"The best biographies are the ones that peek into the heart and soul of their subjects."
Are you a snoop? Do you like to know about people's lives? Do you wonder what it would have been like to fly the first airplane, invent the telephone, or be the first African-American Supreme Court Judge? If so, you may have the disease called "Acute Biography Writing Syndrome."
It's been said, "All history is gossip." Of course, you want to make sure you have your "gossip" properly fact-checked, rechecked, and cited. There are countless biographies on the market, but what makes a strong one? I'm sharing an overview of the ideas put forth by this mother-daughter team that have helped me in crafting my biographies:
** The authors state a good biographer seeks some arrangement or pattern in his subject's life. He will make connections between the events, hold back some of the facts, and foreshadow others. When you focus on a pattern or an outstanding characteristic, you are more apt to leave out information that's not important to the flow of your story. Save some of that for Back Matter, or Author Notes, or Sidebars.
** Sometimes, they say, a biography will tend to focus on a certain aspect of a person's life that people don't know about. That singular aspect gives the person's story a new twist. That's what happened when Peggy Thomas found about George Washington's love of farming, and wrote Farmer George Plants A Nation. Lots of books about George Washington out there, but she found something about him that had "settled in the shadows" and "shone her biographical flashlight on it."
** A strong biography will ground the person in the reality of the times in which he or she lived. An example they cited was Pam Munoz Ryan's When Marian Sang. She felt it was important to show the opera star riding in colored-only train cars and singing to two different audiences, one black and one white. They warn that if you don't ground your subject in the times, it will seem as if he is floating around in space, not connected to anything.
FINDING SUBJECTS TO WRITE ABOUT
Magazine theme lists are mentioned as a great place to start. The authors suggest finding out what major historic anniversaries are coming up, and ask teachers what they would like to know more about. When Peggy Thomas asked a school librarian what her elementary students needed more of, the librarian pointed out the biography section and said, "More. We need more books about people kids haven't heard about yet." Does that make you giddy? It should. Find that unknown person and bring him or her to life.
MAGAZINES FOR SHORT BIO PIECES
If your subject is not known, but worth reading about, they say writing a magazine profile can serve as a short, focused biography. Cricket and Insight Magazines feature people who have overcome struggles or have made the world a better place. Boys' Life, Yes Mag, and Highlights also print profiles.
A FEW HELPFUL BIOGRAPHY WEB-SITES
They list web sites that you can browse for fun, or sites that will give you
information on a certain person. Here are three to get you started:
** Academy of Achievement: www.achievement.org. Features people in business, the arts, sports, science, and public service.
** Innovative Lives: www.invention.smithsonian.org. Lists inventions and inventors.
** My Hero: http://myhero.com. This one lists achievements of people from all walks of life.
Okay, who will you be writing about? The library shelves are waiting.....