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  • Valarie Jean Anderson

"How do you start?"

At two book signings for Pearl Harbor’s Final Warning, I’ve been asked, “How did you get started on your book? I’ve got some great information and papers and I want to write something for my family. Where do I start?”

I did not have a quick and easy answer, so I spent time with each individual over coffee or drinks, doing my best to answer their questions. They wanted to preserve the compelling and delightful family history and stories they shared with me. My writer’s mouth salivated with interest as they spoke. My mind raced with ideas, and we had a grand old time. I left feeling enriched with history previously unknown, but I sensed I had been more motivational than helpful in my response. So I’m writing my answer to “How did I start?” sharing my method for those who have a story to tell, even if it’s just in their head or stuffed into boxes and suitcases.

Here is how I started: I began with a whole lot of paper scattered on my floor.

After gathering my grandfather’s papers, which involved a trip to Washington state and emptying a suitcase found under my mother’s guestroom bed, I had reams of paper and “stuff” on my floor. My grandfather’s dust-covered papers were clamped in rusty toggled file folders and moth-eaten albums. It was a heap of chaos and I asked the same question, “How do I start?” I knew there was a story in there somewhere; our family oral history said so.

Picking one file folder at a time from the floor, I carefully unclipped or unstapled each piece of paper—many of them tissue-thin carbon copies—and removed them. Then I scan-read each item and slipped it into an archival quality page protector sleeve purchased at Staples. On the outside of the plastic sleeve, I’d write the date of the document and an ID marker, like medical, divorce decree, etc. If it had several pages, I’d write 1 of 5 for page one of a five-page letter, so I could keep track of them if they got separated in my ever-growing pile.

Stories and clarity emerged by organizing them by year instead of by topic. For example, the dates on a marriage certificate, letters of recommendation, a rejection of for citizenship, a ship manifest, a letter to his mother, and a medical record were within weeks of each other. It dawned on me that that my grandfather had married his mistress so he could have someone help him return to the states after he contracted polio in Japan. I later confirmed this with his son.

As I progressed folder by folder, item by item, each ended on the floor organized by year. I began to have stacks resembling snowdrifts. A torn piece of paper with the year inscribed graced the top of each pile. Woe to the person that entered my office and messed up my flurry of documents! After I had everything stacked by year, I next sorted them by month within each year. Then each year’s pile went into five-inch binders with dividers labeled by year. I was delighted to see each new patch of the floor when I got to the bottom of a particular pile. Progress!

At last, I had each item protected in sleeves and binders with a measure of organization. I basked in glory until I reviewed the items again. Backstory peppered many of my grandfather’s letters. In a single letter dated 1970, he’d mused back to 1935, then jumped to 1941, and then time-traveled back to 1970. Gooood grief! Now, what do I do? How do I integrate a multi-dated letter? After reading it for the third time, my mental light bulb blinked. I knew I wasn’t going to write about the dental appointment he described to my mom in 1970, but I did want to write about his 1935 and 1941 adventures. So I copied the letter and filed the original under 1941 and the copy under 1935, making a note on the copy that the original was under 1941.

Once I decided on this organizational path, I was glad I purchased heavy-duty binders. The clack, clack, of snapping binder rings and the clunk, swish, clunk of the copier almost sounded like a percussion section in a band as I reorganized what I had organized. Six binders and lots of days later, I had a rough chronology, a moment of triumph, a sense that I had defeated a paper tiger!

Next, I figured I’d better list everything in each ring binder, sort of like a table of contents. Of course, the percussion section of my efforts played again when I found items I had misplaced or overlooked. With the binder opened and covering half my desk, I typed away on my computer, grateful for the cut and paste feature which eons of writers before me never had.

Categorizing each item forced me to review the document again and add page numbers on the outside of the archival sleeves, a valuable aid when I began to cite the material for my book e. g. “George Street Archive, Binder 6, page 47.” Once done, I slipped a printed copy of my inventory in the handy little pocket at the front of each binder. Later, it served as a basis for a timeline.

That done, I labeled the binders on the spine and front piece: “George Street, Sr. Archive, Binder 1 of 6, 1898 to 1929,” and so forth. My chest swelled with pride like a proud parent when I eyed the binders, sitting smartly in a row on my bookshelf. It was a moment to celebrate. I could finally vacuum my floor! My husband didn’t have to tiptoe through snowdrifts of paper! My dog was no longer banished. Best of all, my little darlings were in their proper place, and I no longer had to protect them like a tigress.

The project took months.

When I began to write, I used the “inventory/chronology” as a guide. I filled in memories, interviews, and world events by year and created a timeline. I examined how that event might have impacted my grandfather. What was going on in the Bay Area in 1910 when George Sr. was twelve? What adventures did current events lend to his life? If he traveled by ocean liner, I helped me locate the ship manifest. Who did he travel with, what was the ship like, how long was the voyage? Using the extensive database at, for example, I looked for information that might let me know if he had sailed into a typhoon.

Weaving history and detail into the chronology, I suddenly had a scene—or a chapter that was rich with imagery. I could show instead of tell. My floor filled up with reference books as I researched and confirmed. Instead of snowdrifts, I now had mountains of tripping hazards, and my floor waited to be vacuumed again.

Thanks to the tether from the binders to the timeline that morphed out of the initial inventory, I could write and move forward without losing the thread of a tale. I could check and recheck without pulling my hair out because I could find things. If an interview yielded new material, I could insert it into the timeline, so that it would be at the right interval and place. I was grounded, productive, and able to navigate through the storm of paper that I’d tamed. Eventually, I found three, possibly four books, hidden in my binders, mapped out in the timeline that sprang from my floor.

I realize now that I should have thanked my office floor in my book’s “Acknowledgements” section. I couldn’t have finished them without that space. I would have had to put on snowshoes and climbing gear without its wonderfully wide, un-vacuumed surface that allowed me to organize the bits and pieces of my story. Before I start my next book, I’m going to give it a shampoo. That’s the best way I can think of to say “Thank you” to my hard-working floor that keeps me organized and my feet on the ground.

“How to start” checklist

1. Gather all papers, memos, reports, diaries, interview notes, and bits and bobs on your floor.

2. Insert each item in a three-holed archival quality protective sleeve.

3. Sort items by year using the date of letter or event (copy an original for duplicate placement).

4. Organize items by month within the year on your floor. Label the piles.

5. Insert items into heavy-duty three ringed binders with dividers labeled by year.

6. Type an inventory/chronology of each binder. Reorganize misplacements if necessary.

7. Number the pages in the binder on the outside of sleeve.

8. Label binders on the spine and front cover.

9. Develop a timeline from inventory/chronology in-filling historical events as needed.

10. Review your timeline, pick a point in time, and write but not before you…

11. Vacuum your floor.

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