re: Finding the Story among the Facts for a Biography

posted 1/24/13

Dear Editor…

I’ve done so much research on my obscure historical figure that I think I know what kind of candy and dogs he would have liked. How do I begin to write a PicBk Historical Fiction or Biography when there is SO much to his story?

Thank you,
Pat

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Dear Pat…

Writing a biography requires giving your subject’s life a unifying narrative—which requires narrowing your focus from all those facts to personal interpretation. What do you see when you look at that collection of facts? A man embodying the phrase “Don’t stop when you’re tired, stop when you’re done”? A man helping others at his own expense? Picture book biographies help children identify qualities that they already have in themselves or would be wise to cultivate. At this point you should identify the personal qualities that underpin the facts and events of this man’s life. To do that, make a list of catch phrases that describe his most notable qualities, as I did above. Then, pick one of those phrases to act as your book’s theme. THAT’s what you’ll write about, following that quality through the person’s life, using the facts to show that quality/theme at work. And if you get to talk about candy, all the better. It’s a book for kids, after all.

Happy writing!
The Editor

P.S. For more on this topic, read Creative Process, Nonfiction
posted by: The Editor
under: Creative Process, Nonfiction
Comments to "re: Finding the Story among the Facts for a Biography" | Add a Comment
    1. carrie pearson wrote (on 01/24/13 at 2:54 pm) :

      While I think Deborah’s comments are spot on, you might consider a course I took through Stanford’s online writing curriculum. It was called “Writing the Lives of Others” taught by Anne Zimmerman and it was FANTASTIC. Ten weeks of learning how to write a biography, being critiqued, positive support — and you come away with a clear picture of your manuscript.

      [Reply]

      The Editor replied (on 01/24/13 at 3:22 pm) :

      Great suggestion, Carrie.

      [Reply]

    2. Natasha Yim wrote (on 01/27/13 at 10:45 am) :

      My last two books, CIXI, THE DRAGON EMPRESS (Goosebottom Books, 2011) and SACAJAWEA OF THE SHOSHONE (Goosebottom Books, 2012) are picture book biographies. I totally understand your dilemma. I had a particularly challenging time with Cixi because there was a lot of political upheaval during her time and even though I did not want to bog my readers down with all the political intrigues and facts, so much of it informed her decisions which had dire consequences. I had a great editor in Amy Novesky who kept asking me “What is her story?” every time I drowned Cixi’s tale in too many facts. That forced me to try and see things from Cixi’s perspective. She wasn’t just an empress, she was the wife of an emperor and the mother of a future one who came from very humble birth. How did she feel when she first entered the lavish Forbidden City? Or when her husband was about to die without naming her son the heir to the throne? Amy got me to look at her story from a personal level rather than a historical one. Some of the interesting facts we chose not to leave in the story became sidebars, so that might be another way to squeeze some of the facts in.

      [Reply]

      The Editor replied (on 01/31/13 at 10:17 am) :

      “What is her story?” An excellent question to help you focus. Thanks for sharing that!

      [Reply]

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