When I first started pulling together resources for my great-grandfather’s biography, I figured that it would be easy to organize: start at his birth and end at his death — right? Wrong again! Writing it that way, I soon discovered, was boring. No one wants to wade through pages of “He was born on…. When he was nine, he…. In 1877 he married…. He died in….” And after recalling biographies that I have read and enjoyed, I realized that good biographies are much more than just lists of events.
So, taking the advice of a writer friend, I began to look for stories to hang the facts on. And there are plenty of those. Implication in a grave robbery, two devastating fires, the early death of a son, a divorce, a trip to England right before the start of World War I — these are only a sample of what makes Dr. Harry Blaine’s life so compelling. Now that I am about halfway through a very rough draft, using stories as a way to organize all the bulging files of information I have collected seems to be working. They are certainly more interesting to write and hopefully will be more interesting to read.
One problem which still lingers, however, is what to do with portions of his life in which specific stories are lacking but which reveal more about his character. He was active in community affairs, for example, serving as mayor of Attica, Ohio, for one term. He also invested in a number of business ventures, but had an uncanny sense of picking largely unsuccessful ones. No compelling stories there, but important facts that round out who this man was. What do I do with those? Will it be possible to slide some factual chapters in between the stories and still keep the reader from nodding off? Maybe I’ll just have to wait and see how it all fits together and decide from there.
But that brings me back to my original question: How do I organize this mess? No one’s life is a straight line. Even in telling a story from my own life, I find myself circling around, backing up, filling in detail, flying off in tangents. Stories may be paramount, but what order do I put them in and how much backstory can I cram in without confusing — or boring the reader? People who write novels must share some of these same concerns, but they at least have the freedom to invent their way around obstacles. Writers of biography are stuck with the facts, just the facts, ma’am.
I’m already slipping out of that straight-jacket. And it feels liberating!
Comments – and advice – are welcome!