Writing a Biography Means Making It ALL About Someone Else


There are so many fascinating stories to tell out there, many of which aren’t fictional. Real-life people, places, movements, ideas, inventions… The past, present and, no doubt, future, are filled with tales to tell.

Sometimes, those tales are best told by writing a biography.

While biographies are often written about famous people like Benjamin Franklin, Gertrude Bell or Usain Bolt, they don’t have to be. As with autobiographies, there is no box you have to work within concerning fame, fortune or levels of influence.

Your biography subject of study can be male or female; black, white or anything in between; loved or hated; and well-known or obscure.

Speaking of obscure, believe it or not, Gertrude Bell is truly a famous person by historical standards.

An English explorer who lived from 1868-1926, she made a name for herself in writing, politics, archaeology and cartography as well. So no matter that she may be relatively unknown now; she was a very big deal then and her legacy lives on almost a hundred years after her death.

Here’s the short list (i.e., the first four hits):That shows in the Amazon search results that come up when you type in “Gertrude Bell” and hit enter.

  • Queen of the Desert: A Biography of the Female Lawrence of Arabia, Gertrude Bell

  • Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations

  • Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia

  • A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert.

Now, clearly, that last one isn’t a biography. But I’m still tempted to buy it along with the other search results. This Gertrude Bell sounds like quite the character with quite the story.

Clearly, she’s already well-covered in the book department, though you’re more than welcome to add your own insights into the mix. You’re also more than welcome to focus on someone completely different, like your grandfather who fought in WWII, your friend’s aunt who immigrated from Ethopia, or someone who’s name you found etched into a Catholic church’s wall in Delaware.

Writing a biography doesn’t discriminate in that regard. Here’s what it does dictate though…

Biography:

We’re taking the auto out of “autobiography,” which means it’s no longer about you. Probably at all.

Sorry, cupcake.

Biographies are non-fiction stories about someone else from start to present or start to finish. This could be someone who’s long dead and gone, someone who’s recently deceased or someone still living.

Whichever it is, they’re the focus. You’re just the author.

The aforementioned “someone who’s name you found etched into a Catholic church’s wall in Delaware” might sound randomly specific. But it’s the subject matter of one of last year’s Author of the Month pieces: an interview with former Innovative Editing client Christopher Russel.

Incidentally, Russel completely captured today’s writing Definition in his biography, The Battle of Turkey Thicket.

No matter how much time, money and effort he put into studying this “orphan, altar boy, runaway and teenage soldier from Washington, D.C.,” he only acknowledged himself in one segment throughout the 238-page book.

That would be the epilogue.

That’s it.

Otherwise, Russel devoted himself to detailing the circumstances surrounding the birth, life and death of one Philip Thomas Hughes. The result is an eye-opening journey through both individual and historical events that can’t help but enrich readers.

I know I came through the editorial experience much better informed about the Korean War because of it. And learning about Philip Thomas Hughes’ personal life was just as enriching thanks to Christopher Russel’s willingness to set his authorial self aside.

That’s just what you do when you’re writing a biography. You make it all about commemorating someone else’s life and living.

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