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“Life is just one damned thing after another.”
—Elbert Hubbard, who died when the ship, Lusitania, sank in 1915
Biographical material ranges from brief encyclopedic snippets to book-length tomes. Sometimes the material is groundbreaking, revealing information about a person for the very first time; in other instances, the biographer is adding his or her unique spin on a frequently debated public figure. Regardless of specifics, a biography should, at a minimum, provide precise facts about another person’s life; ideally, it should also supply a sense of that person’s essence, and place his or her life in the context of the era in question. To publish such a biography, you must research, write, and then review.
Research, in large part, means reading. If such a source is available, begin by reading an article – or children’s book – about your subject; that way, major events of his life become clearly established in your mind. Continue to read voraciously by checking out material from your library. Investigate inter-library loaning procedures, as well, so that you can obtain resources from more distant locales.
Read secondary sources – published books and articles, websites and so forth; also locate primary sources – letters, diaries, birth and death certificates – from historical societies, associations, friends and families, and governmental agencies. Also read biographies of your subject’s well-known colleagues, and research the time and place in which they lived. When you read material containing footnotes, consider them a hidden cache; that’s where you might find lesser known sources or controversial theories about someone’s life.
Interview those with a passion for your subject; if writing about a baseball player, for example, SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) members would be helpful. To find appropriate experts, conduct an Internet search for credible listservs and websites, and visit journaliststoolbox.com; also ask your librarian for a recent edition of Gale Group’s Encyclopedia of Associations, which lists an enormous range of experts.
After completing a chunk of research, analyze your sources. Did the writer in question have a particular agenda to push? What credentials does he have, and how much research did he appear to do? If the viewpoint proffered is startling, how well did the writer back up her position?
At this point, you can begin to write; if information gaps still exist, they can be researched and filled in as you go. Don’t cover up facts that denigrate your biography subject; occasional inconsistencies in character can round out the individual profiled and make him more believable to readers. Follow the same advice when writing about “villains” – defined as people at odds with your subject. People are people, not wholly saints or sinners, and you must show them in both light and shadow.
When structuring your work, remember that in biographies, the best beginning isn’t always the beginning. Don’t feel that you must start with the birth of your subject; instead, search for a moment of particular significance. End the biography, if possible, by sharing the person’s lasting influence. After all, that’s why you chose your subject.
After you’ve written and revised, you’re two-thirds of the way to a completed manuscript. Before submitting your work, though, you must painstakingly fact check your material; after all, this is someone’s life at stake; or at least the telling of one. Attribute quotes properly, and ensure quality footnotes and bibliographies. Get written permission to use quotes beyond the dictum of “fair use,” as well as for photos used, and ensure that the voice you chose is consistent and appropriate.
As a final piece of advice, make sure that you have properly weighed conflicting portrayals. Did you, for example, uneasily ignore an anecdote that clashes with the picture you’ve formed of your subject? If so, you must back up, and more objectively review your logic.
And let’s end with a devil’s advocate moment. It’s possible that you agreed with Hubbard’s quote that began this piece. After all, his words made fatalistic sense. But now consider Edna St. Vincent Millay’s opinion when she insisted, “It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another; it is one damn thing over and over.”
It’s possible that both quotes will resonate – and so will differing viewpoints of your own subject. Your task, then, is to decide how much credence to give each personality trait of the complex human being that you’ve profiled. Once you can confidently integrate her life events – and her intriguing and sometimes confusing quirks – into a satisfying whole, then you’ve successfully completed your biography.