This blog was featured on 10/23/2019
Where to Start When Writing a Biography
Written by
She Writes
October 2019
Written by
She Writes
October 2019

This guest post was written by Krista Driver, author of Mani/Pedi: A True-Life Rags to Riches Story. Born to a teen mother and a child of the foster care system for four years before she was adopted, Dr. Krista Driver started out as the epitome of the “underdog.” Today a licensed marriage and family therapist with a doctorate in psychology, Dr. Driver has dedicated her career to working with the most vulnerable in her community. A perpetual observer with an innate curiosity for other people’s stories, when she stumbled across an incredibly fascinating tale of one woman’s escape from Vietnam, she felt compelled to write about it. It all began in a nail salon in Orange, California with a simple question: “Where are you from?” As the CEO of a nonprofit counseling center that specializes in providing mental health services to women and children, Dr. Driver sees Mani/Pedi as a natural extension of her work.

Where to Start When Writing a Biography

Writing someone else’s story can be a lot of fun and at first glance it may seem simple. When I wrote my first biography, I learned that there are strategies involved and it required a little more “work” than I anticipated. Here are seven steps I used on my projects that I found very helpful.

Step One: Identify the subject. Whose story do you want to tell? Why do you feel compelled to write about that person? Dig deep on these questions, because that person is going to be integrated into your life for a time…

Step Two: Get permission from the subject (if living). Verbal permission is great, but you really need to get it in writing. Use a “life rights” document and have the individual sign it, agreeing to allow you to write their story. I had an attorney review my document to make sure I had all my bases covered. If the person is deceased, technically you do not need permission. However, if any (living) relatives are in your book, they do have rights. So, to error on the side of caution, you may want to get their “life rights” and permission.

There are authorized biographies and unauthorized biographies. You can write a book with or without someone’s permission. If you do not get their permission, I would consult with an attorney and he/she can advise you on what you can and cannot put into your book.

Step Three: Do your research! I cannot emphasize this enough. If the person is living and you can interview them, you can gather a lot of information that way. However, people’s memories may not encompass all that you need to really develop the story.

  • Google them, find their social media accounts/any footprint they may have online.
  • Look for source materials i.e. books, letters, pictures, newspaper clippings, magazine articles and etc. I’ve found to be extremely helpful - Sifting through census records, military records, Estates, Probate and Tax records.
  • Interview people with knowledge of your subject i.e. relatives, friends, co-workers
  • This may seem weird but trust me… do it ~ Look up what the weather was at specific times of the person’s life. I used the Farmer’s Almanac for this. So, I was able to say with confidence, “The moon was hidden on that stormy night and she was afraid to leave the shelter of the trees to go down to the boat that was going to carry her away from Vietnam”.

Step Four: Visit locations if possible. Spend time where they did. I recently traveled to the deep south for a book I’m working on. It was powerful to stand on the exact land where my subject’s family were slaves in Mississippi. I could imagine how it may have been for them to toil on that land and wondered if the tree’s I saw that day were standing way back then. The plantation house is still standing and I can describe it with great detail. It gave me inspiration and context that I couldn’t have gotten any other way.

Step Five: Study the times in which your subject lived. Contextualize the subject’s life by looking at what was going on around them. Know the history, politics, religion, social norms, economy and focus on major events. There may have been common sayings like, “I’m going to put you in my pocket”. That sounds kind of cute, but what it meant was, “I’m going to sell you and put the money in my pocket”. Those words struck fear in every slave. Look for those nuances to add depth to the story.

Step Six: Make a simple timeline of the person’s life. I drew a straight line across the paper and notated dates of significant events i.e. marriage, children, capture, escape and etc. From there I pulled out major themes from my subject’s life i.e. strength, courage, resilience. I also included my own thoughts and feelings about the person. After all, we are looking at the subject through our eyes ~ we didn’t actually live their story.

Step Seven: Construct how you want to structure the book. Do you want to present it chronologically? Do you want to employ flashbacks? How do you want to lay it out? My first book was chronological for the most part. I did put flashbacks in to make transitions easier and to bring forward things that were important, but not enough to write an entire section on. For example, my subject was sitting in a prison cell meant to hold 10 people, with her two toddlers and about 60 other women. She passed time by remember things from her childhood (Flashbacks). I was then able to bring forward how “happy” her childhood was in stark contrast to the “present” circumstances.

When you have completed all those steps it may be time to begin to write. I worked on parallel paths the entire time I was writing. Meaning, I scheduled disciplined time to focus on the writing, while at the same time continuing to pursue details and gather information. The actual book will only be part one. After it is published, you may want to write blog posts relating to your subject or be involved in media interviews. The information you continue to gather can be used for those purposes. Build a storehouse to pull from… and enjoy the process!

About the Book:

Mani/Pedi: A True-Life Rags to Riches Story

She left everything behind and risked not only her life, but also the lives of her two small children to escape from Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon. In the middle of the night, Charlie―along with her husband, two toddlers and two young sisters―joined 100 other people on a tiny boat and fled their home country. The journey was long and dangerous, but after almost two years in refugee camps, the family finally made it to America.

After emigrating, as many Vietnamese refugee women did, Charlie began working in the booming nail industry. When her path crossed with Olivett, an African American woman, they became business partners―and built an empire together. After only a few years in the US, Charlie was a millionaire and living the American dream. Her tale is one of tragedy and triumph―a true rags to riches story that will amaze and inspire readers from all walks of life.

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