"WHAT'S THE BIG IDEA?" invites experienced biographers and narrative nonfiction writers to hold forth, whether in an article or just in a couple of sentences, on a useful solution they've found for coping with any major challenge of the writing life. What resonates with you? Tell the rest of us by posting a comment.
Beverly Gray, a film biographer, shares her list of ten things to remember when writing a biography.
Ten Tips for Writing Biography:
• In starting out, scour your life for a subject you are in a unique position to explore. When writing a biography, consider making your own relationship with the central figure a part of the story. My first book delved into the life of a movie producer who had been my longtime boss. A few anecdotes drawn from our interaction over the years effectively shed light on key aspects of his psyche.
• When planning an unauthorized biography, don’t be intimidated by the question, “What right do you have to invade this person’s privacy?” If your subject is a public figure, you have every right to probe his (or her) past—so long as you are accurate in what you report.
• Don’t let the subject try to take control of your project, even if this means you’ll get extra help. Artistic independence is a key to good writing.
• When researching, be imaginative. Leafing through indie filmmaker Roger Corman’s high school yearbook, I discovered that a prominent local sports writer had been his classmate. That revelation led to a terrific interview about what Roger was like in his teen years.
• Start at the beginning. Film director Ron Howard was born in Duncan, Oklahoma. The head of the local historical society was happy to share with me pages of a scrapbook kept by one of Howard’s proud relatives. It contained a copy of his clever birth announcement, as well as a clipping describing his parents’ highly eccentric wedding. Because Howard began his acting career at age 5, and because the stability of his home life has always helped to keep him grounded, insights into his parents are an important part of his story.
• Go to the source: wherever possible, see the locations you write about, so that you can evoke them for your readers.
• As you send out requests for interviews, have a tape recorder connected to your telephone and be prepared to start recording at a moment’s notice. You never know when someone important to your project will call you up. (CAUTION: In many states, you’re legally required to tell the caller you’ll be taping the conversation.)
• Find out in advance if your publisher expects you to get signed releases from all of your interview subjects. On my last big project, this requirement took me completely by surprise, at a time when the writing of my book was almost completed. The result: I had to track down people I hadn’t spoken to in well over a year.
• Respect those you interview. Check back with them to clarify any details or assumptions you’re not quite sure about. It’s no fun seeing your mistakes in print.
• In the writing process, try to capture your subject’s essence by way of a central metaphor. In the course of chronicling Roger Corman’s life, I was able to point out how much he resembles Dr. Frankenstein, trying desperately to cope with a monster of his own making.
Beverly Gray, an independent filmmaker as well as a biographer, is the author of Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon...and Beyond, as well as the definitive and (as she observes) tastefully-titled Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers. She is currently updating her Corman biography and concentrating on her blog, Beverly in Movieland, which covers movies, moviemaking, and growing up around Hollywood. The blog also lets her chat about many other subjects close to her heart, including the wonders of movie technology, good conversation, and the correct use of the apostrophe.
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