their own life? (You might hear tales about the desperation of job-seekers during the Depression; the lack of sugar during World War II; air raid drills in school during the Cold War; or long gas lines during the ’70s. Find out what movies and movie stars were their favorites, and which songs were most popular. See if he/she has an old photo showing them wearing the latest fashion of the day!)
All of those topics make great places to start. But listen and go with the flow of the conversation. Sometimes even basic openers like “Where were you born? Who were your parents?” will trigger a flood of stories! So don’t cut that off if it happens.
Then just keep collecting: those little vignettes will eventually tie together into a whole life’s story!
Like more memoir-writing tips? Check out our fun 28-page LifeStory Workbook here.
One of our recent rambles was a visit to the historic site of Tragedy Spring. We began by heading west on Highway 88 heading west, then took the right-hand turnoff toward Tragedy Springs. (To follow the directions that follow, stop here and set your odometer.) Continue a bit farther along the Tragedy Spring loop road and when you reach odometer reading .3 mile watch for the plaque on your right, embedded in a rock wall at the bottom of a hill.
This picturesque plaque bears the names of the three scouts (Henderson Cox, Ezra Allen, Daniel Browett), murdered on June 27, 1848 as they camped nearby. Cox, Allen and Browett were part of the famous Mormon Battalion that blazed the original “Mormon Emigrant Trail” across the Sierra.
Although many folks think only about westward-bound gold-seekers, the Mormon band of wagons was actually traveling from west to east, heading back to Salt Lake. They brought with them some bits of gold they had found while in California (some of the men were working at Sutter’s mill when gold was first spotted). But despite the lure of gold, these folks were simply eager to return home. They almost certainly had no idea that the trail they were hacking through the wilderness would carry vast numbers of westward-bound wagons during the Gold Rush in the coming months and years.
Look to the left of the plaque to find the stairs, and climb the trail. Here you’ll come to four different sites:
First is another plaque part-way up the trail, set into a rock. This memorial was erected by Sons of Utah Pioneers on September 2, 1967. Beside the stone monument stands a water fountain, where once you could quench your thirst from the mountain spring (but like the spigot at the bottom, unfortunately no longer operational).
Slightly farther ahead is a spring house protecting the spring that once fed the fountain. This natural spring is what gave the site its name, “Tragedy Spring.” Imagine the thousands of emigrants and their animals who were grateful for its waters!
Near the spring house is yet another plaque; this one replicates text carved into a large fir tree as a “gravestone” by the dead men’s companions: To the Memory of Daniel Browett, Ezrah H. Allen and Henderson Cox who was supposed to have been murdered and burned by Indians on the night of the 27th of June 1848.
The plaque was dedicated by Native Sons and Daughters of Amador County on August 30, 1931.
Finally, beneath a sheltering tree you’ll discover the actual rocked-covered grave of the three Mormon scouts who died here in 1849 while trying to blaze the trail for their companions, who were following with wagons.
A nearby wooden sign explains: “When members of the Mormon Battalion camped here, they noticed arrows and a newly-made mound. Upon opening it they found the mutilated bodies of their three friends. They reburied them building a [rock] cairn to protect the grave. They also found Allen’s gold pouch, filled with gold dust, and carried it to his widow in Iowa.”
Beside the sign you’ll also spot an astonishing tree. Its curved and distorted trunk likely was the result of a heavy snowfall while the tree was young.
As you head back downhill, keep your eye peeled for a picnic table tucked into a shady grove on your right — a great spot to stop for a break or to eat lunch.
To reach Highway 88 again, continue to follow the loop road (west). Turn right at the intersection to continue west — and we’ll pick up here in the next installment of this emigrant grave adventure!
The only thing harder than finishing your memoir is starting it. Or more accurately, finding a way to keep going to the finish line once you have started!
If you’ve tried — and failed — to make much progress writing your memoir, here’s a simple tip that can help: find yourself a partner.
Not an editor. Not a critic. Not a parent, and definitely not your spouse (at least if you hope to stay married!)
Find someone you can talk to; someone who supports the best in you. Find someone you can tell your stories to and rest assured they won’t wind up plastered all over Facebook.
Pick a story — any story. One experience in your life that’s still really fresh in your memory. Was there a turning point in your life? A “fork in the road”? Those are great places to start.
Or how about a time when something unexpected happened, or you tried something scary and new. Did you stretch yourself? Was your life on the line?
Then make a date. Yes, a “real” date. Put it in your date book. Plaster it on the calendar. Make a time to sit down together with your favorite friend and just talk.
Talking uses different “writing muscles” than sitting in front of a typewriter or computer. We’re less guarded; more open; words flow more freely. We talk all day every day, don’t we?
Talking with a friend is a great way to get a fresh handle on the stories you’ve been meaning to tell in that great memoir. Ask your friend to take notes for you, or jot them down yourself after she leaves. Or buy a digital recorder and just hit “Record” before you start.
Voila! You now have a set of notes (or perhaps even a complete recording) — the perfect launching pad for that next chapter in your exciting memoir.
Like more tips on memoir-writing? Check out our LifeStory Workbookhere!!
Some discoveries just beg for a movie to be made about them. There must be a story behind this mysterious key, wedged firmly in the trunk of a tree at the top of Highway 4. A hidden treasure that this key would unlock? A clue to a long-forgotten murder?
If you’d like to visit the mysterious key for yourself, here’s how to find it (once Highway 4 reopens in the spring!): Head west on Highway 4, past Kinney Reservoir and Kinney Lakes. Watch for the Ebbbett’s Pass gate and cattle guard; the elevation sign will let you know that you’ve reached 8,730 feet.
Continue 0.3 miles past the gate and cattle guard, and watch for a pullout on your left. The key is in one of the two large trees just as you pull off. (And it goes without saying, but please, please leave it there for the next explorer to find!)
Before you leave this peaceful spot in the forest, take a close look at the nearby trees. Here you can also find a very old axe blaze near the base of a tree. This may once have marked the route for the early wagon road, long before the paved highway came through.
On your return trip, take time to read a little bit of history about Ebbetts Pass on the historical sign just west of the cattle guard.
And one more not-to-miss site nearby: a brand new historic marker (just east of the cattle guard) identifying the site of the original toll-keeper’s station on the Big Tree Road! This is the spot where eager miners began their detour from the Big Tree Road to the new boomtown of Silver Mountain when the connecting roadway was completed in the summer of 1864.
Still visible today at the site where the toll station once sat are the old rock retaining walls and a few tell-tale bricks, likely once part of the toll-keeper’s hearth or chimney.
So fun, to visit the real toll-keeper’s location! And when you visit Silver Mountain City next, imagine the exhausted-but-happy travelers exiting the toll road at the other end in the 1860s, ready to begin their mining adventure!
Hope Valley received its name from members of the Mormon Battalion making their way back to Salt Lake, who “finally had hope” of reaching their destination once they got this spot. Here they would have found water and grass for their animals, and a place to rest briefly before forging the difficult path down the rocky canyon ahead (Woodfords Canyon).
Today there are still fascinating traces of history in Hope Valley — well worth seeking out next time you’re there!
The intersection of Highways 88 and 89 is known today as Pickett’s Junction, but it went by other names in the past. As early as 1854, a hotel owned by Haynes and Warner stood northwest of this spot to serve passing emigrants.
Around 1862 James Green settled slightly west of today’s junction, where the old road veered north. Green operated a dairy ranch, hotel and stage “station” here, and his house was used in 1864 as a reference point for establishing Alpine County’s original boundary line. Polling in the very first county election was held at Green’s Hotel for voters in the “Green’s Station Precinct.”
James Green somehow “went missing” about 1869, just after his third son was born, and his ranch was sold to 24-year-old Samuel Alphonse Nott, a dairyman from Ohio. Nott later became a state Assemblyman, and died in 1880 in Sacramento County.
Nott’s Place (as it was known) was sold about 1880 to Edward M. Pickett. Pickett, like his predecessors, operated a stage station here, and his name lives on in today’s place name, “Pickett’s Junction.” When Pickett died about 1899, his estate conveyed the property to Henry Bassman, a local rancher.
Two clear sections of the Old Emigrant Trail also can still be found in Hope Valley. The first is a bit hard to locate unless you know exactly where to look. From Pickett’s Junction, go west about 0.3 miles on Hwy 88 (past the intersection with 89) and watch for the Wildlife Area & Fishing Access parking lot on your right. Park in the Fishing Access parking lot, and follow the paved path as it loops around to the left. When you see the interpretive sign, you’ll know you are in the right spot.
You’ll easily spot the remains of an early paved road; the old Emigrant Trail ran roughly parallel to this. Look carefully, and you will find the Trail itself. In spots, you’ll notice trees growing in the old trail bed — that’s because seeds found it easy to take root in the disturbed soil.
A short drive west of the Fishing Access parking will take you to yet another pristine section of Trail– one especially worth exploring because it is often mentioned in emigrant diaries. Continue west on Hwy 88 about 0.9 miles from the Access parking lot and, after crossing a narrow bridge, look for a graveled pullout near a gate on your left (see photo above).
This is the area that the emigrants called “Fourth Crossing” — the fourth and last time their wagons had to cross the Carson River. The swale left by thousands of passing wagons is still clearly visible today across the meadow. Another great spot to stop and take a photo!
Hope Valley is always a grand spot for photography! Whether it’s the fall colors, snow-capped winter mountains, or spring and summer greenery, there’s always something beautiful to capture here with your lens!