Thursday, January 16, 2014

Writing a Biography -- How do I start?

Just the other day someone asked me about writing biographies. "How do I start?"  I'm always perplexed by such a question because if you know you want to write a biography, you must have already started. I can't imagine choosing the general genre before choosing a person to write about. It's like planning the wedding before you meet the guy.

The first thing you have to do is fall in love (or at least become infatuated with) a character. And usually the subject of a gotta-read biography has character --  faults and ambitions, temperament and talent, a singular drive or a mass of contradictions -- something that makes her stand out.  Think of Thomas Jefferson's bipolar emancipator on paper/slave holder lifestyle. Shirley Chisholm's ramrod opinions. Einstein the sock-less daydreamer.

Above all, the person has to act. Just like a novel, a biography has to move.  And usually it is this action that initially draws you to a subject. For example, Homan Walsh flew a kite over the Niagara River that started the bridge to Canada. But it is his character that drives the story in The Kite that Bridged Two Nations by Alexis O'Neil.

But a great act doesn't always signal a great biography. I've come across a lot of acts in history that sounded like it would make a good story, but either the character wasn't there, or wasn't kid-friendly, or there wasn't enough information to go on. Further research resulted  in a dead end. Don't discard those names, though. Those types of leads make a good basis for a fictional story where you can fill in the blanks.

Once you've fallen in love. Test the waters. Can you live together?  Is this person interesting enough to spend months, years with?  Will you begrudge him for taking over your dining room table and spilling onto the floor? How about your family? Will they withstand listening to the constant barrage of boring facts that you find fascinating? If you answered yes, then you've got yourself a new roommate.

Now ask yourself if this person is book-worthy.  You might be star-struck, but would a kid find it as interesting? Will an editor?  Should kids know about this person?  This is always a hard question to ask. But if you want to publish through traditional channels it is something you have to look at.

Ask: Are there any books already out there?  If no, ask why?  Maybe your character doesn't fit neatly into a curriculum niche. Editors don't like that because it makes it harder to sell.  Maybe the subject matter is inappropriate for a young age. I've had people comment that Shirley Chisholm would be hard to put in a picture book because the politics would be over the reader's heads.  Or maybe you've found something truly new to offer.

If yes, then ask yourself, "What am I bringing to the table that is different than what is already out there?" This is key. A well-written biography can sit on the shelf a long time. Give the librarian a reason to buy a new title on the same subject. Are you going to include newly discovered information?  Can you find a new slant on the subject. That's what I did with Farmer George Plants A Nation. GW's farming was a new take on a very overdone subject.

In order to answer all of these questions, you've had to have done a fair amount of research already, which means you have already started. So you shouldn't be asking me, "How do I start?"  You should be writing!

So should I. Bye!


  1. Your analogy of a marriage and working on a biography is very apt. When I was researching Capt. Hanson Gregory, the sea captain who invented the hole in the doughnut, I came to know him better than my relatives. I thought of him at random times, wondering if he would have liked this table (while antique shopping) and what kind of dog he might have had (while walking my own). And sadly, there comes a point where you have to agree to a separation. At some point you must stop the research and start the writing--sometimes using only a tenth of what you've learned. Farmer George Plants a Nation is one of my favorites.

  2. Thanks, Peggy, for a very useful and timely post. I had it on my to-do list this week to get your book out and revisit the section on biographies. I ran across a couple of interesting people in the last couple of weeks.