Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Archive for May, 2017

How I Found My Writing Niche

The subtitle for this post could be: How a Second Grade Boy Helped Me Launch My Writing Career. I’ve said many times that I started writing biographies after following the advice of another author who said, “Write what you like to read.” I remembered how much I enjoyed reading biographies when I was a kid especially stories about trailblazers such as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Elizabeth Blackwell. But the truth is, it took me a long time before I considered writing any type of nonfiction. It was a second grade boy who set me on that track.

Like most beginning writers, I dreamed of writing fiction, particularly the mysteries and ghost stories I loved to read. Mary Downing Hahn’s Wait ‘Til Helen Comes remains one of my all-time favorite books. Joan Lowery Nixon and Lois Duncan were my idols. For years, I ignored the fact that there were more opportunities for writers in nonfiction. That’s because editors are always looking for nonfiction, but most writers want to write fiction.

My change in attitude came when I was working as a media secretary at an elementary school. Seated at my desk, I watched as a class of second graders hurried into the IMC for checkout time. My favorite part of the job was when students asked me to help them find a book. I was not disappointed on that day as a smiling young man approached the desk.

“Can you help me find a book?” he asked.

“Sure, what kind of books do you like to read?”

“Good books,” he said.

That was my cue to recommend what I thought were good books. “Have you read any of the Henry and Mudge books?” I asked. But they did not appeal to him. I recommended a couple of other possibilities from the fiction section, as I assumed that’s what he would want to read.

Then he surprised me. “No, I want real books,” he said.

“What do you mean real books?”

“You know, true stories,” he answered.

“Oh, you mean nonfiction.”

“Yeah, real books with facts and stuff.”

It didn’t take long to find him enough books in the nonfiction section to keep him busy for a while. I soon realized that there were many other kids like him, kids who liked nonfiction. They wanted to read about dinosaurs, sports stars, bugs, unusual buildings, airplanes, and faraway places, almost any subject imaginable.

For the next few days, I thought about that student and noticed how many other kids asked to be directed to the nonfiction section. I also thought about the author who advised me to “write what you like to read.” It soon became clear to me that I should be writing real books, in my case, biographies. Once I focused on biographies, the publishing doors started to open. I had found what I was meant to write, and I thank that second grade boy for setting me on that path.

 

A Problem with Facts

When I started writing biographies for children, I was in for a few surprises. The biggest one was with the research when I discovered that facts don’t always agree. An example is my research for a biography about Ken Griffey Jr. His first year in the majors was a good one. Most people expected that he would be named rookie of the year. Then late in the season, he had an accident in the shower and broke his hand. He had to go on the disabled list, which ruined his chances for rookie of the year.

I found four different articles about his accident. Two of them said he broke his left hand and two of them said he broke his right hand. It was impossible for me to know which articles were right. Fortunately, that problem was easily solved. I called the Seattle Mariners where Griffey played. For me, that experience reinforced the importance of using primary sources. The closer a writer can get to the original sources, the more reliable that information is. But even with primary sources there may still be questions.

I ran into a bigger problem when I was writing about Mahalia Jackson because there were two different dates for her birth. The date on her tombstone did not match official records. They were both good sources and I had no idea which one was right. Since I was writing a young adult biography, I was able to explain the discrepancy in the text. “There is some confusion about her birth date. Records at City Hall in New Orleans state that she was born in 1911. But Mahalia’s aunts disagreed. Mahalia was born a few months after her cousin Porterfield. He was born in 1912, so Mahalia could not have been born in 1911. October 26, 1912, was the correct date, the aunts said.”

If I had been writing for younger children, where word counts are limited, I would have used the birthdate given on her tombstone in the text. Then I would have added  a note in the back matter about the two different dates because I think it’s important to address problems with the facts.

Many years ago, I was told that the way to decide if something is true or not is that if you find the information in three different sources, you can be pretty sure it’s accurate. That isn’t full proof. It could be that those three sources all came from a fourth source that was not correct. When I was writing about Neil Armstrong, I toured the Neil Armstrong museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio. They have an old bicycle on display that Armstrong rode when he was young. Armstrong got his pilot’s license when he was sixteen, before he had a driver’s license. The local airport is three miles outside of town. According to the tour guide, Armstrong rode his bicycle out to the airport for flying lessons. It’s a nice story and it has been published in several places. But later, I found an interview with Armstrong where he talked about that story and said it wasn’t true. He had hitchhiked out to the airport.

The story I heard at the museum could be right. I know how hard museums and historical societies work to make sure the facts are correct and they have plenty of primary sources at their disposal. On the other hand, the interview with Armstrong planted some doubt in the corner of my mind. That was my second lesson in getting to the truth, digging deep. I may not have found what Armstrong said about the bicycle story if I wasn’t obsessive about the research.

Getting to the truth can be a challenge and I’ll have more to say about that in a future blog. In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you. Have you run into inconsistencies with the facts? How did you handle it? I hope you’ll share your experiences.

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