Monday, May 20, 2013

Target Practice

A forty-something year-old woman in casual business attire walks into a suburban salon/spa and the two women working the counter literally fall over themselves to get a brochure into her hands. What do you think they spotted first? The unchecked gray in her hair? Her un-manicured nails? Or the face lacking all traces of the scant make-up applied 8 hours earlier? She is exactly the customer they target.

Unfortunately for them, that woman was me. And all I was looking for was the single salon hair product I buy about once every 6 years because I use so little of it. But I was flattered, in a comical way! No one has fallen all over themselves to get to me since my boys were toddlers! The two times in my life I’ve gone to a beauty spa, I only went upon coercion from friends. It is awkward and uncomfortable to me and not something I seek out. But for every one of me, there are 50 other women who love the experience and keep the salon/spas in business. They correctly identified me on the surface. But I’m an outlier!

I think about that funny encounter as I research target companies in my day job and as I attempt to define my target reader audience for Preacher Kid. Sometimes the target market is so well defined and so recognizable that it walks right up to you and says “hello.” Other times, it takes more finesse, not to mention trial and error, to locate the company or person who will be receptive to the “brochure.”

I am excited to be invited to speak at my local library as part of their annual speaker series. The single reason they were receptive to my "brochure" is because I adjusted my target to highlight my journey of discovery. I am joining them not because my book is such a sensation. In New England, far from Esther Miller’s roots, the attraction to the book about a girl from Ohio lies more in the research process than the story. And I have to say, I am thrilled to present my research journey, especially if it demystifies the process or encourages others to start their own search. Of course I would love to talk about Esther, but it would probably feel like sharing my home movies with strangers! Not that that ever stopped my Grandpa McCarthy – invited by the Lakewood Library, on many occasions, to show his films from his globetrotting!

I discovered that my local library offers free use of from their PCs. I think this is a common, yet often overlooked, benefit offered by many public libraries. I spent hours there, inputting ancestral names, deciphering cursive census entries from the 1800s, following a genealogical path down the decades until I lost the trail, and combing through birth, marriage, and death records trying to match names and dates to fill in the missing puzzle pieces. I found the whole task utterly captivating and was often startled out of my seat by the library bell notifying patrons of the impending close.

Some people put off the research because it seems overwhelming, they think it will be tedious, or they don’t realize how accessible old records have become. Not only is it accessible, it is free. I gathered many stories and memories from my living relatives, but that still left many holes in the story. Every bit of research to fill in those holes came from sitting at my computer or the library’s computers – with the important exceptions of my mom and sister, Megan’s, fact-finding mission to Asheville and my time, elbows-deep, in the archives at the Western Reserve Fire Museum in Cleveland. There is so much at our fingertips! It is simply amazing.

It is off in the distance a bit, but mark your calendars for January 26, 2014 and please come to the Needham Library for a fun little journey. Party at my house afterwards! Complete with home movies.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Risk of Waiting Too Long

Max & Edna (1940-something)
One of the many side-stories of my Preacher Kid writing journey involves my great uncle, Uncle Max. He was my grandma’s youngest sibling, born in 1919, when Esther was 11 years old. 

Like most of his siblings, Max Miller lived a long life. He stayed sharp as a tack right up until he died at the age of 87. Which is why I sought him out when I was trying to put the pieces of my grandma’s life together. He would still have the childhood memories, the stories of making do with what they had, the color on his parents, and the dirt on Esther.

It had been years since I had seen Uncle Max. I probably last saw him when I was in high school. He had lived with his wife, Edna, in Columbus and we used to love to drive down there and motor around on his pontoon boat that he docked at the bottom of the hill that led to their house on a lake. Max and Edna never had any children, but they loved children. It was always great fun to visit them and get a chance to laugh with Aunt Louise, who was part of the Columbus package.

So as my thoughts were swirling and forming in 2006, I wrote a letter to Uncle Max who had for many years lived in Lakeland, FL. In the letter, I suggested taking a trip to Lakeland, spending a few days with him, and capturing his memories as well as spending some precious time together.

Do you sometimes calculate a letter’s journey? I do it fairly often. And I knew that it would take 2 days to get from Boston
to Lakeland. Then I wanted to give him a few days to process the idea. Then I would give him a call.

The day before I planned to call Uncle Max, my mom called to tell me that Uncle Max had died earlier that day. He had had a long life. He died peacefully in his sleep, like the turning off of a switch. He had been a very small presence in my adult life but he was a link to my grandma that I had come so close to reconnecting. My husband jokingly blames me for Max’s death! But I’m grateful that perhaps Max opened my letter, felt love and appreciation from a distant source, pictured my sisters and I rolling and laughing down the hill in front of his house, thought about his long life and his family a bit, and smiled.

Many people’s reaction to reading Preacher Kid has been one of reinforcement that they should write the life story of a relative or other influential person in their life. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, “I should write a book about my [fill in the blank].” Well, my advice to you is “do it.” And do it now, before it is too late! The book about my grandma’s life would have been exponentially richer if I had written it while she was alive and helping me. It would have been more colorfully illuminated had her brother, Max, had a hand in it. I think I did alright with the great help from my mom and aunt. But I wish I had written it sooner.

Do you have someone you want to write about? What are you waiting for?