Finding the story

September 2, 2011 at 7:46 pm (biography research and writing) (, , , , , , , , , )

While you may be fascinated by the subject of your research, unless you can find a story – with a hook – you are not going to get published.

Of course, this may not be your aim. You may be reconstructing a family history for your own pleasure or your family’s information. All equally valid.

But if you want to be read – even by a tolerant and cooperative family – you need to tell your story.

Lists of dates and facts – while interesting to you, and representing the result of hours, days, months of dedicated and creative research – are not that interesting to read. The excitement you felt when you tracked down some hard-to-find little gem of research does not usually translate to excitement in the reader. You have to assume that your average reader is not as obsessed with your subject as you are. They need to be wooed.

Is your story going to be chronological? Or are you going to start with the most dramatic part and then go back in time to show how the subject got to that point? Is there a dramatic part? Too many flashbacks can be confusing unless really well handled.

The best advice I ever received (from Frances Osborne, author if Lilla’s Feast and The Bolter, both about her ancestresses. She said “write with passion”.

It took me a while to work out what that meant to me. My natural writing style has been subjugated over the years into something the cross between a university essay and a government report. Excellent for presenting dry facts and a logical argument but not great for writing a biography.

Write with passion didn’t mean overly flowery detail, emotive words, embroidered prose. It meant entering into the spirit of the subject, the spirit of the times and telling the story from her perspective, even if it was written in third person, not first.

I’m still working on it.

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