Saturday, September 30, 2006

Getting It Done

After three weeks of non-stop activity that has included travel, speaking engagements, book signings, and other meetings, I am finally getting back home and back to business--the business of writing.

I have mutliple deadlines that must be met. Page proofs to review for my forthcoming book, Slovak Pittsburgh (Arcadia), several magazine articles, and lessons for a new genealogy class I hope to teach next year. Procrastination (even if I were a procrastinator, which I generally am not) is not the problem. Rather, it's having enough time to devote to each task.

Sometimes I wish that I did not overcommit myself, or that I would be content just sitting on the couch watching reality TV, or "Deal or No Deal," but that's not me. The more work I take on the more work I seem to get. As a writer this is gratifying because it means editors like what I produce and readers finding my articles or books interesting. If you are writer, perhaps you will understand where I am coming from with these reflections.

Basically, what it comes down to is "getting it done." And, somehow I always manage to do so.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Beer, Bratwurst, and... Books?

The Blue Collar Book Tour rolls on this week with a book signing at the Church Brew Works ("Pittsburgh's Finest Brew Pub Since 1996"), 3525 Liberty Avenue Pittsburgh, PA.
I will be appearing with my BCBT colleagues Dan Burns and Sandy Henry on Thursday, September 28, 2006 from 4:30 - 6:30 PM. The appearance is part of the Church Brew Works' 10th annual Oktoberfest celebration, Friday, September 22 - Sunday October 1, 2006.

Come join us for some beer, bratwurst, and maybe even to buy a few books (Carnegie, Pittsburgh's Rivers, and Pittsburgh's Immigrants)??? Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Inspiring Other Genealogists

Last week I received an e-mail from a man who happened to be doing a Google search on his surname and was directed to my web site, and a recent article I wrote for Family Chronicle Magazine, entitled "20th Century Desperate Housewives (see my web site).

The article focused on the lives of six women in Duquesne, Pennsylvania in 1936, including the various secrets each kept and how the murder of one of them had in some way affected the others. One of the women shared the same surname (through marriage) as the person who e-mailed me (I won't say which one to protect the gentleman's privacy). He said that the research I did on the woman has inspired him to learn more about his paternal ancestors. To quote from his message: "This is quite exciting, as I always wondered about my heritage..."

I thoroughly enjoy researching my ancestors, and even more so, writing about them. Messages such as these make me want to keep doing genealogy. It is nice to know that my research has inspired another potential genealogist to research his family, and it is even more inspiring since the person is part of my extended family!

Monday, September 25, 2006

"When Do You Sleep? "

This past weekend, I was the main speaker at the conference held by the Polish Genealogical Society of Connecticut and the Northeast (see previous post). After my second talk of the day, "Genealogy and Technology: Connect Your Family Online," one of the attendees came up and asked me this question, "When Do You Sleep?" She said that after hearing about all of the different projects I work on related to genealogy, running a family web site, producing a family newsletter, creating a family tribute DVD, writing articles and books, teaching classes, giving presentations and appearing at book signings. All this, plus my full time job. I said, "Well, I don't that much anymore." And then jokingly, "Have you heard of Red Bull? That's how I do it."

Now, this exchange was made in good fun, but I was thinking about it on the drive home today. Sleep has been a bit of a luxury in the past month or so. Writing deadlines, engagements, and travel have consumed my time. I would rather be busy than bored (It is a rare occasion to find me lounging on the couch for more than 15 or 30 minutes... I am just compelled to do something constructive during most of my waking hours). Logically, I know that this frenetic pace is not necessarily healthy or good practice. Yes, I've heard and read the news reports about the U.S. being a "sleep deprived nation" and I am not proud to say that I am in my own small way contributing to this phenomenon. But, I can take a hint. As a genealogist, I am a firm believer in serendipity. I don't believe the exchange with this person at the conference was random. I think it was meant to actually "wake me up" in a sense.

I think I will stop writing for now and actually go to sleep early tonight (Okay, I confess it will be after CSI Miami is over). It will be nice to get a few extra Z's though.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

In Praise of the Polish

I am 3/4 Slovak and 1/4 Carpatho-Rusyn, but in this posting I must sing the praises of some of my Polish colleagues (really friends, now). I was the main speaker for the conference this weekend (9/22-9/23) hosted by the Polish Genealogical Society of Connecticut and the Northeast at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, CT. All I can say is: What great people and what a fantastic conference!

I spoke on "Writing Your Family History" and "Genealogy and Technology: Connect Your Family Online" -- two topics I really enjoy presenting to different groups. Two ladies came in from another part of Connecticut for the conference because they knew I was the speaker (they had enjoyed a presentation I gave in Newtown, CT in April 2006). Many folks enjoyed what I had to say and it was a pleasure to meet so many enthusiastic fellow genealogists!

The Slovaks have been traditionally known for the hospitality and generosity, but I must give kudos to the organizers of the PGSCTNE (especially Jonathan, Matthew, and Diane who all had a hand in inviting me to be the speaker. After the conference, several of us went out for dinner and had such an enjoyable evening! Thanks also to Jon and Matt for the trip to Dairy Queen, the drinks at Chili's (what other speaker would agree to cross an eight lane highway on a Sat. night to walk over to Chili's from the hotel where her car was parked!) Thanks for the laughs, guys!

I wish I could say something profound in Polish, but I am hopeless when it comes to other languages. So, I will just say "THANKS for a great weekend!"

Thursday, September 21, 2006

What Should I Do With My Life?

As I noted in a previous post, this week I am spending (will have spent) a lot of time on the road, driving in my car, to Pittsburgh, New York, and Connecticut. I get tired of scanning the radio stations, and I am not that high-tech yet to have Satellite radio in my Toyota Rav4. I do have a CD player, and although I have quite an extensive CD collection, I tend to have my favorites and listen to them over and over again. My current favorites: James Blunt's Back to Bedlam, Howie Day's Stop All the World Now, and U2's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (I've played that one so much that I ended up buying another copy of it...). Until recently, I wasn't much into buying books on tape, but last week I picked up (on sale) the cassette tape version (yes, my car still has a cassette player) of Po Bronson's What Should I Do With My Life (2003).

I have read reviews of this book before and watched Mr. Bronson's appearance on Oprah so I was familiar with his writing. For this book, he interviewed numerous individuals (hearing some 900 stories), and included 50 inspiring stories -- including among them people who had unearthed their true calling, or at least those who were willing to try. As he interviewed folks, many posed their own questions during the research process, including (as noted in the introduction):

Should I put my faith in mystical signs of destiny, or shuld my sense of "a right fit" be based on logical, practical reasons?
Should I accept my lot, make peace with my ambition, and stop stressing out?
Why do I feel guilty for thinking about this?
Should I make money first, to fund my dream?
How do I tell the difference between a curiosity and a passion?
How do I weigh making myself a better person against external achievements?
When do I need to change my situation, and when is it me that needs to change?
What should I tell my parents, who worry about me?
If I have a child, will my frustration over my work go away?
What will it feel like when I get there? (How will I know I’m there?)

While listening to these tapes, it became clear to me that I struggle with many of these same questions. I feel that I am at a crossroads in my own life and career. For many months now I have been thinking a great deal about where my professional life is headed. I know one thing for certain--it will involve writing. The question is what type of writing and how much? Can I make it as a full-time freelancer? Do I want to write for newspapers, magazines, corporations? What about all the future book ideas I have swirling around in my brain? Can I do it all and not burn myself out?

I will continue to address this issue in the coming months, and will probably even blog about it some more. In the meantime, these tapes have provided much "food for thought", and have been a great way to pass the time in the car as I rack up the miles on my Rav's odometer.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

On the Road Again!

Another crazy week of driving and driving - first to Pittsburgh for an appearance on KDKA TV on Wednesday morning and a talk/book signing at the Barnes & Noble at the Waterfront in Homestead, PA. Then, I drive back to New York on Thursday only to head out to New Britain, CT on Friday for the Annual conference Friday and Saturday hosted by the Polish Genealogical Society of Connecticut and the Northeast (I will be the main speaker at the event).

It will be a hectic few days so I may not have a chance to blog. Now, time to get some rest.

Monday, September 18, 2006

After the Book is Done

Often the hardest part of being a writer is not actually writing the book. It's what comes after the book is done--hitting the circuit to promote it. There are press releases to send out, book signings and other appearances to schedule, and other public relations duties to fulfill. Those writers fortunate enough to have their books published through a big name publisher have someone assigned to do all of this legwork for them. But for those of us who have either self-published (despite what some folks out there think, this method is not as taboo as it once was and does not diminish the quality of a particular written work), or have signed with a smaller publishing house, we're often left to our own creativity and initiative to get the word out about our books.

For the past two months, I've been driving back and forth between New York and Pittsburgh in order to promote my most recently released book, Pittsburgh's Immigrants (Arcadia). I have been participating in The Blue Collar Book Tour with two fellow Arcadia authors, Daniel J. Burns (Pittsburgh's Rivers, Duquesne, Bedford and Its Neighbors) and Sandy Henry (Carnegie). We've had to do a great deal of stumping for ourselves, but we are getting the word out.

Working day-to-day as a writer is challenging enough, but add on the duties of PR person and the job gets even harder. One thing it does give you is perspective. You work harder to get that sale. You show up to events and realize that even if only a few folks turn up, or you sell only one or two books, you are still making some valuable contacts and getting your name out there. Sometimes these events can provide a healthy dose of reality. There's a lot of media out there vying for the public's attention: digital music, TV shows, movies, other books, the Internet. You learn to be an effective salesperson and make the most of every opportunity. You also realize that you can't rest on your past laurels. You need to think ahead to the next project while still marketing and selling the current book.

Yes, the writing is the easy part.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Moments of Inspiration

Writers often talk about finding their creative "inspiration," sometimes in the most unlikely of places. This past week I was fortunate to find some inspiration of my own on two different occasions.

I have been trying to jumpstart a new book project: A memoir/tribute to my father and the time he spent as an amateur and semi-professional basketball player during the 1940s-1950s.

While I have a great deal of research material and many ideas for this book, I have yet to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

Last week, I spoke at a conference in Pittsburgh and happened to mention that my father was a standout on the Duquesne High School Basketball team in 1942-43, before building a reputation as an outstanding player in various local intermural leagues and then some semi-pro teams. After my talk, one woman in attendance approached me and mentioned that she grew up in nearby McKeesport and fondly remembered the days of Duquesne High School basketball--how fans packed the bleachers of the gymnasium and when they stopped their feet and cheered, the atmosphere was simply "electrifying." This brief exchange sparked a reawakened interest in me for beginning my book. I began to think of how to set some initial scenes to portray some of the basketball games where my dad excelled on the court, and it had me thinking more about how to structure the book and some of the key events I want to include.

The second wave of "inspiration" came just a couple of days ago when I was reading the blog of my good friend and fellow writer, Dan Burns. In his September 4th post, Dan wrote about how "we never know what's around the next bend." His post stressed that we need to be prepared for what awaits us.

I truly believe that both of these forms of inspiration came to me at the time they were supposed to. I have been putting off writing this book about my father because I think I was avoiding it. It will soon be a year that my father passed away at age 80 (on November 27, 2005). Losing my father was very difficult. Although I knew that at his age and with his litany of health problems over the years that the time would come sooner rather than later (every day I had with him was a blessing), I still spent several months dealing with the loss and grief that is normal when you lose a loved one (and a parent). A few months ago, writing about my father and his life experiences would have been nearly impossible. But, now, I am ready. I am prepared to go on this journey. It just took someone else's reminiscences and positive energy, and a reminder from a good friend to get me back on track, ready to round that next bend...

Saturday, September 16, 2006

What Genealogists Want

Last weekend I gave a talk about "What Genealogists Want" to several members of historical societies and museums from around Western Pennsylvania. The focus of my presentation was what information today's genealogists are looking for and where they are looking for it. I also discussed the role historical societies and museums can play in our "I want it now!" technologically-centered world. It is no secret that the Internet has revolutionized the way we conduct our genealogical research. But, there is still a wealth of information to be found at museums and historical societies. While traditionally researchers had to physically visit these research repositories to obtain information from items such as yearbooks, local and town histories, funeral home records, membership booklets and lists, and other miscellaneous sources, the use of the Internet for research may prompt such groups to start thinking about making certain aspects of their collections available online through databases, photo archives, and other searchable files.

While there are many resources out on the Internet that compete for the dollars we spend on research, it is important for societies and museums to think about what information will be most useful to their patrons. If genealogists find what they are looking for at a particular museum or historical society, they will be more likely to "give back" to that organization by volunteering their time for special projects, or through donation of compiled family histories, books, or other pertinent items that others can use for their own research. There is also a valuable opportunity for networking with other researchers through meetings and other activities sponsored by museums ans societies. Regular interaction helps to ensure that the relationship between the individual family historian and the community historian a mutually beneficial one.

After last week's conference, I am convinced that there needs to be a continuous dialogue between genealogists and historians as "partners in preserving the past."

Friday, September 15, 2006

Growing Together

Last weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to be a part of the first "Growing Together" Conference: A History Center Affiliates Program for Museums and Historical Societies at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (September 10-11).

My participation in the conference and several book signings is one of the reasons I haven't blogged for about a week. The pace was just a bit too hectic and I could not find the time to locate wireless internet access and create a posting.

Now that I am back to my usual routine, I thought my first posting should be about the great relationships I have built with those folks I met at this conference. It was a unique chance to network with those individuals who are involved with museums and historical societies in Western Pennsylvania. The Heinz History Center was the perfect venue for this conference. There were some very informative sessions on Grant Writing, Legal Issues, Caring and Feeding of Volunteers, Designing a Web Site,
Molding Your Message, and more...

My presentation was "Genealogy and Your Organization," which I actually changed to "What Genealogists Want." I plan to blog more on this topic, but briefly, my talk focused on what historical societies can offer today's genealogist, and how genealogists can give back to these organizations by donating their research findings and also their time to help with various preservation projects and other activities. I received many compliments about my presentation and I enjoyed the discussions that ensued with the various participants. We opened up a very important dialogue between members of several different organizations that will hopefully carry forward and enable us to work together in the future to solve common problems and brainstorm ideas.

Kudos to the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center (especially Nancy Cain McCombe) and the Mifflin Township Historical Society (especially my good friend, Dan Burns) who organized this important event and invited me to be a speaker. I hope that this will be the first of many conferences to come, and would be honored to be asked back as a speaker again.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Catch the Blue Collar Book Tour!

The Blue Collar Book Tour (Dan Burns, Sandy Henry, Lisa Alzo) rolls on through the month of September at several different venues throughout the Pittsburgh area. Also, don't miss our appearance on KDKA Pittsburgh Today Live on September 20th! More details to follow soon! Check The Blue Collar Book Tour Web Site for dates and times for our appearances! Hope to meet many of you!

P.S. Way to go Steelers...winning game 1 over Miami!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Reaching Your Audience

Yesterday, I had one of those moments that made me happy to be a writer. I received an e-mail from an individual who read my book, Three Slovak Women. While I will not identify the reader by name, I would like to share the body of the message here in this posting.

“Wow! “Three Slovak Women” is a winner.

I am a third generation American Slovak and your book aptly puts into words many of the memories I have of my Grandparents and Parents that still rattle around in my mind. You have nicely captured the spirit and meaning of life as lived in America by the early Slovak immigrants.

Your book goes one step further in confirming that a strong work ethic is one of the legacies passed down from our Slovak ancestors.

There are probably thousands of Verona Straka/Janos Figlyar stories yet to be told. Going forward … you might want to consider collecting the memoirs, stories, customs, etc. from other third generation American Slovaks. Like you, they too have meaningful stories and fortunately you are blessed with the skills to turn them into a lasting memorial of those who came before us … before it’s too late.”

From the day I began writing Three Slovak Women I always viewed it as my “Labor of Love.” The book took me over six years to research and another five of writing and rewriting. In 2001, I finally had the draft that I wanted to publish. Messages such as the one above reaffirm that all of the time and effort I put in was worth it. As a writer, I find that the biggest compliment someone can pay me is when they say, “If you change the names, dates, and places, this could be MY story.” This means they get it. If my words strike a familiar chord with readers, then I’ve done my job as an author.

Following up on the commentary above, I am very interested in continuing to collect the memoirs, stories, customs, etc. from other third generation American Slovaks. So, if you are Slovak-American, and would like to share your story here, or with me via e-mail, I would love to hear from you. I would welcome the opportunity to turn your family history or remembrances into lasting memorials to your ancestors, perhaps as part of a future article or book.

Click here for more details about Three Slovak Women. For information on how to purchase a copy of TSW or any of my other books, visit my Web site.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Held Hostage by my Hard Drive!

I've been a bad, bad blogger. This is my first post since September 2nd. I've not been lazy. On the contrary, I don't believe I have ever worked harder since I decided to pursue writing as a profession. You see, I spent the past several days finishing off my latest book (more on that at a later date). But, that wasn't the real reason I did not have the chance to do any posting to this blog.

I've been held hostage by my computer's hard drive. I started out the weekend diligently working on editing photographs and writing captions for the aforementioned book, putting in about 12 hours on Saturday. Like any sensible 21st century writer, I realized the importance of "backing up my work" so I copied (or so I thought) all of the edited files onto an external hard drive for "safe-keeping." I shut down the computer shortly before midnight and called it a day.

When I woke up early on Sunday morning, I followed my usual routine. Turn on the coffee pot, turn on the computer. That's when it got ugly.

Upon start-up, my computer was making some funky clicking noises as the drive started to boot; then I got a cryptic message about a "FAT32 file" (no I am not talking about the latest digital music clip by a famous hip-hop act). So, I shut the machine down and proceeded to start the whole process over again. After several failed attempts to boot, it was clear to me "Houston, we have a problem." I was instructed to "Re-install Windows XP". Problem was every time I put the disk in it went through the motions but nothing happened and kept seeing the same message about reinstalling Windows XP over and over. Hello, that's what I was trying to do! (several deep breaths in between cursing out Bill Gates...)

Another message appeared; this one even more ominous: "Fatal Error!" I feared the worst--my hard drive was history!

Not to worry, I thought. I have the external hard drive with my book project files safely stored on it.

I proceeded to copy the files to my laptop, thinking all was fine. But when I went to retrieve some key documents, the files I had thought I copied were no where to be found! Either the computer gremlins mysteriously copied these files into the recycle bin, or I was delusional--had I not really backed everything up as I had so smugly thought?

Making a long story short I spent all day Sunday redoing all of the work I had previously finished. Then through some divine intervention, we were able to finally access the data from the hard drive by hooking it into my husband's desktop's open drive slot and making my drive the "slave" drive. I didn't know whether to kiss the computer or shoot it! On the one hand, I had all of my precious data files back; but on the other, I wasted an entire day repeating a whole bunch of work. Not to sound ungrateful, but couldn't the divine intervention have come just about 8 hours earlier? I then spent the next two days playing catch-up to finish writing all of the text and do the layout in order to meet my publisher's deadline. I've since backed up the contents of that drive onto another external hard drive. Unfortunately, however, the desktop machine is still dead for the moment until I see if I can reformat the old drive and reinstall the operating system and all of my software programs. Thankfully, in the interim I can work from the laptop.

We've all heard the mantra to "back up our data" regularly, and until this weekend I thought I was pretty good at following this cardinal rule. However, just a little bit of laziness or preoccupation with other things (such as a major writing deadline!) can wreak an immense amount of unplanned havoc! I've learned my lesson!

So, the book is at the publisher, and I am back to blogging and slowly regaining my sanity--my release from computer activity was successfully negotiated this time around!

Now, you'll have to excuse me - I must log out and back up this post!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Family Oral History Podcast

For those of you who enjoy the online phenomenon called "Podcasting," here is a great Web site I came across about using digital tools to record oral history. It is called Family Oral History.

This site explores how to use digital tools and media to record and preserve spoken memories of family members. The site doesn't have a lot of content yet, but the concept is really great and includes "How-to" articles, a podcast section, a news section, an open discussion thread and even a sample video you can watch of a user who recorded an oral history with her mother on Mother's Day. The AV application QuickTime 7 is required to view the clip).

I am a HUGE advocate of conducting oral history interviews (I conducted 30+ such interviews way back in 1991 before Oral History was cool!). I believe that interviewing immediate family members and relatives as a crucial component of genealogy, and I will certainly be keeping my eye on this site and may even consider contributing to it when I get some spare time. You can subscribe to the Podcasts via a number of web-based podcatchers such as MyYahoo, or Google, among others).

Happy interviewing and happy listening!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Family History Find

Today, while going through a box of old family photographs my cousin recently gave to me, I discovered a wonderful old picture that I had never seen before. It is of my paternal grandparents, John and Elizabeth Alzo posing with one of their children.

Unfortunately, there is no identifcation on the back of the picture, so I just have to guess which of their five children (one died not long after birth) is in the snapshot. My theory is that it could possibly be my father, but I need to do a bit more investigating before I can be certain. It's more likely, however, that it is the oldest child, Anna. If it is my father, it will be the earliest photograph I have of him. Since Dad died 8 months ago, the photograph would mean even more to me.

I am constantly amazed at how many unidentified photographs have been kept by various members of my family. I seem to be inheriting all of them. From a genealogist's standpoint this is a real treasure--but, the question is, where do I put it all? I am sure most family history sleuths have a similar dilemma at one time or another.

Time to put on my photo detective hat and do some investigating!