Review: Tell It Short — A Guide to Writing Your Family History in Brief by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack

Review by Tony Kapolka

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Solomon Grundy,
Born on a Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Grew worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday,
That was the end,
Of Solomon Grundy


tell-it-shortMost amateur genealogists manage something less than the accounting of Solomon Grundy, of English nursery rhyme fame. Assembling names and dates into a database and exporting their data as GEDCOM report, they print trees showing parents and grandparents out four generations to a landscaped page. That is all to their credit, but the usual result is nothing a writer would confuse for a story; their characters lie flat. Sharon DeBartolo Carmack wants to change that.

I first encountered Carmack in 1997 at the National Genealogical Society Conference. Even then she had been a certified genealogical records specialist for a decade, with multiple research books to her credit. Carmack is a professional genealogist of the highest caliber and has long focused on teaching that craft. In 2002, for a college course focused on family history bearing women’s studies credit, I used her marvelous text, A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Female Ancestors. The best genealogists are part sleuth, part historian, and part writer, and Carmack strengthened that last quality, earning an MFA in creative nonfiction.

Indeed, the writer Carmack appears in Tell It Short (Scattered Leaves Press), penning a brief for family historians. She organizes her book in two balanced parts: (telling) writing instruction and (showing) example essays. While much of her writing advice will appear as chestnuts to those in MFA programs (‘A story needs conflict.’), her advice is well-spoken to the would-be family historian. To this, she adds concerns from a genealogical perspective (cautions about speculative writing, about revealing details of the living) which is apt for any creative nonfiction work. She focuses in on subgenres: the literary journalism essay; the personal essay; and essays focused on humor, travel, or food. In each case, she illustrates her points using specific examples from the included essays. Readers will flip back and forth between the sections as they read. Brief chapters on the mechanics of writing (overcoming writer’s block, revising) conclude her first section.

The second half of Tell It Short includes 10 previously published essays from six authors. All are enjoyable and one, “Switched at Midlife,” originally appeared in Hippocampus Magazine. Two of the other essays, authored by Carmack, are distinguished by the extensive footnoting characteristic of a certified genealogist holding to a higher standard than traditional creative nonfiction requires. Similarly, she provides an extensive craft bibliography, including the URLs of many articles freely available online. Exploring those will double the value of her work.

Tell It Short is published by Scattered Leaves Press, the in-house imprint of Carmack’s genealogy firm. With a track record placing acclaimed genealogy guidebooks with publishers who have allowed her books to fall out of print, she can be forgiven this indulgence. Among genealogists, her name will sell this book. Scattered Leaves, however, has not gotten Tell It Short listed with the big online booksellers – you’ll have to purchase it through

Writers are often approached by friends and family with anecdotes they’d love to see in print. Providing an accessible introduction to the creative nonfiction craft, this book is the perfect “read this and we’ll talk” gift to empower those historians to write their own essays. Tell It Short encourages us all to become writers.

tony kapolkaTony Kapolka holds graduate degrees in computer science, theology, and creative writing, and he has found their unifying thread in epistemology, perhaps formalized by the DIKW hierarchy and semiotics (signs and their meanings). He loves searching for stuff on and offline. Currently, he’s working on a craft book about narration.



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