Choosing to write a biography is taking a step into someone else’s life for a long period of time.
You immerse yourself in another life and get to know people, places and events, as well as a heart and mind, which may be very different from yours.
It gets even more complicated if the individual lived a long time ago in a land far from your home—thus you have to sleuth not only a person, but the type of life they lived. It’s usually very different from yours.
It’s helpful to ask the five Ws and an H—who, what, when, where, why and how—because those questions ensure you cover the basic facts, while triggering other avenues of inquiry.
Here are six tips I learned for writing a biography.
1. Understand who your subject is by getting to know their family.
I begin with a question: Who is this person? What forces in her life played a large role in what she did? What was her family life like and how did that influence her?
As a long-time genealogist, I put together a detailed family tree of both the subject and her spouse.
Using primary sources as found in Ancestry.com, I learn more about her parents, grandparents, cousins, siblings and distant relations than you might think necessary. But in examining the relationships and census records, I often discover surprising facts that answer my main questions.
I also find more questions to ask and avenues to explore.
2. Read up on the places where they lived and what was important while they lived there.
We’re all affected in one way or another by our surroundings and the events that took place while we lived there. This is particularly true if a major event occurred while your subject lived there—for example, they may be terrified of water if a tsunami swept away their neighborhood.
In my most recent biography, pollution played a major role in the subject’s life and dictated events which made her into the person she became. I found statistics about death rates during her childhood that illustrated the importance of where she lived and why.
It also can provide background to make your writing more interesting, and help you avoid major errors. You may not realize, for example, that locals speak a different language than your subject, or that automobiles didn’t visit because the town didn’t have an adequate bridge over the river.
Details make the biography come alive.
3. Verify and check everything—no matter how plausible it may seem.
One of the major sources of information in writing my most recent book was an only child whose parents died many years before. She had no cousins or other relatives to set her memory straight.
That meant I had to check all her facts. Particularly in regards to her family, the stories were close, but not correct. On some facts, I had to make an educated guess—but I explained everything in the endnotes.
Remember, everything needs to be explainable in the endnotes!
4. Keep close track of your references and quotations.
All quotations and many specific facts have to be referenced or cited in a biography’s endnotes. Every time I use a quotation while writing a book, I write the exact reference in my actual text in parentheses. It helps when I need to double check something, but also makes the painstaking task of composing the end note references and bibliography easier.
(Endnotes, by the way, rather than footnotes are preferable. Your publisher will explain the format for citing information.)
5. Use fiction writing techniques when composing the story.
While you obviously don’t control a person’s life story, think about how to present the facts in an interesting way. Consider the “arc” of the story and how to organize the book. Show, don’t tell, even facts if you can avoid it. Watch out for overusing the verb “was,” way too easy in a biography.
6. Be rigorous with truth and honorable.
Be honest and truthful, even if it’s uncomfortable. Honor your subject’s life, ministry and story. Ask yourself, “How would I want a biographer to depict this incident if it was my life?”
Biography writing combines skill, respect and truth; the person’s life itself is the point.