In this guest post we welcome Alan Schroeder, author of In Her Hands: The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage and Baby Flo: Florence Mills Lights Up the Stage to discuss what it takes to write a biography for children.
Writing someone’s biography can be a tricky business. First—and this is important—you’ve got to be enthusiastic about the person you’re writing about. Otherwise, it won’t work. Readers will know that on some level you’re not engaged and they won’t enjoy reading the book any more than you enjoyed writing it. I was asked once to write a biography of the Three Stooges. I said no, because I’ve never found their humor to be funny. Sure, I could get the facts right, but that’s not enough. You have to have passion.
Next comes the research. For many people, this is the dullest part of writing a nonfiction book: the hundreds of hours that they have to spend reading about Thomas Edison or Clara Barton or global warming. When the pile of notes you’re taking is getting higher and higher, it can be discouraging knowing that you’ll end up using only a small portion of them. But that’s the way it should be. You don’t want to overwhelm the reader with too many facts.
A good biography should be accurate, but it should also move. Once I read a book review of a biography of a minor American actress. The reviewer complained about the overload of unimportant detail—the author, he said, had even included the actress’s Social Security number. Social Security number? That’s an example of an author who threw all of his notes into the text without bothering to weigh their individual importance. Remember, in most cases, shorter is better.
There are two kinds of biography: a straight, cradle-to-grave nonfiction approach, and a fictionalized approach. I have written a half-dozen so-called fictionalized biographies, and in some ways they’re harder to write than the other kind. A fictionalized biography attempts to dramatize a person’s life (or, more commonly, a portion of that person’s life). In order to make it work, you have to know where to start and where to end. Start too early in a person’s life and you end up wasting pages and the reader’s patience. And don’t keep rambling on once the story has come to its natural end. Bring it to a dramatic and appropriate close, then stop. If you’ve still got information you’d like to share with the reader, save it for the Afterword or the Author’s Note.
Dialogue is one of the easiest, and most effective, ways of dramatizing your story. A few well-chosen words, a snappy turn of phrase, an impassioned speech—these can all be used to highlight personalities, to create conflict, to set a mood, to change the rhythm or pacing of a story, and to punctuate your main character’s aim or goal. Dialogue is my favorite part of writing. I’ll spend hours crafting a short conversation between two or three people. Even if I end up cutting most of it, I enjoy the process. It helps me to get to know my characters better.
Finally, the trickiest part of writing a fictionalized biography is coming up with a plot that is both true and involving. As tempting as it may be, you can’t simply make up details in order to suit your story. Everything has to be based in truth. Most readers may not know at what age George Washington began losing his teeth, or on what side of the Chesapeake Bay Harriet Tubman lived, but someone will, and if you’ve made up facts, or gotten them wrong, you’ll be found out.
The combination of accuracy and a compelling plot is probably the hardest part of writing a fictionalized, or dramatized, biography. You’ve got to get the balance right, and you’ve got to make it come alive. You’ve got to make the reader care about your character and his or her problem. And the problem—the conflict—has to be one that your character faced in real life. To invent a problem, or to make it more dramatic than it really was, is a form of cheating, and that’s no fun at all. If you search long enough, and dig deep enough, you’ll almost certain to find an incident worth dramatizing, a character who practically begs to be brought to life. Respect the facts of that life and, with luck, you’ll be well on your way to producing a memorable and satisfying biography.
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