“It is Unknown:” The Joys and Frustrations of Biography Writing

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As many of likely know by now, I’m up to my eyeballs in research for my first biography, which is on suffragist Virginia Minor and her husband, Francis. (This is actually the second biography I’ve started researching, but the other one is on the back burner at the moment for various reasons.)

I never thought I would write a biography. (Just like I never thought I’d write fiction, write non-fiction, or blog, but that is another story.) I didn’t think I was qualified. Hint: As long as you are willing to put in the work, there are no qualifications; while many professional biographers are historians or journalists, those are not the only paths. All you really need is the ability to write and a passion for research. Beyond that, there seems to be no one right way to go about it.

If I have learned nothing else it is this: you must have a passion for your subject in order to write a biography about her/him/them. In the course of research, you will get to know these people inside-out, and backwards, and possibly even diagonally. You will chase down letters, diaries, wills, land deeds, birth/marriage/death certificates, follow their address changes through city directories, and read more newspaper articles than you ever thought possible. You’ll contact libraries and historical societies across the country (or maybe even internationally) and beg for information. You will also do a lot of speculating on motivations when the evidence doesn’t make them clear. In short, they will become like family. If you don’t have a deep love for them, chances are good you will either burn out before the project is completed or produce a sub-par product.

The research can be frustrating, especially when your subject didn’t leave behind personal affects like diaries, journals, or personal letters. Other times the historical record doesn’t match up or you can’t verify an un-cited claim in one of your sources. That’s where the “it is unknown” in the title of this blog post comes from. You’ll find yourself writing that phrase, or some variant, more often than you’d like. And sometimes you just have to delete a line of thought or a theory because you can’t back it up with facts — which really sucks if it’s something no one or not many people have reported before. And the footnotes, don’t even get me started! (I talked about the issues surrounding them a bit in my last post on plagiarism.)

But the joys far outweigh the frustrations, at least for me. I love going down a new path of research (Can I figure out why the Minors moved to Mississippi for a year? Why didn’t Francis fight in the Civil War? Does the fact Virginia only had one child indicate fertility issues or maybe marital strife?) because you never know what you will find. It’s kind of like being a private investigator. When you find the answer, it is a great rush. And when you uncover something no other book has touched upon, the feeling is like winning a gold medal. You feel like you are actually contributing something to the world.

I also love coming across really random facts…so random that I’m not sure they will make it into the final book. For example, I found a newspaper article that talks about an incident where Francis and a judge (Francis was a lawyer) got into an argument over the correct pronunciation of a word. Francis, being from Virginia, pronounced it differently from the judge, who was a native St. Louisian, apparently to much hilarity. (Why this made the paper I have no idea. Slow news day?)

You will also hold history in your hands. I’ve touched Civil War record books, traced Virginia and Francis’ handwriting with my fingertips and gazed upon documents no one has likely looked at in decades, if not for more than a century. (I’ve also gotten a crash course on genealogy, but the verdict is still out on whether that one is a joy or a frustration.)

One of the great joys is the community that you build when researching. Archivists, librarians, and historians are some of the nicest, most helpful people I have ever met. If you explain you aren’t from the area, most will gladly send you a photocopy or a scan of what they have, sometimes for a nominal fee. (There is only one place that basically told me I have to come to them and find the information myself. *sigh* There is one in every crowd.) I think the willingness to share information can be attributed to your shared passion for your subject and a desire to see that person/people recognized by the wider world.

I know sometimes we (I speak here as a reader) can be tempted to dismiss biography as a dry, staid, and boring genre. But I’m really coming to admire the work and dedication it takes to reconstruct or chronicle a person’s life. And I marvel at the commitment of the people who make it their career. (I don’t expect to have more than two biographies in me. But then again, I didn’t think I would even have one…) I don’t plan to give up my fiction and other non-fiction writing, but I can attest to it being a rewarding field.

One last note: I did a quick study of soon-to-be-published biographies on Amazon not long ago when I was looking for comparable and competing titles for my biography. What I found is the vast majority of them are about men by men. We women really need to start telling our stories and immortalizing the women who have come before us!

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2 thoughts on ““It is Unknown:” The Joys and Frustrations of Biography Writing

  1. I thoroughly enjoy reading a good biography, especially when it’s about a person from history. This is probably why I also enjoy historical fiction as much as I do.

    For some time now, either consciously or unconsciously, I’ve gravitated toward reading female authors. Interesting how they never seem to receive the same acclaim/accolades as male authors, despite the quality of the book.

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