Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

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.

Comments on: "A Problem with Facts" (7)

  1. Excellent blog, Barb! Like you, I always try to go back to primary sources to ensure accuracy. I did oodles of research for my YA bio of Irving Berlin…a challenge as he lived to 101. There were many inconsistencies in the books for adults that I read. Fortunately I tracked down Berlin’s eldest daughter and she graciously read my manuscript, finding a few small errors. She told me that one best-selling bio of her father had so many errors that she wrote the author a 6-page letter citing them all…YIKES!

    • It’s great that you were able to find Berlin’s daughter and that she was willing to read your manuscript and comment. What a great resource to give you confidence that you had the facts right. Also impressive that she only found a few small errors, but I’m not surprised. I know how hard you work on the research.

  2. Cindy Johnson said:

    Nice article, Barb! I love your use of mentioning the “elephant in the room” in the manuscript when sources disagree and no amount of research can resolve it! Did you actually get to talk to Mahalia Jackson’s aunts?

    • Thank you, Cindy! Mahalia Jackson’s aunts had died before I began my research, but I was able to find sources written by people who had talked to them.

  3. I had trouble tracking down where Lyda Conley passed her bar exam — 3 sources said Kansas City, Kansas and 4 said Kansas City, Missouri. Her actual law license is long gone. She practiced law in both states. She and her sisters never had children so there are no relatives to ask. What to do? I rewrote the line and focused on what she did because I just couldn’t pin down that fact!

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