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Writing Biography & Autobiography 2


This is the second excerpt from Writing Biography & Autobiography by Brian D Osborne.

We shall be running three excerpts from this title from the A & C Black Writing Handbooks series, by kind permission of the publisher.

Sometimes, they find you

Subjects come to the notice of the biographer in a variety of ways, and the more you write in the biographical field the more potential subjects will attract your attention. Sometimes something that you read will suggest a subject – a passing reference, an intriguing quote, a general sense that there is an interesting character out there waiting to be explored. Sometimes the idea for a biography can be sparked off by something quite non-literary: an artefact, a building, a monument.

I wrote an article about George Buchanan, a 16th century Scottish scholar and reformer, simply because I was struck by the size of the monument to him which had been erected at Killearn in Stirlingshire. The monument, an obelisk 103 feet high, towers over the little village. My reaction to it was that it was exactly the sort of thing that might be expected to mark the site of a great battle or the birthplace of a national hero, not the birthplace of a rather obscure scholar. Buchanan’s life, which I would certainly not feel competent to deal with at length, sold as a 2500-word article and demonstrates that one can deal with a subject adequately, at a certain level, even if one lacks the skills and background to do a more comprehensive and original piece of work. Buchanan, for example, wrote mostly in Latin and lived for a long time in France – so it would be very difficult to write an original and serious extended biography of him without considerable skills in Latin and French. However, for the purposes of an article designed for a popular magazine, secondary sources and the ability to put the subject into context and to interpret other people’s research for a general audience are often all that is required.

Subjects come up in other ways too. Sometimes friends and relatives, knowing the sort of thing that you write, will suggest subjects to you. Once book and magazine publishers are aware of your skills or interests, they will sometimes suggest subjects that they would like to see covered. This is very encouraging and enormously good for one’s self-esteem, and there is a huge advantage in having a commission and not having to worry about cold-selling the finished work to a publisher. However, the prospect of a secure commission should not blind you to the other considerations that need to be taken into account when selecting a subject:

Have you the skills to do justice to the topic? Do you need to be able to read Latin, decipher 15th century handwriting or understand nuclear fission?
Does the subject interest you? A biography takes a long time to write; if the subject bores you it will seem to take a great deal longer and your lack of enjoyment may become all too apparent in your writing.
Would you rather be doing something else? Even if the subject seems interesting you might feel that your priorities lie elsewhere.
• How will this project fit into the overall pattern of your writing career? If you feel that you want to specialise in writing the lives of members of the women’s suffrage movement, would taking a year or two out to write the life of a Boer War general be a good idea?
Can you cope with the subject in practical terms? Are the papers you would need to use in an archive in Aberdeen while you live in Bristol? Are there essential official documents that you will not be able to access for your research because they are unavailable until a certain date?


All of these points are things that you should take into consideration in choosing any subject, but they perhaps need a second or a third thought before you are seduced by the prospect of a commission. It is all too easy to go along with an idea when it is pitched to you by a publisher or editor, and then to find out, when you are launched on the project, that it involves significant problems. If you have evolved your project yourself, you are more likely to have had a chance to feel your way into the subject and into its associated challenges and opportunities.

Basic planning and preparation

However the idea for your biography comes about, before you commit yourself to any work on it you need to do some serious thinking, planning and preparation. Some of the issues that need to be determined at this planning stage include:

The extent of the work. Is this a magazine article or a book? A long book or a short book? How long are you going to have to commit to the project to do it successfully, and is this economically viable?
• The scope of the work. Are you going to write about the entire life of your subject, or just one chronological period – or just one aspect of it?
The level of the work. Is this for a general or a specialist audience, for adults or teenagers or children?
The skills you need to acquire to do justice to the subject. Do you need to learn how to read early handwriting, become familiar with the organisation of the Royal Navy in the 18th century, or know the working of an early 20th century repertory theatre?
Your sources. Are the sources that you can conveniently access sufficient for the work you are planning? While for a popular magazine article you can usually safely rely on secondary sources, a more scholarly book will require the use of original materials; these may simply not be available, or may be available but located somewhere inconvenient. There is nothing more annoying than spending valuable time on a project only to find, part-way through, that there are simply not the sources available to you to allow you to do justice to it.
Financial considerations. How are you going to finance the project? What will the costs be? Think of things like photocopying, travel and subsistence, the acquisition of illustrations. Is there an advance from your publisher? What are you going to live on while you are writing the book?
Further opportunities. What opportunities are there for a multiple exploitation of the project? If you are writing a full-length biography, can you promote the book and earn some additional fees by writing articles based on it, developing radio or television spin-offs, or lecturing about it? Are there ‘detachable’ parts of the project which can be developed? This may be something that you will only discover as you go along – but it is well worth keeping in mind throughout the entire process. There may very well be an aspect of your subject’s life that merits treatment at greater length than you can afford within the confines of your book or article. There may be a subsidiary character who comes into your biography but cannot be properly dealt with there. Such subsidiary themes can be usefully developed and marketed as stand-alone articles and often require very little extra work to complete. All these additional ways of exploiting your subject may make the difference between an economically unviable project and one that may be worth pursuing.

The next excerpt from Writing Biography and Autobiography will be published in the June Magazine.  It is published by A & C Black at £12.99

First excerpt

To buy the book

© 2004 Brian D Osborne


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