Life stories are gifts from one generation to the next, and contribute to the richness of our cultural heritage. Writing Your Place in History is not a ‘how to’ booklet but a guide designed to answer basic questions commonly asked by people embarking on writing and publishing life stories.
Part 1, ‘Getting the Words on the Page’, covers research, writing, manuscript assessment, editing and legal issues. Part 2, ‘Getting the Words in Print’, deals with commercial publishing, self-publishing and other publication avenues. The Resources section at the bottom provides details of where to go for more information.
Not everyone who writes is successful in being published, and few who are published achieve fame or fortune. But for every publishing success like Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life, there are hundreds of people who have derived satisfaction and enjoyment from the experience of writing their life story and sharing it among family and friends. You don’t have to have led an extraordinary life, or be an outstanding writer, to write your place in history. History is illuminated by ordinary lives, and by the stories of those who care enough to leave them.
Part 1: Getting the Words on the Page
When once the itch of literature comes over a man, nothing can cure it but the scratching of a pen. SAMUEL LOVER (1797–1868)
How much research do I need to do?
It depends on what you are writing. For family histories and biographies, your research might be as simple as checking facts, or as complex as tracing a family tree or developing an understanding of the social conditions of a particular period. If you are writing an autobiography, you might wish to refresh your memories by looking through contemporary newspapers, or supplement them by conducting interviews with other people. You might also decide to research worldwide influences on local events, to put your experiences into their historical context.
How do I trace my family tree?
Consider joining the WA Genealogical Society (Perth and country branches; see Resources). Membership is open to anyone interested in family history, and member services include assistance with research, family history courses (including one for beginners), lectures, workshops and monthly meetings. There are also many books available on tracing family trees (see Resources for examples), and the Battye Library and the State Library’s Genealogy Centre can provide helpful information.
Where can I access records and archives?
The State Records Office of Western Australia (see Resources) manages the state’s archives, which include Aboriginal records; convict records; education and schools records; court records; hospital and health records; police records; and immigration records. The Battye Library in Perth (see Resources) has a wealth of information on Western Australian history, including indexes to birth, death, marriage and divorce registers; cemetery records; passenger lists and shipping; post office directories; electoral rolls; education records; government records; newspapers; private archives; oral history; government gazettes; and Western Australian almanacs.
The Battye Library also has a comprehensive collection of family histories and biographies published in Western Australia, as well as publications such as the Dictionary of Western Australians series (includes volumes on convicts, Aborigines of the Southwest region, Aboriginal prisoners of Rottnest Island, and Asian immigrants to Western Australia), and information sheets about family history research. The State Library’s Genealogy Centre (see Resources) holds copies of Public Records Office (London) records relating to Australia.
Former child migrants from Britain and Malta who came to Catholic homes in Western Australia between 1938 and 1965 can access personal history details through the PHIND index (see Resources). Institutions covered include Nazareth House, Geraldton; St Joseph’s and St Vincent’s, Leederville; St Mary’s, Tardun; St Joseph’s, Bindoon; Castledare; and Clontarf.
Where else can I go for information and help?
The public library in your area may have useful resources in its collection, and librarians are usually extraordinarily helpful and knowledgeable. Some local libraries also have access to online resources such as Ancestry, and will be happy to assist you to learn to use them.
The Royal WA Historical Society (see Resources) offers members research facilities through its library, lectures and talks, and contact with fellow researchers at monthly meetings. There are also many local historical societies in metropolitan and country areas. Check your local phone directory for details.
How do I go about interviewing?
The Battye Library offers for sale, or loan through the library system, a CD by Ronda Jamieson on interviewing (see Resources). Workshops on oral history techniques are occasionally run by the Oral History Association of Australia’s WA Branch (see Resources). The Family History Writing Book (see Resources) is another good source of practical information.
What about the Internet?
The Internet connects with resources all over the world, but can be frustrating and time-wasting if you don’t know how to use it. If you need help, try contacting your local public library or community learning centre, as some offer inexpensive introductory sessions. At many libraries, Internet access is available free or on an hourly hire basis. A few of the many web sites for family history research are listed in the Resources section.
Where can I learn how to write?
Many people are better writers than they think they are. But help is at hand for beginners. Bookshops and library shelves are full of ‘how to’ books (some are listed in the Resources section). Writing workshops and courses are conducted by writers centres and groups and you will find information about these in Our Member Organisations. Membership of a writers centre gives you access to helpful advice on writing and publishing matters, as well as to other writers (beginners as well as experienced).
Do I have to type my work?
Whether submitted to commercial publishers, or given to desktop publishers in the case of self-publishing, books and other printed material are almost always printed from USBs. So it makes sense to type your work on computer (word-processor) at the start, as otherwise it will end up being typed twice.
Word-processing allows you to do more than just type: correcting, checking of spelling, and adjustment of spacing and type size are just some of its functions. If you don’t have the necessary skills, you will have to ask someone to type your handwritten manuscript, or pay to have this done professionally. It’s worth considering learning how to do it yourself. Courses in computers and basic word-processing are run by TAFE and some local governments and Community Resource Centres in regional communities. You can also access facilities at writers centres and at many public libraries. Second-hand computers and printers can often be bought cheaply.
Where do I start?
Some people just pick up a pen, or turn on a computer, and begin with the first thing that comes into their head. But most writers benefit from planning. Plan your writing under chapter headings, which can be organised chronologically (by time), spatially (by setting), thematically (by subject or idea), or in some other way. Examine published books that are similar to yours (see Resources for possible examples). You can freely adapt other people’s ideas about structure to your own work. This is not plagiarism.
If you are writing about yourself, it can be useful to start by thinking about stages in your life: earliest memories, school years, adolescence, and so on. You can also put your experiences into perspective by considering what was happening in the world at the time in question.
In his book Writer (see Resources), Graeme Kinross-Smith suggests using ‘life questions’ to prompt memory and to highlight themes – questions about work, relationships, children, politics, spirituality, death, illness, sport, technology, sex, education, rituals, holidays, regrets and achievements. Don’t forget that details you might take for granted – for example, about housing, education, sporting activities, modes of transport, food preparation, entertainment, celebrations, prices, toys, pets, hair styles and clothing – are often fascinating to other people and can provide insights into different times, places and cultures. These approaches can be used whether writing about yourself, other people, or a family.
Should I write the way I speak?
How you write depends on what you are writing, the impression you want to make, and the audience you have in mind. A book intended for the commercial market may need a more formal tone than a memoir or family history intended for a small readership of people you know. You will also need to make decisions about point of view and tense. First person or third person? Simple past tense? Read other books to see how experienced authors have handled these stylistic matters.
1.3 Manuscript Assessment
What is manuscript assessment?
A professional manuscript assessor provides the type of feedback that publishers do not have time for, and that family and friends may be too ‘kind’ to give. Some writers have their manuscript assessed before submitting it to a publisher; others seek assessment if they have received several rejections and don’t understand why their work is not accepted. Many book editors and literary agents also offer manuscript assessment services. The cost ranges from $100 to $600 or more, depending on the size and complexity of the manuscript.
What does an editor do?
Editors work with authors and publishers to maximise a manuscript’s potential to communicate with readers. There are several levels of manuscript editing. Substantive editing involves a review of the work in its entirety, checking its structure, content, language and style in relation to the intended readership. Copyediting is a less detailed check, concentrating on language and consistency. Proofreading involves the correction of basic errors. Editors also understand, and can advise on, all aspects of the publishing process.
Do I need an editor?
Every writer does — even experienced writers like Kate Grenville or Bryce Courtenay. When a manuscript is accepted by a commercial publisher, an editor is generally assigned to work with the author. Self-publishing authors should give their books the same advantage.
Can I edit my work myself?
You certainly should be the first editor of your work. If possible, put it aside for a while and then return to it with fresh eyes. Consider whether your opening paragraph is strong, the transitions from chapter to chapter are smooth, and the conclusion is memorable. Review the structure for balance (for example, is there an unusually long chapter that could be broken up?). Check that the expression is clear, and that spelling, grammar and punctuation are correct. Consult the Australian Government’s Style Manual, The Australian Editing Handbook or The Editor’s Companion (see Resources) to learn more about what editing involves.
You should not, however, be the only editor. An objective editor can help improve the manuscript and eliminate errors that writers often miss.
Whom should I get to edit my work?
Use a professional editor if possible. Ask prospective editors about their experience with your type of work, and the level of editing required. An editor will need to examine the manuscript before being able to discuss this, or the fees involved. Many writers cannot afford professional editing and must rely on family or friends for help with at least basic proofreading. If you belong to a writers centre or group, fellow writers might be willing to check your work in exchange for your checking theirs.
Where can I find a professional editor?
Explore the editors listed in Literati.
1.5 Legal Issues
The following information is intended to provide a brief introduction only, and should not be regarded as legal advice.
What is copyright?
Copyright protects the rights of the creators of written material, musical works, artwork, films, photographs and sound recordings. If you write an autobiography, biography or family history, you will own copyright in that work. Copyright protects your expression of the story (that is, your words), not the story itself, nor its idea or theme, nor any information it provides. Protection is automatic (that is, you don’t need to register), but it is customary to include on your manuscript the copyright symbol (©) and your name and the year of writing or first publication. A published work is covered by copyright for seventy years after the death of the creator, after which it passes into the public domain and can be freely used.
How does other people’s copyright affect my work?
As a general rule, you cannot reproduce copyright material (for example, a poem, song lyrics, a photograph, a map, an illustration) without written permission, and you must acknowledge ownership and permission. Sometimes the copyright owner charges a licensing fee (and imposes conditions) for use of the material.
In some cases, extracts from a copyright work may be quoted without permission, depending on the ‘importance’ of the part to the whole (interpretation of which varies from case to case), and the purpose of the reproduction. Consult the Australian Copyright Council’s information sheet ‘Quotes and Extracts: Copyright Obligations’ for further details (see Resources).
How do I get copyright permission?
If the material has come from a published source, contact the publisher as a first step. If the material is unpublished (for example, a personal letter), contact the author, if known. The Australian Copyright Council’s information sheet ‘Owners of Copyright: How to Find’ can be helpful (see Resources).
Do I need permission to write about stories family members have told me?
Under copyright law, no. But the rules of courtesy apply. If someone is likely to object, obtain written permission first. It is particularly important that Indigenous people give permission for ‘publication’, in whatever form, of family, community or traditional stories.
Where do I go for further information about copyright?
The Australian Copyright Council (see Resources) publishes information sheets and books, and can sometimes provide advice on specific matters over the phone (see the council’s information sheet ‘Australian Copyright Council: Who We Are; What We Do’).
What is defamation?
If you publish a statement that lowers a person in the eyes of others, you may be guilty of defamation by libel. The terms by which libel actions can be brought or defended constitute an extremely muddy legal area, with regulations varying from state to state. The best way to protect yourself as a writer is to abide by the adage ‘When in doubt, leave it out’.
Part 2: Getting the Words in Print
2.1 Commercial Publishing
What is a commercial publisher?
A commercial publisher offers a contract for publication of a manuscript, pays for the editing, production, printing, promotion and distribution of the book (although these costs are sometimes subsidised by a sponsor), pays agreed royalties to the author, and collects any remaining money from book sales as profit. The major commercial publishers in Western Australia are listed in the Resources section. Note that some commercial publishers may agree to act as publishing consultants or subsidy publishers for self-publishing authors.
What are my chances of being accepted?
Unless your story is particularly unusual or timely, or you are famous, sadly, your chances are small. Publication of a book represents a major investment, and before accepting a manuscript for publication, a publisher needs to be convinced that it will be a profitable venture. The publisher might publish only ten or twenty or thirty books a year, and beginners have to compete with well-known authors.
Is it worth even trying?
If you think you have something to offer, why not? You have little to lose.
Can I do anything to improve my chances?
Make sure your manuscript is as polished as you can make it, and present it in a professional way. Handwritten or otherwise poorly presented manuscripts may not even be considered.
Before you submit your manuscript, check that the publisher handles the type of book you have written and make sure you comply with their guidelines for submission. All of the publishers listed in the Resources section publish autobiographies and biographies.
When you approach a publisher, make sure you have done your research and that you are providing the material and information requested in their submission guidelines (which you should find published on their websites). These requirements will vary from publisher to publisher.
What about interstate or overseas publishers?
Unless your story has a very wide appeal, or involves people or events beyond Western Australia, it’s unlikely to attract the interest of publishers outside the state.
How long must I wait for a reply?
Be prepared to wait for several months. Publishers have few resources for handling the many submissions they receive.
Would it be better if an agent submitted my manuscript?
Unless you know an author who is prepared to recommend you to their agent, securing representation by an agent can be as difficult as getting your manuscript accepted by a publisher.
To find Literary Agents in Australia visit the web site of the Australian Literary Agents Association.
What are vanity publishing and self-publishing?
Both require that the author bears the financial risk of publishing their work. With acceptance by commercial publishers so difficult, these are increasingly attractive options for writers keen to see their work in print.
With vanity (or subsidy) publishing, authors pay for all, or most, of the costs involved or waive royalties until sales cover costs. There are some unscrupulous presses around, but many do offer value for money. It is up to you to check their credentials carefully. Ask to see examples, and reviews, of their previously published books, and examine all quotes and contracts to see what is included (for example, editing and proofreading may not be included, nor distribution and promotion).
With self-publishing you undertake, and pay for, the tasks of production, printing, promotion and distribution yourself. Self-publishing can be as ambitious or as humble as an author’s ideas (and funds) allow – from glossy, professional-looking books with large print-runs, through to photocopied booklets to be distributed among family and friends.
Is self-publishing financially rewarding?
Not always, or even often. You should ask yourself the brutal question: ‘If nobody bought the book, could I afford to lose my entire investment?’ If you hope to make money out of self-publishing your life story, or even just to recover the costs, first do a business plan. Research production and printing costs, and think about the market: who would buy the book, at what price, and how many copies can you reasonably expect to sell? Research distribution and promotion costs too. Commercial distributors, for example, take a large percentage of the book price. If you are planning to sell your book, keep a record of expenses so that you can claim them as tax deductions against any income earned from sales.
What if I just want a few copies to give away?
Photocopying a small quantity to distribute among friends and family is a low-cost way to share your story. To make copies more durable, consider having the cover laminated. Or discuss with a printer how much it would cost to have just the cover and binding done professionally. It is also possible to distribute your story as an e-book or as a pdf, so there are no printing costs involved.
How do I go about self-publishing?
You need to be prepared, and have the time, to learn a little about production, printing, distribution and promotion. If you plan to handle the process yourself, you will be liaising with some or all of the following: designers, desktop publishers, typesetters, proofreaders, printers, distributors and booksellers. Always obtain more than one quote when seeking professional services and ask to see examples of work.
For a complete step-by-step guide to self-publishing a print book, explore the resources that we have published in About Publishing.
By the time you are ready for production you should have: text (complete, edited manuscript, preferably on a USB); photographs organised by chapter, numbered and ‘keyed in’ to the manuscript (that is, the manuscript marked with numbers corresponding to the photograph numbers, to indicate approximate placement); a separate document of captions for photographs; and written permissions for any copyright material. Your text might also include preliminary material (half-title and title page; imprint page containing publisher name and contact details, copyright notice, ISBN and CIP data, if necessary; acknowledgments; list of contents; list of photographs) and endmatter (references, bibliography, index — with page numbers to be added at final proof stage).
What does production involve?
The production process converts the edited manuscript into a format ready to be printed. It involves book design (page dimensions, how the text is set out on the page, where photographs and other graphic material are placed, decorative features); layout of text and graphic material according to the design (often called ‘formatting’, ‘typesetting’ or ‘desktop publishing’); proofreading and re-checking of any corrections; and cover design and production of the cover artwork.
If your manuscript is word-processed, layout can usually be done from your USB. If not, the text has to be retyped on computer. This is obviously an additional cost, and extra diligence will be needed during proofreading. Check the proof copy yourself – text, captions, photograph placement, etc. – and ask someone else to proofread, too, as it is easy to overlook errors in your own work. Do not use this as an opportunity to edit or rewrite the proof copy: major corrections once the text has been formatted are expensive, unless they result from typesetter errors or omissions introduced during layout.
Some authors are able to do book layout themselves, using desktop publishing or word-processing programs, and adapting design ideas from other books. This can reduce costs substantially. It is usually worth seeking professional help with cover design, however. Many people do judge a book by its cover, and a good cover may help sell your book.
Some designers, desktop publishers and printers offer a package of all the services involved in production. Make sure you obtain quotes that itemise exactly what is included, and that all parties understand your budget and your expectations.
What are ISBN and CIP?
An ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is an identification code required for all printed books and pamphlets. CIP (Cataloguing-in-Publication) data, issued by the National Library of Australia, allows the library system to catalogue publications before they are published, encouraging advance orders for books and facilitating their availability in libraries. For further information, contact the ISBN Agency Australia and the National Library’s CIP Unit (see Resources).
What does printing involve?
Printing involves the copying, compilation and binding of the finished product. Consult a printer early in the project, as decisions about paper and cover stock (thickness and finish), use of colour, binding style and print-run (the number of copies) affect cost and, therefore, your production budget.
What do distribution and promotion involve?
Distribution involves getting your book to potential readers – for example, by placing it in book stores or selling it yourself at family reunions, local markets, clubs or at a book launch you organise. Many book stores will only accept books from commercial distributors who, as mentioned before, take a large percentage of the book price and may not be interested in representing your book anyway.
Taking responsibility for distribution requires time, patience and ingenuity. You also need adequate space to store your books: somewhere dry and safe from insect attack. Promotion involves creating interest in your book so that people will want to buy it. Look for an ‘angle’ you can use, capitalising on any local connections, for example. You may be able to persuade your community newspaper to write an article about you, or you could offer to give a talk at the local library or service club about the subject of your book, or how you went about writing it (and, of course, have copies on hand to sell afterwards). The more well known you are – even if your ‘fame’ is only local – the easier it will be to market and sell your book.
What is legal deposit?
Publishers in Western Australia, including self-publishers, are obliged to deposit two copies of their publications (defined as those supplied, whether for sale or otherwise, to the public) in the library system: one with the National Library of Australia and one with the Battye Library (see Resources).
2.3 Other Publication Outlets
What if I don’t want to write a full-length book?
Many people have anecdotes or short family stories they’d like to share or see in print. Well-written human interest stories may be suitable for outlets such as Have-a-Go News (a monthly paper ‘for the over 45s’, with distribution throughout the state), community newspapers, women’s magazines and special-interest newsletters (for example, of clubs and organisations). Writing posts for a blog is another popular way of sharing family stories with others. Note that article writing requires a different set of skills than those used in writing books. Publications such as Writer and How to Write Your Own Life Story (see Resources) provide advice on how to write interesting articles.
Part 3. Resources
3.1 Writing Resources
3.2 Research Resources
Battye Library, 3rd Floor, Alexander Library Building, Perth Cultural Centre, Perth WA 6000, Phone: (08) 9427 3291 Web:
Genealogy Centre, State Library of Western Australia, 1st Floor, Alexander Library Building, Perth Cultural Centre, Perth WA 6000
Oral History Association of Australia, WA Branch (workshops on interviewing) Phone: (08) 9361 1977 Web:
Royal WA Historical Society Inc. Stirling House, 49 Broadway Nedlands WA 6009, Phone: (08) 9386 3841, Web:
State Records Office of Western Australia, James Street West Entrance, Alexander Library Building, Perth Cultural Centre, Perth WA 6000, Phone: (08) 9427 3360
WA Genealogical Society Inc. 6/48 May Street, Bayswater WA 6053, Phone: (08) 9271 4311, Web: Many country branches; check local phone directory or contact head office.
Family history web sites
Ancestry; Family Search; NLA; Italian Genealogy; Australian Jewish Genealogy Society.
Writers Centres and Groups
Visit Our Member Organisations.
ISBN Agency Australia, Building C3, 85 Turner Street Port Melbourne Vic 3207, Phone: (03) 8645 0385
The Copyright Agency
Cataloguing-in-Publication Unit, National Library of Australia Canberra ACT 2600, Phone: (02) 6262 1458
Legal Deposit Information
Legal Deposit Unit, National Library of Australia, Canberra ACT 2600, Phone: (02) 6262 1312
3.3 Other Useful Resources