Thank you for the invitation to be a part of NF Fest with a post about writing biographies! But wait a minute—I don’t write biographies. The word conjures up the idea of names and dates marching along a timeline, a narrow, distant story of a life.
Technically, my two released picture books and most of what I’ve got coming down the publishing pipeline are not biographies. But, to my surprise, my local library shelved An Inconvenient Alphabet as a Webster bio, and I would bet Lizzie Demands a Seat will sit on the bio shelf, too. So, I’ll just go with this idea of “non-typical” bios...
What I’ve gone after have been events, relationships, and issues I care about. I don’t approach a story as one person’s life. After all, “no man is an island,” right? I’m interested in how people affect others and respond to their world.
As I began to navigate my nonfiction journey, my first AHA! came when I heard Barb Rosenstock talk about the “so what?” Then Candy Fleming explained the “vital idea.” Like theme? No. Deeper, more personal. It springs from the author’s connection with the story, their unique perspective and personal investment. It’s what lingers after the story is done. In my quest to get a handle on this, I asked others to share their process of identifying and carrying that special thread through the story. Different people use different terms—I call it heart. (blog series “Mining for Heart”) To me, this is the key to an engaging “bio.”
“Heart” is the treasure I’m after when I descend into the research rabbit hole. When I began researching Tad Lincoln and the presidential turkey pardon, I found a tender father-and-son story that made me laugh out loud. Further digging brought an even more special way to frame the story. Every time I go after an idea, I find much more behind it—and that’s where the heart emerges.
Here are some of my thoughts on creating a “non-typical biography” or, as in my case, “not-technically a biography.”
• Get ready. I’ve learned that it pays to have a system for organizing information before I dive in so I can capture my scattered ideas and all the brain pops. (HERE’s a post on my system if you’d like more info.)
• Go after context. Immerse yourself in setting. Actions and words can have different meanings in another time and place. Read widely for the big picture. Don’t limit yourself to the pages listed for an entry in an index; peruse the intros and conclusions of sources to gain insight—those are the spots where authors look at the big picture and make connections.
• Gather facts and details for text and illustrations. Embed the setting using specifics—but beware of information dumps. Don’t just look through the eyes of history, look through the eyes of the characters and let the reader experience the setting and conflicts along with the characters.
• Get to know your characters. Being the first to do something isn’t important in and of itself. The significance is in the why and how and what it means for kids today. (more in a blog post HERE) Knowing your characters well allows you to more effectively use point of view to bring readers along on the emotional journey. Quotes provide a great window into character. (more in a blog post HERE) Look at your characters’ actions and relationships, how others reacted to them, and what contemporaries said about them. Dig into their internal conflicts, motivation, stakes, hopes, and fears. Crawl inside their minds and write journal entries as characters. While facts and details are important and interesting, it’s the larger human truths that connect to readers.
• The picture book format requires focus—no room for an entire life. The main question to ask is “What do I need to carry my ‘heart’ thread through the story?” Lizzie Demands a Seat begins with action and the main event, whereas “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses (fall 2020) needed a bit of childhood for set up. Cut loose anything that doesn’t tighten that “heart” thread woven through the story, and consider those extras for back matter.
“Heart” isn’t found IN the research, but evolves FROM the research when we process it through our own experience. When I found Ben Franklin’s quote, “Those people spell best who do not know how to spell,” I understood it as a teacher. “Those people” were kids. With that twist in meaning, I was onto the heart of An Inconvenient Alphabet. But Elizabeth Jennings’ story took much longer. I had a growing sense of the heart, but couldn’t nail it down. “Heart” can be nebulous, elusive, downright torture to tackle. But I believe that’s what makes your manuscript sing and become more than “just another bio.”
I think the reason I didn’t like history as a child is that history had lost the story—the struggle of people finding their way in the world. Instead of the typical biography ABOUT a person’s life that “feeds” readers information, the non-typical bio allows the reader INSIDE the person’s life. When children can see themselves in someone, they’re able to experience new perspectives and ways of thinking.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Beth Anderson loves digging into history and culture for undiscovered gems. A former educator who has always marveled at the power of books, she is drawn to stories that open minds, touch hearts, and inspire questions. Born and raised in Illinois, she now lives in Loveland, Colorado. Author of AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET (S&S 2018) and LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT! (Boyds Mills & Kane, 2020), Beth has more historical gems on the way.
Twitter and Pinterest: @BAndersonWriter
ABOUT THE PRIZE
Beth is offering a picture book manuscript critique (ms up to 1200 words).
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