Update on the orange fence saga

March 2nd, 2010

The man accused of stealing a section of our orange snow fence has plead guilty to two misdemeanors. He will have to pay almost $1,200 in fines, plus restitution.

One good thing has resulted from all this bruhaha. The Village board, our police and the local snowmobilers’ club are now working together for solutions to educate sledders about Village laws relating to them. It will be interesting to see how it plays out next winter. 

Quick Tip: Simple Market Research

March 1st, 2010

I keep track of important information about novels I read on 3 x 5 cards, which double as bookmarks.  On one side of each card, I write the title, author, publisher, copyright date, number of pages/chapters and the type of novel. 

On the other side, I make notes about the story, POV, organization of chapters, etc.  I also record the name of any agent or editor mentioned by the author.  When I enter the information in my computer, I have a “personal” marketing guide to potential publishers for my novel.

3 free and simple ideas for self-promotion

February 22nd, 2010

There is life “offline,” so I thought it would be nice to share some ideas for personal promotion. The foundation of your fan or readership base already includes your family, friends, along with your business and social contacts. You can build on that foundation by becoming an active and visible participant in your community.  By investing a few hours each month, you can begin to establish yourself as a local celebrity.  These self-promotion suggestions are simple, cost virtually nothing but your time, and are particularly suited to those of us who live in “small town” America.

Become an advocate
Can you help spearhead a local blood drive or fundraiser?  Are you interested in preserving an historic site or building? Do the sidewalks in your community need repair?  Adopt a “cause” and volunteer to be a local spokesperson.

Conduct a workshop or seminar at your local senior center 
Researching your family history? Explain why it’s important for older adults to share their experiences with their family members. Offer suggestions on how to do that effectively. If you’re a writer, you could offer tips and insights on writing a memoir.

Make a speech or presentation at your local library, community center or community college
Did you vacation in Spain? Do you train sled dogs? Are you just back from distributing food or medicine in Haiti? Share highlights and photos of your experiences.

People are always interested in interesting people. Be one.

What’s in your family’s medical history?

February 12th, 2010

The news that former President Bill Clinton underwent a heart procedure yesterday has focused media attention on heart disease and its consequences.  Earlier this month, the American Heart Association promoted its “Go Red for Women” campaign, which aims to educate women about heart disease.  Sadly, heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States.

For family historians, now might be a good time to consider compiling a medical family history. The illnesses and diseases that our relatives had may impact our health and that of our future generations. Knowledge is power.  Knowing that heart disease or cancer or autism or asthma afflicted our father or grandmother or fifth cousin won’t change whether or not we or our children get the disease,. But the knowledge may help us make better lifestyle choices for ourselves and our families.

To help you get started compiling your family’s medical history, the Mayo Clinic has some tips on what should be included.  The Family Health History Initiative, developed by the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, has additional information, along with a free web-based program.

Review: The Writer’s Little Helper

February 9th, 2010

Author:  James V. Smith, Jr.
Publisher:  Writer’s Digest Books
Format:  Hardcover, 246 pages 
ISBN-10: 1582974225
ISBN-13: 9781582974224
$19.99

The Writer’s Little Helper is as delightful as a box of Godiva chocolates: rich, smooth morsels of useful writing advice in bite size portions. The book is slightly larger than a traditional paperback novel and you might be tempted to toss it in your purse or briefcase until you feel the weight of it. This pretty package has the heft of a college text, but it’s a far more interesting read. The only drawback is that it is not spiral bound.

The Writer's Little HelperWhat makes this book unique is that the author has chosen to provide writing help from the point of view of what the reader wants. Smith explains that his book  will “tell you how to analyze the needs of readers and how best-selling writers meet those needs.”  He lists 21 key traits of best-selling fiction, and explains the elements of a “blockbuster.” He discusses why the first 1,000 words of your novel are so important, and how to evaluate them.

Smith offers more than the standard advice found in books on the writing craft. For instance, while most of those books tell you to vary words, sentences and paragraph to manage the pace of your story, Smith shows you how to actually measure the pace of a scene.  He shows you how to use scene cards, how to define the purpose of each scene, and how to organize your novel using ten easy scenes. Then he offers you a tool – the ACIIIDS Test – to evaluate your scenes.

Smith insists that creating memorable characters is the single most important trait of best-selling authors. He provides tips on everything from selecting character names to how to keep track of each character’s attributes throughout your novel. He gives you a 40-item checklist of the minimum character elements necessary for any story. He says that every major character should have a chance at redemption, and he explains what that means and how to accomplish it.

The book also covers how to avoid amateur mistakes such as author intrusion, and how to determine the reading ease of your novel. Other topics include plotting, dialogue, point of view, and editing techniques.

Page edges are color-coded for each topic, but the organization is not the typical “chapter” arrangement. Rather the author delivers tools, checklists, quick exercises, and sage advice on the topics randomly through the book. You can read straight through from cover to cover if you prefer, but the delight in this book is discovering new ways to write, revise and review your writing. Open the book to any page and you’ll find a practical tip that you can actually use at that moment.

February is Black History Month

February 5th, 2010

There are more than 41 million black residents in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  And by 2050, the Bureau predicts the black population will exceed 65 million, including those of more than one race.  Many of these individuals have started, or will begin, to search for their ancestors.

Two events, in my opinion, have had a dramatic impact on people interested black genealogical research today. The first was in 1976 when Doubleday Books published Alex Haley’s fictional account of his search for his family history. Haley, who died in 1992, won a Pulitzer for his novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. A television mini-series adapted from the book and aired by ABC in 1977, won a number of awards. 

But I think the real significance of Haley’s Roots has been to open minds and hearts to the truly personal nature of family history research. Our ancestors are not just names on microfilmed copies of censuses or barely legible scrawls on decades-old church registrars.  They were real people, who lived and breathed, and above all, endured the joys and sorrows of their time.

The second event was the 2008 election of the first African American to the Presidency of the United States.  Politically historic, for sure. But I believe Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, also inspired a resurgence of interest in black family history, including this article in the New York Times.

Here are some resources for family historians seeking their African American ancestors:

African American Research (NARA) 

African American Ancestors

University of South Florida Africana Heritage Project 

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Cyndi’s List for African American Researchers

African Ancestored Genealogy 

Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society

You can learn more about Black History Month and interesting statistics about blacks in America from the U.S. Census Bureau’s newsroom.

The saga of our orange fence

January 31st, 2010

Every winter snowmobilers trespass across our yard to get from one street to another.  They zip across the snow too fast to catch a license plate number.  Between the noise of their engines and their protective helmets, it’s virtually impossible to attract their attention verbally.  One year we were able to identify a neighbor boy and his friends as the culprits. A polite chat with the parents resolved the issue that winter.  Sadly, the trend didn’t hold and each year there seems to be a new crop of noisy trespassers.  Complaining to the local police produced no results.  In fairness, the police really can’t do anything unless they (or we) can catch and/or identify the culprits and “prove” them to be the trespassers.

fenceThis year we decided we had had enough. In mid-December we hired a local man to put up a temporary fence to block the snowmobilers from using our yard as a shortcut. The fence was made of orange plastic and secured to metal poles pounded into the not-yet-frozen soil.  Similar fences had graced other winter yards in town over the years so we didn’t think there would be any problem.  Snow came, but snowmobilers didn’t.  For the last six weeks life has been quiet and peaceful in regards to the snowmobilers.  And the pristine, snow-covered lawn was a beautiful sight from my office window.

On Tuesday, January 19, we get a call from the local code enforcement office.  It seems that our pretty orange fence, effective as it might be in discouraging snowmobilers, is in violation of a fence ordinance enacted last summer.  The town fathers want the fence taken down.  Now mind you, other village residents have erected a variety of temporary fences to keep snowmobilers off their property, too.  We expressed our willingness to obtain a temporary permit. The code officer, a snowmobiler himself,  empathized with our collective plight, but said there is no provision in the current fence law for a temporary permit.  He would take the issue to the village board meeting that evening.

F-01After much discussion of the problem of trespassing snowmobilers, the board tossed around the idea of increasing the fine for trespassing, but took no action beyond encouraging the police chief to have his officers identify and ticket violators. The code officer said he would speak to the leaders of the local snowmobilers club to encourage their members to abide by the no-trespassing law. A suggestion was made to put an ad in the local newspaper at the beginning of next winter to remind residents that temporary snow fences are not permitted under current law. In the meantime, the board would “ignore” the temporary fences and address the issue directly before next winter.

So our orange snow fence continued to stand in the cold and the snow and the wind,  defending our yard from errant sledders.  Until one unhappy snowmobiler decided to steal it.  Yup, one of our village’s finest knocked on our door about 11:00 p.m. Saturday night and said he thought someone had stolen our fence.  F-02Sure enough, the entire section of fence that bordered one side of the yard was missing.  The police officer said he had the missing fence in the back of his patrol car, and that a man was already in custody for the theft.  The officer asked if we wanted to have the man arrested and the answer was a resounding “YES!”

This should be one for Jay Leno’s “dumb criminals” list.  Apparently the “alleged” thief had been drinking and was upset because he couldn’t snowmobile over our yard, something he claimed to have been doing since he was a youngster.  After stealing the section of fence, he dumped it in front of the Mayor’s house.  The Mayor, who lives around the corner from us, told the police he knew where the fence had come from.

When the police approached our middle-aged suspect, he apparently engaged in a “run-and-tussle” of some sort with one officer.  As I was signing the complaint form, the accused was down at the police station trying to wash pepper spray out of his eyes.  Apparently pepper spray takes about an hour to wear off.  

Kudos to our village police for outstanding work! More on our orange fence saga as it unfolds.

Quick Tip: ‘Google’ Your Character

January 27th, 2010

Putting a “face on your characters can make them easier to describe and write about. Some writers cut pictures from magazine or catalogs. You can also find pictures of people on the Internet. If your character is non-human, you can likely find a suitable image to represent him/her/it. 

Google is one of the most popular search engines, so much so that “Googling” has become synonymous with “searching the Internet.” Here’s how to “Google” your character:

On the main Google search page select “images”, then type your character’s name in the search bar. Review the results and select the picture that best reflects how you imagine your character. Print out two copies. Put one copy in the folder you’ve made for that character. Tape the second copy over your desk so you can see your character when you are writing about him or her.

You can also “Google” your setting by using a keyword such as castle, hillside, river, autumn trees, etc.

How safe are your family records and research?

January 25th, 2010

One of the many tragedies of the January 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti is the loss of records.  Although it’s been reported that the Haitian National Archives was not severely damaged,  there are many churches that were damaged or destroyed.  The extent of loss of genealogically-necessary records is not yet known.

I’ve run up against a few stone walls researching my family history because of gaps in the availability of records.  Tracking my ancestors has been hampered by the 1911 fire at the New York State Library and the loss of the 1890 Federal Census in 1921.  I may never be able to retrieve military records of family members due to a 1973 fire in St. Louis that destroyed 16-18 million personnel records.

Discovering my Irish ancestors is an even more difficult task. In 1922, the Irish Civil War took its toll on census records housed in the Four Courts.

Which brings me to the questions: how safe are your family records? Have you safeguarded your genealogical research?  You may have already spent years collecting information and documentation for your family tree. You may be just beginning your search for family history. Whether you are a newcomer to genealogy or an experienced researcher, today might be a good time to review ways to keep your important information organized and secure. 

It is essential to back up all your family history files.  Most of the current genealogy software programs have a backup feature.  Note, however, that when you use a genealogy program’s backup feature, you will most likely be saving your files in that program’s proprietary file system.  You may not be able to retrieve those files if your software program becomes obsolete, or is not compatible with newer computer operating systems.  That said, it is still a good idea to get into the habit of using your genealogy program’s backup feature.

I also like to keep my family history information in text (.txt) and document (.doc) files.  I print them out and add them to the file folder I keep on each individual ancestor I’m researching. That way, if my computer has an issue, I still have “hard” copies of my research.  I also back up these files (along with my genealogy software’s backups) to CD and DVD on a regular basis.  Ideally these disks should be stored in a fireproof container or safe deposit box, but I must admit to being lax in that area.  One of these days I’m going to look into the feasibility of using an online backup site.

This isn’t intended to be an all-inclusive list of how to back up your family history.  Hopefully, it will serve as a reminder that you need to have a backup system that will work for you.

5 Things You Can Do Online To Help Others

January 12th, 2010

There are at least five things you can do online to help others. If donating money was the first thing that came to your mind, you’ll be surprised to learn that none of these suggestions will tap your wallet.

1. Help feed hungry people around the world by playing a vocabulary game at FreeRice.com. Direct benefit to you: an expanded vocabulary, which can have a positive effect in other areas of your life.

2. Educate women about heart disease and stroke by participating in the Go Red for Women campaign by the American Heart Association. Direct benefit to you: the potential to save your life, or the life of a woman you love.

3. Help feed dogs and cats in shelters around the U.S. by answering trivia questions at FreeKibble.com and FreeKibbleKat.com. Direct benefit to you: acquisition of interesting facts about different breeds of cats and dogs.

4. Volunteer to help out with your favorite online forum, email group, or chat site. If you’re a writer, share your expertise and experience at Absolute Write Water Cooler. If you’re interested in genealogy, Genealogy Trails is looking for assistance to help expand their free online data resources. Direct benefit to you: “meeting” new people and developing friendships around the world.

5. Use your favorite social networking tool or instant messaging program (mine is Trillian) to send encouragement to someone who is struggling with a problem of some kind. When Life hands you lemons, it’s great to know that you have support while you’re trying to make lemonade. Direct benefit to you: that irreplaceable, warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from just doing something nice for someone else.