Posts Tagged ‘family history’

Suitcase of Memories: How a treasure trove of family photos led to a published novel


Guest Post by Susan Johnson Cameron

At a family reunion a few years ago, one of my cousins entrusted me with this suitcase, packed with old photos, postcards, and mementos, some preserved since the last century. This collection of keepsakes sprouted the seed of an idea for a story and nurtured a creative writing process that led eventually to the publication of my historical fiction novel, Home Fires.

Inside this suitcase I found a photo of a platoon of men in First World War Canadian Army uniforms. On the back my grandfather had written “No. 5 Platoon, 159th Batt. Haileybury.”

There is a pack of postcards from 1917 showing the devastation from the bombing in Arras, France. My grandfather was there with the Canadian Army, fighting in both France and Belgium. We were blessed that he returned home whole in body, unlike so many others.

As well, in this assortment of family treasures there is a picture of a handsome man dressed in a Cameron Highlander kilt and tunic. He was my grandmother’s younger brother, George. I know that, tragically, he was killed in battle at Passchendaele.

I discovered a photo of another great-uncle, Alfred. In it he is wearing a smart suit, one hand tucked behind his back. My father told me years ago that his uncle had a prosthetic hand. The family story is that after a serious work accident, Alfred received a monetary settlement for his injury. That money helped my grandparents relocate from England to Canada, where they pioneered in “New Ontario.”

Tucked in with the First World War photos and postcards is a more recent colour picture of a summer-dry ditch, filled with white wildflowers and lush green grass. On the back my uncle recorded, “where we spent hiding from the great fire of 1916 with only a tablecloth to protect us.”

All this I wove into my story. Home Fires was published by Iguana Press in November 2015.

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

The Mirror That Is Memoir — a guest post by Dace Mara Zacs-Koury

Woman Looking at Reflection


My father’s death and burial in 1994 in Latvia, and my subsequent discovery of a dark family secret dating back to the Second World War compelled me to write. I knew little of his or Latvia’s past, and so I set about talking to relatives, revisiting overseas, learning Latvian, and digging into historical research, finally turning up Father’s war records. Little did I know when I began that I was embarking on a twenty-year writing journey.

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Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

Allyson Latta Interviewed on TVO’s The Agenda: “The Art of Memoir”

If you missed the original airing of this interview on August 8, 2016, or wish to share it with family or friends you think would be (or should be) interested in memoir writing, you can watch here. It’s also on YouTube.

Of the many lovely comments I received on this, the most meaningful to me were from viewers who said my words inspired them to begin writing their own stories, or to talk to older family members before it’s too late to ask the important questions.

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Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

“Once the stories were collected, it was obvious I was grieving”: Interview with Plum Johnson on her memoir They Left Us Everything


Plum Johnson


“I love to write stories (I call them “scenes”) and often write them without regard for a narrative thread. For me, it’s like putting different colours on a palette before I start painting; I don’t know which colours I might need later, but I want all the options.”


PLUM JOHNSON is an award-winning author, artist, and entrepreneur living in Toronto. She was the founder of KidsCanada Publishing Corp., publisher of KidsToronto, and co-founder of Help’s Here! resource magazine for seniors and caregivers. Her best-selling memoir, They Left Us Everything, won the 2015 RBC Charles Taylor Prize for Nonfiction. The book was also a finalist for the 2016 OLA Evergreen Award, shortlisted for the 2015 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for Nonfiction, and longlisted for the Leacock Medal for Humour. Published in Canada in 2014, it will be released in the U.S. this July.

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Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

Survival: Daughter and Father Collaborate on Story of His Time as WWII Air Gunner and Prisoner of War


Survival is the story of Albert Wallace’s dramatic experiences during World War II as an air gunner with the RCAF and a prisoner of war in Hitler’s Germany. This work of creative nonfiction was lovingly conceived, researched, and written in the style of a journal by Barbara Trendos, one of Albert’s daughters, in his voice, with his collaboration.

The seeds of inspiration were first sown in Barbara in the 1980s when her father casually shared the contents of an old file folder he had discovered among his mother’s belongings after she passed away. To Barbara, it was a treasure trove: fragile letters that Albert had written home while he was a prisoner of war; official Air Force telegrams and correspondence that variously reported Albert as MISSING, then as a POW, and finally LIBERATED; dog-eared black and white snapshots that begged identification of people, time, and place.

Barbara was hooked, and realizing that she knew only the highlights of Albert’s wartime story, she naively undertook to fill in the gaps — to what end even she didn’t know.

Her extensive research into World War II, 419 squadron and the RCAF, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, Stalag Luft III, prisoners of war, and the Great Escape took on a life of its own.

Barbara says she has always been a writer, even when she was something else. She remembers opening a short story in elementary school with the following sentence: “As he rounded the corner, it was his nose I saw first.” She has no idea what the story was about, who it was about, where it went from there, or why she has never forgotten that line. Perhaps, she says, memory is nature’s way of tethering us to something that matters, as we follow one of life’s many roads.

During one period of her life when Barbara was “something else,” she noticed a sign in a local gardening store about Allyson Latta’s 2010 “Garden of Memories” memoir workshop. Attending the workshop kick-started her writing of Survival, which had been simmering on a back burner for years while she worked in corporate communications. Further spurred on by Allyson’s 2011 Sabino Springs Writers’ Retreat in Tucson, Arizona, Barbara shifted her writing into a higher gear, and Survival finally crossed the finish line in November 2015.

Publishing this book has been an adventure for Barbara and her father. They have signing sessions sitting together at her dining room table — as long as she feeds him lunch, or coffee and cookies, she says. Albert sells books wherever he goes, particularly at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, where he volunteers in the veterans’ wing. They’ve promoted the book at small events, including one this week at The Canadian Forces College in Toronto. And Barbara says that in the spring, now that it looks like the weather can be counted on, they will plan an official launch.

BARBARA TRENDOS is retired and lives with her husband in Markham, Canada.

There’s more about her writing journey in these earlier essays on this website:

Writing in My Father’s Voice: Honouring His Wartime Experience, Part 1 and Part 2.

Survival can be purchased through Barbara’s website at or Amazon.


Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

12 Tips for Interviewing Seniors About Their Lives: guest post by novelist Elinor Florence


Yvonne Wildman

Yvonne Wildman of Kindersley, Saskatchewan, former RCAF photographer (Photo: Elinor Florence)


During November, the month of Remembrance, we read and watch many interviews with veterans. Sadly, our Canadian veterans are vanishing at the rate of about fifty each day.

Author Elinor Florence has interviewed hundreds of seniors in her career as a journalist, and also in her current occupation as a writer of the blog Wartime Wednesdays. I asked Elinor to share tips on interviewing an elderly person in order to preserve their precious memories, in whatever form, for future generations. This advice is invaluable for those setting out to write a memoir or to assist an older person — perhaps a loved one — write theirs.


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Wednesday, November 25th, 2015