In 2022, I had the pleasure of working with Jake on the text of his book, Arcadia: Peterson Family History and the Secrets of a Swedish Nobleman. It was a transformative project; I realised that I enjoy family history and storytelling just as much even if it isn't my own ancestors that I'm researching, and it inspired me to offer this as one of my core services.
Jake was the ideal client – from the first messages we exchanged to brainstorming ideas over Zoom and collaborating on drafts on Google Docs. It was easy to see that he was organised, responsive, encouraging and driven, with a clear vision about what he had set out to do, yet always inviting ideas. Arcadia was published in December 2022, and I caught up with Jake recently to find out more about his process while bringing this book to life.
Those of us who are interested in genealogy and family history have probably, at some point, dreamed of writing a book about our research. You made it happen! How and when did you decide that you wanted to share the story of your ancestors as a beautifully designed coffee table book? Was there one moment or story during your research that made it all click?
I always get a hollow feeling in my stomach when I look back on the project as a whole – maybe it’s a lack of anecdote – but all I remember is being delighted. I remember feeling like a kid on Christmas morning, unwrapping each new discovery. I was truly beguiled.
I’m choosing to start there because, although there is no denying that writing a family history book is hard work, it is also rewarding beyond measure. But the delight is in the details, so I appreciate these questions.
Let’s start about 25 years ago when my grandma gave everyone in the family a thick binder of family history – photocopies of letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, and pedigrees. I remember pouring over every page as a boy and getting lost in the stories. There was a story about one of my direct paternal ancestors, Frederick William Peterson, who immigrated from Norway to America. I don’t know why he fascinated me so much. But much like a child who never stops asking questions, I was curious about him. Why did he decide to move the family from Norway? How did he come to choose America? What was happening in his hometown of Stavanger at the time?
Then there was the name. It was a family legend that our original family name was different from Peterson and that Frederick made the name change, like so many other immigrants had. I was determined to find that name. I searched for years but never found it. I feared either the name never changed, or it was lost to time. Not much else happened for a while.
When Melbourne was placed in strict lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, I took advantage of being stuck at home. I reached out to Laila Normann Christiansen, a Norwegian genealogist who specialises in this type of research. She found Frederick’s father in Norway with a peculiar name I had never seen before: Peter Cederstrøm. Upon arrival in the US, his son Frederick decided to take the patronymic name Peterson, probably because it was easier to pronounce and spell. Curiously, all of Frederick’s siblings later moved to America too and kept the surname Cederstrøm.
That was the moment where everything clicked. I knew I wanted to write a book about the evolution of the family name and wanted it to pay homage to my grandma’s original binder – hence the coffee table book.
Although there is no denying that writing a family history book is hard work, it is also rewarding beyond measure.
You reached out to me last year to collaborate on the text of Arcadia, but there was so much more to it, both before and after – from research to book design and finding the perfect images. How long did it take to create the book? What was the process like?
You mention finding the perfect images – this was really important to me. I’m a details person, so I knew straight away that I wanted the images to be authentic. It was important to me that all the visual material, such as photographs, maps, paintings, coat of arms, ancestor signatures, artefacts, and documents be accurate to time and place. For example, when a particular location was mentioned in the text from the 1600s, I made sure to find a map in the archives from the 17th century. All up, it took me about 12 months from the idea of the book to getting it to print.
I’m going to be honest – that’s not a realistic time frame. Many people have told me that a project of that scope should be twice that time, if not longer. But I was motivated to get the book done by the following Christmas. I knew that if I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity, it wouldn’t happen. I worked on this project every morning before work, every evening after work, and every weekend. It was literally a part-time job.
My hope isn’t to deter anyone but to put a project like this into perspective. It will take time and effort. However, it is achievable if you do a little bit over a longer period. Go at a pace that works for you. For Arcadia, the process was something like: research, outlining, file organisation, writing, more research, editing, writing, more editing, finding images, translation, book design and layout, and publishing.
I share that because it wasn’t perfectly linear, and it doesn’t need to be. There were some days that I had writer’s block or hit research brick walls, or I was exhausted from work. Rather than fighting it, I stopped whatever I was doing and picked up quick wins like searching for images, or more creative tasks like design and photo manipulation. You will move back and forth throughout the process, and that’s okay.
It wasn’t perfectly linear, and it doesn’t need to be. [...] You will move back and forth throughout the process, and that’s okay.
Are there any other family histories or books that you referred to for inspiration?
Yes, you actually recommended a book to me! I think it was The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire by Francesca Cartier Brickell. I think we took some inspiration from that in our planning. We might have been inspired by the title too, from memory. Thus, Arcadia: Peterson Family History and the Secrets of a Swedish Nobleman was born! I remember us having a laugh about archaic books you might find in an archive somewhere.
Aside from that, I commissioned Alison Armstrong Taylor of Pictures and Stories to design the book. She sent me many samples of books they designed. One book – McGown: The Descendants of George Willard McGowan and Sarah Ann Dunton by Shirley Dobson Hintz was one we took inspiration from. But I encouraged Alison to hold nothing back. I’m biased, but Arcadia is the best book she’s designed so far.
Finally, there is a gorgeous book designed by Legacy Books called Craige/Craig Family Legacy written by Olin Frederick Craig. It’s quite striking.
To be honest, I took inspiration from many sources. I recommend searching Google for family history books and saving some images – whether it’s the design of a pedigree chart you like, a book cover, a particular font, or a feature of the binding itself like a ribbon bookmark.
What's the most unlikely image or document you chased down that made it into the book? And what's one you wish you could have found?
I love this question! There was an old post on a forum about Joran Påhlman by a woman in Sweden who said:
There is a painting of him in Ryssby church, I believe, and in the family there is also this portrait, of which I have a photo. A splendidly dressed man in baggy trousers!
I reached out but didn’t get a response and couldn’t find the portrait. Then by accident I happened upon it while searching for something else using a different spelling of the family name. So the lesson here is, don’t give up! It’s the oldest painting of an ancestor we have, painted in 1623.
I wish I could have found a painting of Anders Otto Påhlman from the first chapter. I have portraits of his brother, father, and great-grandfather, but couldn’t find one of him. Maybe there is a portrait of him in a dark archive somewhere and one day I hope to bring it into the light.
The cover of Arcadia went through a few renditions. What made you finally settle on this image and the other elements in the cover design?
When I first met with the designer, this is what I said: I’m quite fond of old books that you might find in an archive or library – hardbound, leather books with hubbed spines.
I also encouraged her to bring me down to earth because I tend to get carried away. Turns out, hardbound leather books with stitched binding are expensive! I knew I wanted a more classic outside with more modern features inside the book. Once the changes in the family name became clear, I wanted to keep with the theme of the evolution of the name Påhlman to Peterson.
For the front cover, we landed on a painting of the castle Tre Kronor in Stockholm, painted in 1661 by Govert Dircksz Camphuysen. The original castle caught fire and burned down in 1697, and tragically destroyed most of Sweden’s national library and royal archives. My ancestor Johan Påhlman was knighted here in 1650 by Queen Kristina. The faded Swedish handwriting on the cover are various letters written by some of my ancestors in the 18th century.
The back cover featured a photo of the Snake River Canyon near Twin Falls, Idaho with the Perrine Bridge in the background. This is where many of my family currently live. It was important to me to capture both of those histories.
I’m writing a second book – a prequel of sorts – that documents the ancestors of the Påhlmans in the Holy Roman Empire during the Middle Ages. That story is begging for a hardbound, leather book with a hubbed spine.
Publishing a family history book can seem daunting. Do you have any advice for those who might feel overwhelmed by the scope of such a project? How did you decide on the people you'd like to collaborate with?
You can conquer the overwhelm!
First, decide on a focus. What or whom do you want your family history book to be about? You don’t have to write about every ancestor, and not every ancestor you write about will get the same number of words. In Arcadia, the focus was on my grandfather and I worked backwards six generations through the male line. Create a detailed outline, timeline, and research plan, and let those three documents guide your book.
Second, don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are so many resources available, both free and paid. Consider joining a Facebook group like Family History Writers. There are also groups that focus on genealogy and family history for particular areas you are researching. My biggest tip is to find freelance folks on a web site called Fiverr, which is very cost effective. I found people here to help with photo restoration, writing, editing, etc. (Hi, Kriti!) You can also find people who design book covers within your budget.
Third, be open to new information. This might contradict my first tip on deciding a focus but bear with me. About six months into writing Arcadia, a Swedish genealogist, Monica Fogelqvist, helped me uncover the father of an illegitimate ancestor who happened to be part of the Swedish nobility. Although I was on the edge of my seat with excitement, it also changed the entire focus of the book. Be prepared to quickly adapt when presented with new information – and if it’s not relevant, or important, continue your current trajectory.
Finally, I’m going to share a tip that will prevent you from going insane: be merciless with organisation. It will save you a lot of grief. If you are writing a book soon, or have recently started writing a book and have the basic structure in place, start by creating separate folders for each chapter of your book, where you'll save photographs and images, records and other materials for each chapter. You can also create folders for manuscripts and drafts, supporting material such as appendices, fonts, design files, examples of books you like and so on, and files related to publishing – book cover, endsheets, and the final PDF export for printing. Don’t forget to backup this folder!
Be merciless with organisation. It will save you a lot of grief.
All great tips! What are some of the tools or softwares that you found most helpful?
For those interested, here’s a bit more about my workflow and the tools I used for writing, designing, finding photos, and printing.
You can write an entire book in Microsoft Word or Google Docs (and Docs is particularly useful for collaboration).
Scrivener for writing and organising more complex projects. You can use it to store your research material and writing together. Its excellent compiling feature lets you export to many different formats. Check out Scrivener for the Family Historian by Lynn Palermo and The Family History Writing Studio.
Finally, I think every reference book should have a good index and you can’t go wrong with PDF Index Generator. You can drop a PDF of your final book in, add your search terms, and it will automatically create an index for you.
Design and layout:
The easiest options are going to be Blurb or MyCanvas, the latter of which will actually pull in your data from Ancestry. Although these tools are easier to use, they won’t give you a lot of flexibility or options, and you can forget about footnotes or endnotes.
If you are comfortable with the DIY option, I’d recommend Affinity Designer and Affinity Publisher on the Mac. They are easier to learn and less expensive than Adobe InDesign.
The middle of the road option in terms of cost is to find a freelance graphic designer on Fiverr or elsewhere.
You can also use a professional book designer like Pictures and Stories Inc or Legacy Books – worth the investment for a book that is meant to last!
You’ll first want to get comfortable with the local archives, libraries, or museums wherever you are researching. Many countries have fantastic digital collections, with many photos that are free to use, or low cost.
Second, make friends with Wikimedia Commons because it has nearly 100 million freely usable images.
Sometimes you might need a photo that isn’t available in the public domain. Alamy sells “image packs” in 5, 10, or 25 packs which are discounted. Make sure you check the licensing terms.
My secret weapon for photos is PICRYL, which is the largest media source for public domain images, scans, and documents. If you subscribe, you can use their AI to download upscaled images – perfect for book printing. PICRYL is how I was able to find so many authentic photos from the time period I was writing about.
Finally, I want to share two tools for photo restoration, especially for older family photos that might be blurry or faded. Remini is by far the best AI enhancement that I’ve found, but you need to use it with discretion. It can sometimes be too aggressive, making people look fake. However, when it gets it right, it is nothing short of magic. You can use something like Upscale.media to upscale and enhance photos, increasing the resolution for printing.
Printing and binding:
Printing was important to me because I wanted a product that would last. Unfortunately, most “photo book” companies like Mixbook, Blurb etc produce cheaply made books with glued pages that can fall apart in time. This is usually called PUR or perfect binding, which is notched and glued, no stitching. This can be fine if you need to print a large quantity of books and your total page count is lower. Don’t expect them to last a lifetime.
Smythe-sewn signature binding is the highest quality you can get. This method prints the pages in folded signatures, stitched through the middle, then folded and (sometimes) glued or stitched at the spine. The downside is that this is the most expensive binding, and most binders won’t do Smythe bindings for small quantities.
The next best option is called cleat-sewn stitching, which is printed and trimmed in single sheets, then glued and stitched through the book block. This is the method Arcadia uses and is my recommendation because it provides a nice balance between cost and durability.
My suggestion is to find a local printer that specialises in hardbound books. I used Paragon Press in Salt Lake City and went with 80# paper stock. You can save a bit of money with lower weight paper, but don’t go below 70# if your book has a lot of photos or graphics because it won’t hold the ink well and will have more show through.
Finally, how do you feel now that the book is out in the world? How was the response to it?
The response was extraordinary. The National Library of Sweden (Kungliga biblioteket) and the municipal archive in Ljungby (Kommunarkivet Ljungby kommun) want copies for their collections. But I’m going to let others answer this question.
“I love it!!!!!!!!!! You did a fantastic job!” – Dad
“Wow! What a good job you did on that book! Everyone really liked it. Ed called and he had read it all and was starting his second time.” – Grandma Lois
“Jake, I don’t know how you were able to write this family history book. It was great and I had a hard time putting it down.” – Great Uncle Ed
“I finished reading Arcadia last night. You have given my Peterson family their history and your vignettes made the characters come alive! I could see Lisabeth opening the door to her warm home and her children running to her. I could feel her heavy heart as she stood in that same door for a last look before leaving for America. A beautiful gift to anyone who picks up this masterpiece.” – Cousin Pixie
“I wanted you to know how much we all loved the book. Well done.” – Aunt Brenda
“The books are fabulous, Jake. Very well done!!!! Mom is going to love it along with everyone else on Christmas day.” – Aunt Kristi
“They are so amazing! You are amazing! I bought one for my mom, brother, son, and daughter. I cannot wait to give them to each of them.” – Cousin Polly
“I got my books. You did amazing. I am very proud to be a part of the family and so proud of you.” – Cousin Samara
“Really love the book! You really did great work!” – Uncle Joel
“I have had a read through it already but will sit down and study it in depth soon. That was a Herculean effort researching and putting it all together.” – Father-in-law Bruce
“I have just spent the last few hours reading your book. We feel very privileged to have received such a gift. It has been a lovely afternoon reading your book, thank you again, and thank you for sparking my interest in family history.” – Mother-in-law Tina
Arcadia: Peterson Family History and the Secrets of a Swedish Nobleman is available at polmanarkivet.com as a free e-book or a pre-ordered hardcover edition.
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