Everyone’s Personal Biographer
Biography Writing for Dummies with Story Terrace
[Editor’s Note: We received the following information filled with great tips on how to write a biography from our friends at Story Terrace. One of my focus areas with my own genealogy for 2017 is writing up family stories, ancestor bios and more. This is perfect timing for me!]
Story Terrace believes that in each and every family there are stories worth writing down. Writing your memoir is about personal reflection, sharing with family, friends and colleagues, and passing the torch to future generations.
The best biographies are written for novel reasons. A biography aims to inform, captivate, enrage, inspire, or all of the above. They offer us an extensive insight into the life of a remarkable person. They are the lifeblood of any section marked ‘Non-Fiction’.
The worst biographies are written for no reason at all. Or no real reason, anyway. They fail to capture the imagination and, as such, are often abandoned mid-way through, left unread on the dusty shelf of an obscure bookshop or marked as spam in a potential publisher’s inbox. And trust us, it happens all the time.
But it doesn’t have to be that way… No, Sir. That is why we are proud to present the Story Terrace guide to crafting a hit biography for dummies.
One of the first recorded biographies to grace the page was Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Written in the 1st Century by the Charles Dickens of Ancient Greece, the book was a compilation of the legacies of famous men (Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Coriolanus, to name but a few) and is, what you might call, a bestseller of the time.
Plutarch’s idea was to not simply write the history of these people, but to reflect on their character and how it was critical to their success.
It might not sound like a lot, but Plutarch was a life-writing revolutionary. He made the distinction between biography and plain old history, realizing that the thing that makes a story interesting is not the facts or events, but the feelings and motivations of the people involved. Why would someone buy Kim Kardashian’s best-selling autobiography when the information is available for free on Wikipedia? The answer is because it offers the reader a glimpse of the action, it narrows the gap between reader and subject, allowing us to understand them on a more personal level.
So how does this relate to your spine-tingling biography idea? Well, while you might have an idea of who you want to write about, it is also important to think in terms of: what makes your subject interesting? What is it about your subject that a reader would want to know (that they don’t already)? How can you make the story come alive?
Depending on whether your subject is living, or unwilling to help, recently deceased or long deceased, your research may take a different path…
If they’re alive then your best shot, and primary research tool, would be to interview the subject, their family, friends and anyone else who may have a unique perspective on the person.
There are three basic ways of conducting an interview:
- The hard journalistic method: Using heavily prepared, specific questions on a specific subject to reveal specific answers.
- The soft journalistic method: Using prepared but open questions, allowing the interviewee to discuss the memories that they choose.
- The conversational method: an open back-and-forth, letting the interviewee lead the discussion in the hope of revealing something a little special or unexpected.
Each method has its pros and cons, so it’s up to you to decide the best way of eliciting information from your interviewee. For example, if you’re collecting background information or trying to understand your subject as a person, then a soft journalistic or conversational method would probably work best. Whereas if you’re attempting to extrapolate succinct quotes or precise information, the hard journalistic method is the way to do it.
If you’re unable to rely on interviews, then it comes down to good old fashioned research ‒ roll up your sleeves and prepare for a long ride. You’re going to need to amass a wealth of primary and secondary sources if you want your biography to have any legitimacy, so hit the books, scan the internet and talk to experts for information.
Do periphery research, too. If your subject lived long ago, then study what life was like back then. What was happening socially, politically, and economically? What were the attitudes and opinions of the people around your subject? How might this have informed their life?
Though you should start with a fully-formed idea, remember to keep an open mind. You never know what you might find during your research, what you might learn that will shatter your preconceptions of the subject.
Most of all, keep in mind the words of Albert Szent-Gyorgyi: “Research is to see what everyone else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.”
The Writing Process
So you’ve got a solid idea in the bank, you’ve done months upon months of research and now you’re ready to write. This is where it counts folks, so listen up…
What you’re essentially trying to do is condense an entire life into the form of a book; an interesting book. A book that someone might even want to read in their spare time. And let’s get one thing clear: life and life-writing are not the same thing. Life has no form, no structure and is completely unlike a book. Think about it: there’s barely any plot, no overarching themes and mostly bad dialogue. Twists and events are either predictable or random; and the ending’s always the same. In the words of Elbert Hubbard: “Life is just one damn thing after the other.” So how do you then leave your mark on your story? How do you create a beautiful narrative of your life story to share with others?
The job of the biographer, therefore, is to shape and condense a person’s life into a structured story.
This means focusing on the relevant parts of the subject’s life, choosing the bits that developed them as a person and arranging it all into narrative form. This means privileging suspense, humor, pathos and all the other things that spin a great yarn… We never said it was going to be easy.
The good news about this is the freedom. Want to start in the middle? Go for it. Have a unique theory about your subject? Stick it in. So long as all the action and events are verifiably true, anything else is generally fair game.
Writing a book is said to follow 3 stages:
- Drafting: Creating and shaping the original body of text.
- Revising: Reviewing and altering the text to craft a more cohesive work.
- Editing: Correcting, organizing and condensing the text into the best it can be.
In reality, however, these stages tend to overlap and intermingle depending on the writer. Even so, it’s good to remember that the first draft is NEVER perfect and is often completely different to the finished product. Meaning: don’t get bummed out if things don’t seem to click at first. It may take several drafts and revisions to craft the biography of your dreams, but keep trudging onwards until you’re happy. Then, when you’re happy with the content, get down to the editing.
Ready to start work on your hit biography yet? Story Terrace is here to help! Let us bring your family research to life through text and photos printed in beautiful hardcover books. Our professional writers and editors help compile your legacy so you can share it easily with family, friends and future generations.
To receive 10% off your book package with Story Terrace, make sure to mention GeneaBloggers when you contact us!
Story Terrace. Everyone’s personal biographer
www.storyterrace.com (347) 442 7015
Caolan Blaney, Story Terrace