Researching and writing a biography: 7 key ingredients

I launched into this adventure with my usual optimism, thinking that I could blitz the research phase in a couple of months, and then blitz the writing phase in a few more. And then something happened: I was drawn into the twists and turns of my subject’s life story. Every trip to the library would generate more meetings and readings; every interview would send me to new places and sometimes back to previous ones.

Every coffee-time discussion with my subject and his mother brought me deeper into their journey. I would leave with a list of new clues and facts to investigate, only to report back a few days later. This dance lasted almost five months. I wrapped up the bulk of my research at the end of November, purchased a MacBook Pro (smaller than my daughter’s, not that I’m bitter) and a copy of Scrivener (the author’s shed), sat down at my desk, and began writing the biography.

How did I do it?

  1. Time.  There is no substitute for consistent effort, attention to detail, and time. I devoted hundreds (likely thousands) of hours to meeting with, and listening to, people who all have a story to tell. I scoured through hundreds of documents and websites, reviewed my notes, and pieced the story together.
  1. Plan.  Without a plan—a book plan and a project plan—I would soon have gotten lost in the details. Our stories are filled with interesting details, but they don’t all deserve the same level of attention. Once I had a high level view of my subject’s life story, I broke it down into short episodes and planned to research them. My plan had to be flexible to allow for new discoveries, yet sufficiently rigid to avoid getting lost.
  1. People.  So many people shape our life stories in different ways. To tell someone’s life story requires disentangling hundreds of threads of varying lengths and colours, and the only way I knew how to do this was to reach out to people—strangers to me—who proved to be most eager to open up about their role in my subject’s story. A smile, patience, empathy, attentive listening, and a cup of coffee proved most effective for this. What wonderful people I met, and what wonderful stories they told… They talked of affection and respect…for my subject.
  1. Write.  I’ve always believed in taking copious notes and organizing my research material before writing anything, but notes and articles don’t make a story. The secret to writing a book, according to seasoned professionals—you guessed it—is to sit down and write. Develop your own rhythm, sit down, and write. Don’t worry too much at first about getting it perfect (that comes later, in the editing phase): just write. After five months of research, that’s just what I did, every day. When I left Winnipeg at the end of February, my manuscript consisted of a little more than 26,000 words. At the beginning of April, after a month’s writing (alone in my camper, in California), the finished manuscript comprised 117,000 words.
  1. Edit.  Maybe I should say “Find an editor and learn to work with him or her.” Someone told me this was the critical part of the process; they were right. Although all the pieces are important, especially for a first-time author, the help of a seasoned editor is essential and invaluable. A word of caution: be prepared for a lesson in humility and be ready to work, hard, very hard. I described the experience as sculpting, starting with a very rough block and whittling it down to its finished product. The process took my 117,000 words, re-organized them, and reduced them to the essential 67,000 words.
  1. Get things done.  Make no mistake, writing and self-publishing (my choice from advice I got) a book represents a major undertaking that requires an often a difficult mix of art (the writing and designing) and science (managing/coordinating all the pieces of the project, including printing, editing, designing, marketing, and selling). This adventure—it’s not over yet—has taught me many new lessons and reinforced several old lessons. The old lessons seem to fit more than ever: know your audience, deliver a quality product, pay attention to detail, execute.
  1. Have Fun! No matter what, it’s an adventure. Whether it lasts a month, a year or a whole lifetime, enjoy it. Take a break once in a while, relax, and look around… Make it fun; you gotta have fun!Oceanside Sunset
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