Monday, March 2, 2009

Books that can help beginning biographers

Beginning a full-length biography can be extremely confusing. There aren't too many books or web sources out there for first-time biographers and navigating the tremendous tasking of dealing with interviews, archives, book proposals, travel -- not to mention the writing itself -- will inevitably seem overwhelming. There are plenty of books focused on fiction, but not many that begin to explain nonfiction.

Over the course of this blog, I've decided I will pool some of the useful resources to hopefully aid others. These are just some books that helped me, in whatever fashion it was, to gain insight or knowledge of some source about the craft of biography and/or autobiography and memoir.

How to Do Biography: A Primer by Nigel Hamilton is a good introduction, a primer, as it says. It provides some good basic advice about the traditional structure of a biography (birth, career, love, twilight, death) as well as a quick chapter about the afterlife of the biography (the critical reception of your biography). In addition, this is one book that also contains a section on autobiography and memoir. A very basic book, good if you need general guidance but probably redundant if you have a good handle on how to begin thinking about your story.

Biography: A User's Guide by Carl Rollyson was very useful to me. It is laid out much like an encyclopedia which makes for a strange read from start to finish. The book lays out the basic history of the genre and provides examples of different sub-genres (political biography, religious biography, musical biography, royal biography, literary biography, intellectual biography, among others). This book also contains a section on autobiography. Rollyson talks extensively about the differences between authorized and unauthorized biography, the ins and outs of fair use policy and the ridiculousness of so-called 'definitive' biography. A good book, incredibly useful.

Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard, contains a few useful essays. The first, "As Time Goes By: Creating Biography" primarily talks about going beyond chronological order, finding truth in interviews, and using archives. The second essay, "Twelve Years and Counting", is a shorter essay containing some good advice about interviewing, archives and the balance between research and writing. The rest of the book focuses on other nonfiction mediums but contains some useful advice. Nearly every essay contains writing exercsizes following the essay that are related to the primary advice imparted. These exercises can be extremely useful.

How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larson contains much of the same advice as similar books, but is organized in a way I find most useful. A solid introduction to writing proposals for any nonfiction book.

I hope some of these books can help you. As I find more books and websites useful, I will post them here.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Britta,

    That's brave taking on a new genre, and then needing to figure out how it works as you do it. I've done the same thing with memoirs, and that's also why I developed my blog, to share what I've learned. Now I want to learn more about biography, so I welcome your blog. Thanks! One more resource to pass along. The Association of Personal Historians has conferences and regional groups. In October 2009 the conference is in Philadelphia.

    By the way, who is Paul Avery. Haha. Just kidding. I guess I have to read the book.

    Good luck with your project.
    Jerry Waxler
    Memory Writers Network