Every genealogist imagines that someday they will pull their family’s story together into a vivid and fascinating book, complete with pictures, that will keep even the younger generation interested. Very seldom is that goal achieved, but I recently purchased a copy of I Come From A Place Called Home, 1882-1929 by Elizabeth Burr Marquard, and I can’t put it down. She has met that goal.
I Come From a Place Called Home [Amazon link HERE] follows the story of Elizabeth’s great-grandparents: father William Seibel, mother Sophia, and 8 children, who raised fruit in rural Monroeville, Ohio. The normal ups and downs of a large family, the strenuous labor of farm life and the simple joy of caring about and for each other are set against a background of mental illness, as the mother becomes increasingly incompetent and dependent as life goes on.
A story of acceptance, strength and resilience, told in conversational and very realistic detail – much, but not all of it, real – takes us from the pig-slaughtering and lye-making of the 1880s to the cars and college degrees of the 1920’s, as the family experiences their share of joy and heartbreak. I have seldom read a book that captured my interest as much as this story. I laughed and cried along with the family. I recommend it very highly to all readers and aspiring family historians.
I know my genealogy friends will want to know how Liz did this. So here are Liz’s thoughts on the process and problems that she found.
An interview with Elizabeth Burr Marquard
Can you explain how the idea for the book started?
I was fortunate to grow up in a home where family stories were always shared, particularly about my maternal ancestors, the Seibels. There was a great deal of warmth and love associated with these stories, and even though I did not know the people personally, I felt their essence. My ancestors were also savers, so I had access to their old letters, diaries, farm journals, and several manuscripts about their lives. I often told my mother, “The Seibels were such an interesting family! Someone should write a book about them.” She always responded, “That someone is you, Liz.” I carried the notion of this book in my head for about 30 years. Finally, the year I turned 50 I had one of those “bucket list” moments. I started writing. My mother was THRILLED! She was my biggest cheerleader in this endeavor, and she eagerly anticipated each chapter. Sadly, Mom did not live to see the book published. She passed away in 2011, but I made a death-bed promise to her that I would finish writing the book. It was a bittersweet moment when I held the published book in my hands for the first time, knowing that Mom was not physically here to share in this dream come true.
Other family historians will be curious – how did you manage to amass enough details to fill over 600 pages?
Some people come from families with deep pockets, but as I mention in the Acknowledgments of the book, I come from a family with “deep closets.” They were savers extraordinaire! There are letters between the sisters dating from 1910 to 1957. There are diaries and farm journals as well as a copy of the manuscript “Adventures of William Seibel Out West, 1882-1885,” which my great-aunt Hermine wrote in 1936 after interviewing her father about his youthful adventures on the Mississippi. In the 1970s, my cousin, who had developed an interest in our heritage, began a correspondence with the two surviving Seibel sisters, Hermine and Minola. Her first request was, “Tell me about my grandmother Ada.” That opened the floodgates! Both sisters wrote manuscripts about their memories. Hermine, being the 4th daughter, offered an earlier perspective of life in the Seibel household. Minola, the youngest sister, was the more prolific, writing character profiles of each family member as well as manuscripts about her memories of life on the farm, in the schools, her university and work experiences, as well as her service with the Red Cross during WW II. She also included a genealogy of our ancestors, including their hometowns in Germany and the dates of their emigration. What a treasure trove! Armed with all of this primary source material, I set about compiling it into one cohesive story. About 85% of the incidents in the book are true. I had to “embroider” other portions, for example, to demonstrate Sophie’s deteriorating mental condition. I followed the rule of one of my college English professors: “Don’t just tell me; show me! Make me feel I’m there!”
If one person who is no longer here could read the book, who would you want that to be?
My maternal grandmother, Ada. She died when I was only 18 mos. old, so I have no memories of her. However, in writing this book, I feel that I have come to know her. On so many occasions in her life, Ada set aside her own ambitions to fulfill the role of surrogate mother to her seven younger siblings. I doubt that she was ever thanked or that she expected to be thanked—there was a job to be done, so she did it. Ada would probably be amazed that anyone thought her life story worthy of writing a book about, but I think she was an unsung hero!
The book is a tribute to resiliency, hard work, and determination. But like every family, your family had some painful stories and some rough times. How did that shape your efforts on the book?
Some of the Seibels’ most painful moments are the most compelling—the stigma of mental illness, the aftermath of the Spanish Influenza, the anti-German sentiment surrounding WW I, the lower social standing felt by those from rural origins. These incidents allowed me to highlight the Seibels’ strength of character and the incredibly deep and supportive bonds that held the siblings together.
Was it hard to include some German chit chat in your dialogue?
I wanted the book to be authentic. I knew that my ancestors originally spoke only German but slowly transitioned to English as they assimilated into the American culture. Initially, I used the online translation website BabelFish to make the English-to-German translations for the text. However, I was aware that the translations were not always accurate. Fortunately, my job brought me into contact with a bilingual German fellow who graciously fixed all of the German translations for me. I am very chagrined to be so monolingual!
How long did the writing take? How much time was added to that for design, layout, and managing the project on the self-publishing site, CreateSpace?
I have been writing this book for 9 years. (I’m a slow writer, plus “life” has a habit of getting in the way!) In May 2015, I decided the entire Seibel saga (100 years) would be too much content for one book. I broke the story after Chapter 32 (1929) and proceeded to explore publishing on CreateSpace. From my initial decision to publish until I held the finished volume 1 in my hands was about 3 months.
Are you planning a sequel, or other books?
I am currently working on volume 2, which will continue the Seibel saga and cover the years 1930-1985 (circling back to where volume 1 begins). I foresee two books as my life’s literary output.
Describe some things you learned about research and writing along the way.
I learned that I could completely lose myself in the research, which I actually enjoy more than the writing. And it is true that you can research almost any topic on the internet—how to make soap and apple butter, butcher hogs, plant strawberries, drive a Model T, dance the Charleston, speak 1920s slang, etc.
I also learned a huge appreciation for authors–even ones whose books I don’t enjoy! Writing is time-consuming, often mentally exhausting, and even emotionally draining. On numerous occasions, I cried while I wrote. There were times when I was writing that I could feel a presence in the room with me, almost as if someone was looking over my shoulder and whispering, “Tell the story.” I included a quote by Dot Stutter on a forward page of the book that sums up this experience: “I hear ethereal whispers, persuasive, soft and still. Daughter, if you don’t remember us, who will?”
Can you talk about some resources/help you found that other family historians may not be aware of?
I found a website that lists Cleveland-area weather history since 1871. This sounds like an odd resource, but when writing about a farm family, it was helpful to check how the weather was impacting their daily lives, decisions, and economy. I also found the site “Vintage Ad Browser,” which offers ads for various subjects through the decades. Besides being just plain fun to peruse, the ads provided a perspective on various eras and helped me to mentally engage with a particular time.
Do you have a few tips about self-publishing?
I researched all of the print-on-demand publication services, and good reviews pointed me toward CreateSpace, a subsidiary of Amazon. There was no cost to publish, except when I purchase a copy of the book. Initially, I struggled with CreateSpace’s formatting template. (I read many blogs for tips.) It was very time-consuming to cut and paste 32 chapters from Word documents into their 6 x 9 format. For volume 2, I have wised up and am writing the book directly into their template and saving it in that format.
I also created a Kindle version of my book. Converting it into the proper format was a rather opaque process, complicated by trying to marry 140 images to the HTML document. Once again, blogs to the rescue!
What is your advice to others who feel they have a family story to tell in a book?
Start writing—the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. You can revise it many times, and reading what you’ve written gets the creative juices flowing. Make the story engaging–not just a retelling of dates, facts, and events. Details bring a story to life and engage the reader. If you are fortunate enough to have older living relatives, ask them about their memories and document them. Ask them to identify the people in old photos, and then write those names (and the date if possible) on the back of the photo. Every family has stories and they need to be preserved. We can’t truly know ourselves until we know where we came from. And we all “come from a place called home…”
I Come From A Place Called Home is available on Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle format.
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