Tips on writing a biography

Here is a process for deciding on a subject and giving your manuscript interest and shape.
By Mary McVicker | Published: October 29, 2011


Is there someone you’re interested in, someone who’s been on your mind awhile, for whom there’s no biography, either for yourself or for a younger reader? Why not write one yourself? Biography offers much more scope than many writers realize. But how do you do it? And where do you start?

1. Evaluate your potential subject, her appeal, and what types of readers might be interested. Before you embark on a biography, consider these questions:

• Is enough information available to write this biography? You may need to do some preliminary research to answer this question.

• Are there other biographies of this person on the market? If so, how would yours be different?

• If you’re writing for a middle reader or young adult, is your subject appropriate for that age group? A biography of an infamous courtesan obviously would not be age-appropriate for a YA title. There may be other considerations that are less obvious.

• Does this life merit a full book?

The potential market is an essential component of your decision to write the biography or not. Although working out a preliminary marketing plan may seem premature, it will help not only with your decision about writing the biography, but with how you shape the book.

Start with the question: What interests you about this person?

Then consider what specifically you think would interest readers. Keep in mind that the most interesting questions may not be about what your subject did, but why. What obstacles did he face, and how did he work through the challenge?

Such considerations lead you to the essential question—who are your readers?—which in turn will be a crucial part of your query or proposal to publishers and agents.

Let me share some of the process I used in planning my biography Adela Breton: A Victorian Artist Amid Mexico’s Ruins, published in 2005 by the University of New Mexico Press. Breton was a British artist who copied the ancient Mayan murals in Yucatán in the early 1900s. The work was incredibly detailed, but Breton was a skilled copyist, and her work gained her international recognition. Today, her artwork is the only de-tailed color record of that aspect of Mexico’s pre-Columbian past. Breton was an intrepid and persevering woman. Forthright but with that wonderful Victorian tact, she didn’t suffer fools gladly —a good character to write about.

In scoping her out as a subject, I concluded that she would especially appeal to readers interested in: archaeology; Mexico; the ancient Maya, builders of the famous Chichén Itzá pyramids and other archaeological sites; artists, especially women artists; travel—actual and armchair; biography; adventurous women.

If you’re writing a book for middle-grade readers, consider how it might be used in class. If Breton were a middle-grade book, I would have used a statement that teachers could use my book in units on: social studies, history, art, Mexico, and ancient peoples.

Statements like these define your readers. They also tell you a lot about writing your book.

2. Distill and shape your material. Preplanning is vital, and can save a lot of backtracking and rewriting.

A serious mistake some biographers make is to lose sight of the fact they’re writing the story of a person’s life, not a detailed chronological account. If a person’s life is interesting enough for a biography, there’s a good story involved.

How often have you picked up a biography of someone who’s always interested you, noticed it’s 700 pages long with small print, and put it down? These are what I call “what James had for breakfast every day” biographies. Clearly, this type of biographer is not of the “less is more” school of thought. I am, and I think many readers are, too. As with any writing, dull detail will kill the story you want to tell.

The amount of detail and length are crucial if you’re writing for middle readers. Check the length and word count. Notice how other biographers have structured their story to fit comfortably within an appropriate length.

You can literally shape nonfiction. For a biography I make a rough chronology of the person’s life, noting the high spots, low points, and other periods that are particularly interesting. Then I graph this and see where the peaks and troughs fall.

Few lives have the sort of structure you’d give a novel, with the right spacing of climaxes and low points. And obviously, you have a fixed pattern to work with. But you can control the amount of space you give each element in your book.

Low spots and dull intervals are part of the shaping of a person’s life. Keep in mind that your book isn’t going to be divided evenly by years. One eventful year may merit three chapters, while you might summarize five other years in one chapter. You might want to highlight a particular low spot that was formative.

3. Formulate a research plan. Where will you find your information? I follow the “Leave no stone unturned” school of research. For the Breton book, I had to use original sources —primarily letters Breton wrote and a few she received, since there was almost no published biographical information. I contacted every potential source I could think of, particularly museums, asking if they had any Breton material. Several museums had original letters and knew of other museums or institutions that had a few letters; I knew where some of her art was, and through my “no stone unturned” approach managed to located other pieces of her art. It was all original research. People were helpful and often suggested other people or places to contact.

My research began in pre-Internet days. There’s no question technology has made research easier, but you can’t rely solely on the Internet. Biographers often still do a lot of hands-on research.

Keep good notes and, as a memory aid, a log of your research activities. Well into a project you don’t want to wonder, “Have I contacted that person?”

Research isn’t always sequential. Information will come in bits and pieces, not in chronological order. Research can involve a significant amount of time, energy and money, so plan it carefully.

It’s also important to know when to stop. There’s always the tantalizing prospect of the trunk in someone’s attic containing the letters you’ve been looking for, and there are, indeed, wonderful accounts of this happening. While I’ve had some good fortune in finding sources and information, however, I’ve yet to stumble on the proverbial trunk.

Your knowledge of where and how your subject lived, her times, her friends, her competitors, will enrich your biography. You may actually use little of this research, but it will enable you to speak accurately and authoritatively about events in the biography.

The temptation, of course, is to put too much of that good research into your book—the “what she had for breakfast” syndrome.

4. Take the plunge. I find beginnings difficult, and often try a lot of false starts before I nail it. With biography, it may seem like the logical starting place is getting the person born—but that can be a weak, boring beginning. Some writers begin further back, with family history. I looked at a number of biographies to see what I thought was effective and might work, and tried out many opening paragraphs before settling on a flashback [see sidebar online].

Writing a biography is much more than recording facts. Good biographies make people live, highlight their accomplishments, and present the puzzles of their life. Researching and writing it can be exhilarating and intriguing, and open up other subjects and interests for future projects. Just be sure to keep your readers’ interests in mind—and your own.

WORKOUT

1. To help find your biographical focus, write an elevator speech. If you were on the elevator with a potential publisher, what would you say if she asked:

• What is the most compelling aspect of your subject?

• Why will a reader want to read your biography?

• How is your book different than other biographies about this person?

2. For help in understanding your subject matter and in shaping the book, pretend you’re having tea with your subject.

• Write down three or four questions you’d like to ask him, and why. Chances are readers will have the same ones.

•What would you discuss? For my subject Adela Breton, the essential question I wanted an answer to was: “Why did she do what she did?” The copying she did, in the heat and humidity of the Yucatán Peninsula, was tedious and difficult. I got some answers and insights but would have liked more.

• If your character was involved in a controversy that strongly affected his life or work, hold a short debate in which you take the opposite point of view from your subject. Clearly understanding the issues involved will help you present the matter clearly in the biography. —M.M.

Mary McVicker is the author of The Secret of Belle Meadow; Adela Breton: A Victorian Artist Amid Mexico’s Ruins; Women Adventurers: 1750 to 1900, and numerous articles.