If you’ve ever spent some quality time with a good biography, autobiography, or memoir, you’ll know that this is a genre which has a lot to offer both to the authors who are willing to translate their lives into literature and to the readers who are looking to be moved by the stories of those who have lived other lives from their own. But how does one write a good biography, autobiography, or memoir? This month, we’ll be providing some tips and tricks for crafting a work of non-fiction drawn from life and history which will leave your readers moved, to tears or to joy or to action, and hungry for more. Oh, and don’t forget that Outskirts Press offers a spectacular One-Click Publishing Package for Memoir!
Five time-honored ways to write from life include:
1. Taste-test. That is, take the time before getting started to immerse yourself in the genre. Like a lot of others, the autobiography, biography, and memoir genres are so diverse as to include everything from “chatty” celebrity tell-alls to serious historical excavations to symbolic and “atmospheric” texts that read more like prose poems than anything else. Find a couple of examples of the field that do what you want to do, or somehow make clear the imaginative possibilities of the form, or that do the exact opposite, and use these books as your guiding stars as you begin to craft your own book.
2. Draw up a list of scenes. Draw up a list of scenes which stick in your head, regardless of their importance to your larger life story or the life story of the historical figure you’re attempting to put together. These scenes are simply the memories or historical moments you know you want to write about, now or eventually, and can be organized or restructured later. Don’t put too much of a premium on what comes “first” or what you want the first paragraph, page, or chapter of your book to look or feel like. It’s more important that you get some words on the page without being intimidated by the process.
3. Start fleshing them out. Simply pick a couple of the scenes on your list and start fleshing them out in prose. As you go, you’ll start to get a feel for what’s most central about that memory or historical moment to you. Is it the way it made you feel, and how that affected who you became later? Is it key in understanding a relationship in your life or the life of an historical figure which shapes everything else? Is it that it provides humor to leaven the darker moments of your book? Highlight the lines which seem most important and telling, and move on to the next scene once you feel like you’ve reached a moment of completion. You’ll fit the pieces together later. Do you find that more scenes crop up in your mind as you’re writing? Perfect! Add them to the list. You’ll get to them eventually if they really are important.
4. Embrace the drama. By which we mean: employ each and every storytelling technique which you find useful, including colorful language, dramatic tension, and situational irony. Just because you’re describing events which really happened doesn’t mean that you can’t use the tools of fiction to keep things fun and interesting. Think about the central conflicts of your scenes, and see if they might start adding together to something even larger and more central to the story of the life you’re telling. Does each memory circle around your or your historical figure’s relationship with your/their mother? What is the larger ecology that your collected scenes all fit within? Pump up the setting and the mood with all the vivid details that you or the documents you’re drawing from can recall.
5. Due diligence matters. Whether you’re writing a memoir or a biography or an autobiography, the fact remains that the true story isn’t limited to your own personal memories and lived-in experience. Many of the most striking books to emerge in recent years–Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, and Anne Lamott’s Some Assembly Required, for example–are personal stories built upon a foundation of deep research. Whether your book involves a backpacking trip across the Himalayas or a battle with cancer or a chronicle of experiences as an educator or anecdotes of career-related experiences, there are endless possibilities for primary research. Decades-old weather records for most corners of the globe are archived online. Your local library likely stocks ancient, moth-eaten back issues of your local newspapers. State historical societies host census data from the turn of the century. In an age when you can access fire insurance maps from the 1870s and also have your DNA sequenced for a small fee, there’s no limit to what information sources are available to strengthen your work.
Not sure where to start? It may be time to lean on an expert. If you’re looking to write and publish your memoirs or a biography about an historical figure, there’s never a better time than now to inquire. Visit us online at www.outskirtspress.com where you can chat with one of our publishing experts or call us at 1-888-672-6657 to speak to a Publishing Consultant.