Me—A Biographer?


Writing a life story needn’t be intimidating if you follow a few basic steps.

At first I was just interested in knowing how my grandmother had managed to raise six children during the Great Depression. I talked to her for hours, taking notes. I also asked my mother and my aunts and uncles about their memories of family events. But I didn’t know what to do with all that information until my cousin Ginny suggested that I write my grandmother’s life story.

But before I could focus my attention on our grandmother’s biography, I felt that I needed to write my mother’s. She was only fifty-one, but she was ill, and I realized that she would probably not survive another year. So I began spending more time with her, gathering information about her life. Ginny and I worked together on both histories; she documented names and dates, and I wrote the stories. They were finished soon after my mother’s death.

Members of my family have read and enjoyed those biographies. Knowing that others would also like to write family stories but don’t know how to begin, I have compiled some pointers to help others write a biography—or even a personal history.

Getting Started

Short is a key word. You don’t need to and probably don’t want to write fifty pages about each of your relatives. Include the basic information—where and when he or she was born, where he lived and his occupation, whom he or she married and how many children they had, where and when she died. Describe his appearance, his personality, and what was important to him.

As with almost anything, the hardest part will probably be getting started. Consider the following two ideas:

  1. 1.

    Don’t start cold turkey. You’ll be too stiff and formal about it, and so will your family. Do not announce that you are going to write a family biography and then plunk down a tape recorder in front of your shy, elderly aunt. If you do, she’ll forget all the best things she can tell you. Start slowly. Visit your aunt regularly, and ask her questions about your family. Show interest and pleasure in hearing what she shares.

  2. 2.

    Ask for family participation and help. Tell them about your plans to write family biographies. Stress that you don’t want them to tell you everything they know in one sitting. But do ask them to call when they remember something important. Ask if you may call or write to them with questions.

These two steps worked beautifully with my family. By the time I actually started serious work on my grandmother’s history, she was so accustomed to my questions and conversation about the past that she wasn’t self-conscious answering questions or telling stories.

Gathering Information

Plan on spending careful, serious time gathering information. Story-telling sessions are important and fun, but they won’t yield all the information you need for the biography.

Plan to meet with family members and have them put names, dates, and events in order. The following steps might help.

  1. 1.

    Make a time line for your subject. My cousin Ginny helped with this. For my grandmother, Ginny filled in birth and marriage dates; then I spent a few hours with my grandmother gathering other important names, places, and dates, such as where she grew up, which schools she attended, when she graduated from those schools, where and when she worked, where and when she met my grandfather, where and when their children were born, where they lived, and when and where they retired. If the person you are writing about can’t help, ask a close friend or relative for this information.

  2. 2.

    Once you have the chronology straight, fill in the details. I asked my grandmother what her favorite subjects in school were and which subjects she did well in. Why did she work at certain jobs? Did she ever have any serious accidents or illnesses? We talked about her hobbies and her travels, and I asked about her best friends and what they meant to her. I also asked about the times in her life when she was happiest and saddest.

  3. 3.

    Let them tell their story. Encourage your subjects to talk about their parents, sisters, brothers, and children. Let your relatives ramble. Tape-record the conversations, if at all possible; if not, take notes or write your recollections down afterward.

  4. 4.

    Ask others. For additional perspective, ask young and old people, friends and relatives about your subject. My grandmother told me different things about my mother than did my aunts or my brother. With all this help, I began to understand what kind of person my mother was, how she changed through the years, and what the major turning points in her life were.

  5. 5.

    Don’t paint the person as perfect. It’s not realistic or honest to describe our relatives as if they were always wonderful. When my children read about their grandmother and their great-grandmother, I want them to be able to identify with them, even though they never knew them. An honest portrayal of our relatives can help descendants learn from their ancestors’ successes and mistakes. My mother, for example, suffered from alcoholism, and I want my children to know about the problems this affliction brings to an individual and his or her family.

Writing the Biography

Once you have all the necessary information, how do you write an interesting and informative story?

  1. 1.

    Use your time line as an outline. I chose to write the biographies in chronological order because I felt it made them easier to understand. Others may choose to write the story in categories, such as education, childhood, home life, etc.

  2. 2.

    Write a first draft quickly. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or style. You can fix mistakes later. It’s primarily important to get the basic story on paper: where the subject was born, who his parents were, where he lived and worked—on to the end of or current point in his life.

  3. 3.

    Don’t try to include everything. You won’t have enough time or energy to include every detail. As you write, feel free to leave out facts that seem less important than others. Concentrate on stories and events that best describe your loved one. Brush lightly over facts that don’t need much explaining.

  4. 4.

    Weave facts together with descriptions and details. They’ll be more interesting that way. My grandmother, for example, loved animals. I noticed that details about them kept cropping up in my first draft, so I decided to write a separate paragraph about her love for animals and some of the pets she had. I also picked a favorite animal story—about a pet goat who used to open the back door and come into the house—to include in this section.

  5. 5.

    Remember to describe your relative. Include accounts of your relative’s mannerisms, style of dress, and expressions. For instance, I made sure I described my mother’s beautiful hair. You can easily insert such details at many different points in your story, and they can help a biography come alive.

  6. 6.

    When the first draft is complete, write a second draft. Look up the correct spelling for words. Insert correct punctuation. Move a few paragraphs around, or cross out a few. But don’t be too finicky; it’s still a rough draft.

  7. 7.

    Send copies of the second draft to friends and relatives who helped give you information. Ask whether you left out anything important, and whether there are any corrections to be made. Encourage them to tell you where they think you understood or misunderstood the person. When you receive their replies, you may find discrepancies. That’s okay; people tend to remember things differently. Try to pick the majority opinion. Or, if you can’t figure out what really happened, say so in the biography.

  8. 8.

    Write the final, complete story. If you have followed the steps outlined, most of your work will already be done. But set a deadline to finish. Otherwise, you may get caught up in endless revisions and never write the final draft.

When It’s Finished

As soon as you have a final draft, read it through and savor the accomplishment. Then, make photocopies immediately. You may also want to thank people who helped you by sending them a copy of the finished product.

Consider sharing the biography not only with your family but with your community as well. Send a copy to a local or state historical society. Send another to the Church’s Family History Library in Salt Lake City. More and more researchers are becoming interested in family history, and they want to know about the lives of ordinary people as well as those of famous ones. If your story might help special-interest groups or other people in some way, you may also want to share it with them. For example, I hope to share my mother’s story with several alcoholic treatment centers and publications.

It takes time to research and write a family biography, but it can be an interesting, rewarding task. Writing biographies of both my mother and my grandmother has helped me and my family gain a greater knowledge of them—to better appreciate their strengths and to better understand some of their struggles. In turn, they have helped us to better understand not only our family, but also ourselves.

[photo] Photo by Craig Dimond

Jeanette Germain, a free-lance writer, lives in Boise, Idaho. She has written two family histories, and she and her sister are now planning a video history of their father.