Kathleen Ernst has some tips for how to get your family stories down in writing. (In the series Folk Art In Place, explore and learn with folk artists as they take us through their workspaces and demonstrate their craft.)

As a writer, I’m probably best known for my Chloe Ellefson Mystery series. As a writing teacher, there’s nothing I love more than helping other writers tell their family stories. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching at Vesterheim a number of times, and look forward to doing it again!

Writing students with Kathleen Ernst at Vesterheim
With writing students at Vesterheim.

One of the wonderful things about writing, however, is that it can be done by anyone, anytime, anywhere. All you need is pen and paper and five minutes.


Tip # 1: Make writing a manageable priority.

Claim and protect your precious writing time by setting aside time to write. It’s OK to keep it short! Setting unrealistic goals leads to frustration, but meeting a manageable goal—like five minutes a day—is empowering. If you get on a roll and write for an hour, great! With even a small block of time promised to yourself, though, you will make progress.

Tip # 2: Narrow your focus.

The idea of capturing memories on paper can feel overwhelming. If your goal is to write a book-length memoir, begin by capturing something specific, such as your single favorite memory of time spent with a grandparent. Build a collection of small pieces, and in time you can weave them together.

A tabletop with a cup of coffee and a page from the notebook of writer Kathleen Ernst
In addition to notebook, pen, a cup of coffee may be helpful!

Tip # 3: Turn off the editor in your brain.

Give yourself permission to write without censure. Let the words pour out without stopping to evaluate or revise them. It’s all good! Later, when the time is right, you can sort through all that raw material for the gems.

Happy writing!

A student of Kathleen Ernst's finding inspiration among Vesterheim’s exhibits.
One of my students finding inspiration among Vesterheim’s exhibits.

Bestselling author Kathleen Ernst writes award-winning mysteries, historical fiction, and non-fiction books for adults and young readers. The Chloe Ellefson mystery series features a Norwegian-American museum curator. Heritage of Darkness, the fourth volume, is set at Vesterheim! Her work has earned numerous honors, including two lifetime writing achievement awards, an Emmy for educational television, and an Edgar and multiple Agatha mystery award nominations. To date nearly 1.8 million audio, ebook, and print copies of Kathleen’s 38 published books have been purchased.

Kathleen will be teaching Exploring Your Heritage—A Writing Sampler Weekend at Vesterheim in September. Find more about her Vesterheim classes here.

Kathleen Ernst