Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Archive for the ‘Biographies’ Category

Talking With Author Linda Skeers About Writing and Her New Book

Dinosaur bones, skulls, and fossilized poop – topics that are sure to attract the attention of young readers. Linda Skeers brings them all together in her picture book biography, Dinosaur Lady: The Daring Discoveries of Mary Anning, the First Paleontologist. Anning was a fearless, determined explorer and she made many important discoveries. She was only 12 years old when she uncovered the bones of a dinosaur, something that had never been seen before. At a time when people believed women couldn’t be scientists, Anning forged ahead, helping to create a new field of discovery called paleontology. Linda tells Anning’s story in the lively, narrative style that is her trademark. Illustrations by Marta Álvarez Miguéns blend well with the text.

Dinosaur Lady is Linda’s second book for Sourcebooks. Her first was the very successful collective biography, Women Who Dared. I wanted to know more about how Dinosaur Lady came about and what Linda found fascinating about Mary Anning. So, I asked.

Can you give us some background about “Dinosaur Lady?” How did it all come about?

I’ve always been fascinated by Mary Anning and wrote a profile of her for my book WOMEN WHO DARED. When my editor asked if I’d be interested in writing a PB Bio about her for a younger audience I didn’t hesitate!

What did you find most interesting or surprising in researching and writing about Mary Anning?

What amazes me the most about her is that she didn’t let anything stand in her way in her search for answers! At that time many textbooks about geology and fossils were written in French. So, she taught herself to read French! She searched for over a YEAR to find the fossilized body after her and her brother discovered the skull. She ignored the danger and the ridicule of male scientists and just kept searching and learning and sharing her discoveries with the world.

With picture books, limited word counts are always a challenge. How long was your first draft and how did you cut it down to size?

Well, my editor wanted me to aim for 750 words. My first draft was twice that! I decided to focus on the two things I admired most about her – her fearlessness and her never-ending search for knowledge. No matter what obstacles she faced, she continued to explore, discover, and study fossils. She almost died in a landslide – yet headed right back to the cliffs to keep exploring!

One thing I love about your writing is that it always has such energy, which makes your nonfiction fun to read. Could you share a couple of tips about how you make the writing lively?

Thanks! I try and use action verbs whenever I can – I want readers to feel like they are right there with Mary as she scrambles over the cliffs! I also try to write scenes – I picture in my head what’s happening, and what the illustrations will show and then try to describe it. When I revise, I look at each paragraph to see if there’s action, suspense, a surprise – I want the story to be fast-paced. I also love using sentence fragments!

What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

Probably the best writing advice I’ve been given is just to keep at it. Keep working on your craft. Keep reading. And most importantly, just keep writing!

The other thing that helped me was the advice to write about what interests YOU. If you’re passionate about a subject, that’s reflected in your writing. I hear the word “authenticity” a lot. Don’t write to a trend or what you think will be popular – write about what touches your heart or topics you want to know more about. That way, the research and writing process is fun and exciting! (Remind me I said that next time I’m whining about a horrible first draft!)

 

CONNECT WITH LINDA:

You can learn more about Linda on her website at http://www.lindaskeers.com.

 

Harriet Tubman: Finding the True Story

I’ve found that each book brings its own challenges with the research. Harriet Tubman, my new book for National Geographic’s readers series, was no different.

I quickly discovered that writing about someone who had not learned to read or write was hard. I hadn’t realized how much I depended on letters, journals, and books and articles written by the subjects of my biographies. Without those materials, I felt slightly lost as I began the research on Tubman.

It didn’t help that Tubman’s work in rescuing slaves through the Underground Railroad needed to be so secretive. Later, she was a spy for the Union army during the Civil War, again all necessarily done in secret. Fortunately for me, Tubman lived a more public life after the slaves were freed. At that time, she had a new mission in helping freed slaves and working for women’s rights. She traveled giving speeches that included talking about her early life. I was happy to find a couple of interviews she did with reporters at that time. They provided some details about her life and a couple of great quotes.

Tubman also had a biographer. Sarah H. Bradford wrote two biographies about Tubman, Harriet: The Moses of Her People (1886) and Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869). Bradford was an excellent storyteller and had Tubman’s cooperation in writing the biographies. So, her books contain many interesting events from Tubman’s life including her thoughts and feelings about her childhood as a slave and her experiences with the Underground Railroad.

On the other hand, Bradford was a practical businesswoman and she wrote the books partly to help raise money for Tubman’s living expenses. So, Bradford wanted the books to sell well. To increase sales, she embellished Tubman’s story turning her into a kind of folk hero.

Misleading information is always a problem, and Bradford’s biographies didn’t make my job any easier. I was discouraged to find that sources I would normally consider trustworthy still go by information based on Bradford’s version of Tubman’s story. For example, according to Bradford, Tubman made 19 trips as a conductor on the Underground Railroad rescuing 300 slaves. As I got further into the research, I learned that Tubman actually made 13 trips rescuing 70 slaves including many family members. That was an amazing feat considering the danger. No embellishment is necessary.

Those 13 trips have been carefully documented by historians such as Kate Clifford Larson. Her book Bound for the Promised Land was a valuable resource for me, and I was doubly blessed when Larson agreed to serve as the expert reader for my book. The expert reader is exactly as the title says. It’s someone considered to be an expert on the person I’m writing about who checks the book to make sure the facts are accurate. Larson was asked to go through my book at a couple of different stages in production. Each time, she was helpful and encouraging.

She was also able to clear up a problem I was having with a photo said to be of Harriet and her first husband John Tubman. That photo has been widely circulated on the Internet, and to be honest, I wanted it to be a photo of the couple because it was perfect for my book. I don’t know what John Tubman looks like, but the woman in the photo certainly looks like she could be Harriet. Yet from what I had learned in my research my gut told me it was very unlikely that there was a photo of the couple in existence. Larson confirmed that my gut was right, and we did not use the photo.

Getting the facts right is hard and with each book I am reminded that I don’t do it alone. Like raising a child, “it takes a village” and I’m grateful for the team I work with at National Geographic and for expert readers like Kate Larson.

The Challenges of Writing About Living People

When I was signing on to write my latest book, Who Is Oprah Winfrey?, the editor asked if I preferred writing about people in the news or historical figures. I wasn’t being flip when I told her I didn’t have a preference. I really can’t say I enjoy one more than the other. I like doing both primarily because it gives me variety. The research for writing about a living person is much different than researching someone who lived maybe 100 years ago. So, I like to switch things up. However, if I’m being completely honest, there are a couple challenges in writing about living people.

One is that it’s hard to find a way to end those biographies because the subjects are still active in their careers and continuing to make headlines. That was certainly the case with writing about Oprah Winfrey, who I’m fairly certain will never retire and never stop trying new things.

The first time the ending problem came up for me was in 1995 when I was working on a young adult biography called Amy Tan Author of The Joy Luck Club. I was just finishing up, happy to be making my deadline, when I discovered that Tan was about to release a new novel. I had visions of my book being out of date before it was even released. Happily, my publisher extended the deadline giving me a couple of weeks to read Tan’s new novel, The Hundred Secret Senses, and write about it.

It all worked out, but I vowed then that I would never write about living people again. That didn’t exactly work out for me mainly because I was writing for a series called “People to Know.” Most of the books in that series were about living people.

Then I came up with what I thought was a clever solution to the ending problem. Neil Armstrong was still living when my biography about him was published, but he had retired as an astronaut. The book focused on his life up until his retirement. So, the ending was not a problem.

However, I soon learned that I couldn’t depend on people to stay retired. My biography about John Glenn focused primarily on his career as an astronaut. I was also able to include information about his work as a U.S. Senator from Ohio, and I was happy he had announced he was retiring from that position too. I thought my biography had a logical ending, but I was wrong.

That book was published in 1998, the same year Glenn decided to make another space flight. At 77, he became the oldest person to fly into space. I wasn’t celebrating because my book was outdated a few months after it was published.

The second risk in writing about living people, is that they sometimes make bad choices. I think I can say everything you need to know about that in two words – Lance Armstrong. For obvious reasons, my biography about him did not stay in print for long.

I don’t think that will be a problem with Oprah Winfrey. I feel confident she will continue to be a good role model for the children who read the book. But what about the ending? Did I find a satisfying way to close even though Oprah is still very active in her career? Well, you tell me. After you’ve read the book, of course!

Mother Teresa

January 15 was the official release date of Mother Teresa my new biography for National Geographic’s reader series. I call it the official release because some of you may have seen an earlier edition of the book published by Scholastic Inc. The cover and the binding of the Scholastic edition are different, but the text is the same.

I don’t know the details of how it came about that Scholastic released the book first. I just know that the publishers came to an agreement for Scholastic to print their edition and sell it only through their reading program for a year before National Geographic released it. Now the book is available to everyone, which for me has seemed like a long time coming.

One of my favorite parts of the books in National Geographic’s readers series is the spread called “In Her [His] Time.” I’ve often said that I wasn’t too interested in history until I started reading biographies. Putting a real person into a time in history and seeing what it was like for a person living in that time gave me a whole new perspective about history. With the “In Her Time” section, I can give kids a peak at what it was like when the person I’m writing about was young. But sometimes those pages are hard to research.

When I started work on Mother Teresa, I was concerned about how I would find information about her childhood. She grew up in the 1910s in the city of Skopje in what is now Macedonia. The political circumstances in that territory were constantly changing and the area had endured two World Wars. I wondered how much of their history had survived all that change.

Other biographies about Mother Teresa had some background information that gave readers a sense of what it was like when she was growing up. But I was looking for particular details such as what kind of toys children played with at the time. What kind of transportation did they use and how did they dress?

I wouldn’t have worried if I had just remembered how helpful people are when I’m researching a book. For Mother Teresa, that help came from the Museum of the City of Skopje and the Mother Teresa Memorial House in Skopje. I contacted both with very specific questions. What type of toys did children play with at that time and what games did they play? How did people get around in the city and for short distances outside of the city? I’m assuming people at that time were using the telegraph, but what about mail service?

I sent my list of six questions to both the museum and the Mother Teresa Memorial House. Then just so they would understand why I was asking what may have seemed like oddball questions, I told them a little about the “In Her Time” spread in the book.

Their replies were amazing! They answered all my questions in great detail and the museum sent me additional information about the city. It helped me visualize Mother Teresa, who was then Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, as a young girl in Skopje.

Sometimes writing can seem like a lonely business, but my research always reminds me that I’m not in this alone. Putting together a biography is a collaborative effort, and I’m grateful to the Museum of the City of Skopje and the Mother Teresa Memorial House for their help in telling Mother Teresa’s story.

The Upside of Failure

Walt DisneyOne thing I enjoy about writing biographies for children is exploring the way my subjects handle obstacles and failures. What I find especially interesting is how many times failure leads to something better. Walt Disney is an example.

Disney failed several times on his road to success. As a young man living in Kansas City, he started his own business called Laugh-O-Gram films. He made short films based on fairy tales changing them to make the films funny. Those cartoons were shown in theaters before the main feature. Disney worked hard, but he did not make enough money to stay afloat. He closed his business and packed everything he owned into one suitcase. With a train ticket and $40 in his pocket, he headed to California.

He hoped to find work as an actor there, but when no one hired him, he went back to drawing cartoons. He teamed up with his brother Roy to start a new business making cartoons. One day the distributor of his short films hired Disney to create a new character. Disney developed Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The new cartoons were a great success, so successful that the distributor got greedy. He decided he would make the Oswald cartoons himself. There was nothing Disney could do about it because the distributor owned the character. To make matters worse, the distributor convinced Disney’s cartoonists to leave Disney and work for him.

Disney had lost the character he created and his cartoonists, but he could not dwell on his loss. He had a studio to run, and the only way he could keep it going was to create a new character. That’s when he came up with the idea of a cheerful mouse with large ears. The rest, as they say, is history.

Another example is Oprah Winfrey. In 1977, she was failing as a reporter and co-anchor of the evening news at a television station in Baltimore. The problem was Oprah just wanting to be herself when she read the news. She sometimes changed the words to a story to make it sound like the way she talked. If she made a mistake, such as pronouncing a word wrong, she laughed. The station manager wanted her to be more serious in reading the news.

Oprah also showed her emotions on the air. One time when she had to interview a woman who had lost her children in a fire, Oprah cried. If a story made her angry, it showed. The station manager said she needed to be objective. Oprah was taken off the evening news and began doing short reports on the morning news. It was a stressful time and Oprah worried that she might lose her job. Things changed with the arrival of a new station manager. He started a morning talk show called People Are Talking and made Oprah the co-host. Oprah knew from the beginning that she had found her calling. “This is what I was born to do,” she said after the first show. “This is like breathing.” If she had not failed as a news anchor, The Oprah Winfrey Show may never have been born.

I could go on with other examples. The people I’ve written about have shown again and again that failure is not the end. It could very well be the first step towards something better. I hope the kids who read my books see that truth and remember it when they feel they have failed.

Five Things about Lin-Manuel Miranda

My biography, Lin-Manuel Miranda Award-Winning Musical Writer, was released this month. My initial interest in Miranda was because of his great success with the Broadway musical Hamilton. I was curious about Miranda and his writing. I wondered why he wrote a musical about our Founding Fathers and cast African American actors in the roles of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent, played the role of Alexander Hamilton. As I began my research, I quickly discovered that getting to know more about Miranda was a lot of fun. Here are five of my favorite tidbits from my research.

Miranda didn’t like piano lessons. He began taking lessons when he was six, but he did not stick with it. He didn’t like to practice. Turns out, piano lessons were not necessary because Miranda can play by ear. He can hear a song and then sit down and play it without seeing the music.

But he did like applause. Miranda performed in a piano recital when he was about seven. When he finished his song, the audience applauded. Miranda like that attention so much, that he played another song and then another. After his fourth song, the teacher nudged Miranda off the bench to give the other students a chance.

Miranda got his first acting role in sixth grade. He played rock star Conrad Birdie in the musical Bye Bye Birdie. All the girls had to pretend to faint when he walked on stage in his shiny gold jacket. That was heady stuff for a 12-year-old who was shorter than most of the girls he knew and pretty much off their radar.

Miranda writes and then rewrites, rewrites, and rewrites. He wrote his first play, In the Heights, when he was in college. Eight years later, it opened at 37 Arts Theatre in New York, and a little over a year later, it opened on Broadway. Getting a play he wrote in college ready for a New York stage took a lot of rewriting. By the time Miranda was finished, all that was left of the original musical was a few notes from the first song.

He wrote several songs for The Electric Company, a children’s show on PBS. One song featured a rap battle between a very negative apple and an optimist hot dog. Miranda appeared on the show as the hot dog, who countered the negative words spewed out by the apple with positive words. You can watch that video here.

As for Miranda’s casting decisions for Hamilton, he said he wanted people to feel that everyone is part of the United States even if they do not look like the Founding Fathers. Miranda has a lot to say about immigration, and that was another reason I wanted to write about him. I’m hoping my biography about Miranda plays at least a small part in getting kids to talk about immigration. They are important conversations to have, now more than ever.

After the First Draft

I finally finished the first draft. My sigh of relief as I typed that final paragraph could be heard across three states. The writing is in sorry shape, but that’s okay. I’m just happy to be moving on to the rewrite, the part I love.

One thing I’ll be working on is cutting. I need to delete about 1,000 words to get the manuscript down to the 8,000 word limit for the series. It could be worse, in fact, it has been. There are times when I’ve had to cut manuscripts by half. I don’t mind because what I end up with is a tighter, more focused piece.

As I wrote in my previous post, I’ve struggled with finding the focus of this book. The one-sentence summary of what is important about my subject has been elusive. The answer finally came to me when I was having lunch with a friend. We chatted about our current writing projects, and the conversation came around to the things I like about my subject. As I explained what I admire most about my subject, it came to me. I realized mid-sentence that I was actually talking about what needed to be the focus of the biography. Knowing the focus makes cutting easy because I can delete the parts that don’t support that main idea.

I’ll also be taking another look at problem paragraphs. Sometimes I work hard on a paragraph, but no matter what I do, it doesn’t sound right. I’ve learned there are a couple of reasons for that. Either the paragraph is in the wrong place, or it doesn’t belong in the book at all.

Rewriting also involves smoothing and polishing, finding just the right words to convey an idea. I need to think about energy too, using the active rather than the passive voice and choosing strong action verbs.

Finally, I need to lower the reading level a bit. That means dividing some longer sentences into shorter ones. I’ll also replace some difficult words with easier ones that have fewer syllables.

It’s a lot to think about, but I love rewriting because that’s when the book really takes shape. And that’s satisfying. As the George Peppard character on The A-Team used to say, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Wrestling with a First Draft

As I’m nearing the end of another first draft, I’m reminded of how messy they can be. “Don’t worry about first drafts,” experienced writers advise. “The most important thing is to just get something down on paper. Allow yourself to write crap.”

I follow that advice. Yet what always astonishes me is how hard it is to get that crap down on paper. One thing that helps me is to set daily word goals. I most often set a goal of 500 words a day. It’s a word count I can reach with minimal hair pulling, and many times I surpass it. After all, the hardest part is just getting myself to the computer. Knowing I can quit after 500 words makes the whole process seem doable.

Unfortunately, the last couple of weeks, I’ve had to set a much lower goal in order to lure myself to the computer. So I set a goal of 200 words a day. That only worked a few days and then I came to a complete stop. I soon realized why.

First, I don’t have a clear focus for the book. I need to be able to tell in a single sentence what is important about the subject of my book. Usually, I have that sentence clearly in mind before I start writing. But with this book, I’m on the last chapter of my first draft and I still don’t have a clue. I’ve had trouble making that decision because the subject has had so many accomplishments and she continues to achieve.

Second, I’m not sure of what I want to include in the final chapter. That indicates a problem with my research. Fortunately, I’ve come up with a plan to get back on track.

First, since this book is part of a series, I’ll read other books in the series. Then I’ll try to tell in one sentence what those books are about. It should give me a clearer idea of the focus for my book because reading what others have done is always a big help.

Second, I’ll go back to the research. Nine times out of ten, when I get “stuck” with my writing it’s an indication that I don’t have enough information. I need to dig deeper.

Finally, I’ll keep reminding myself to relax and just do the best I can on the first draft. After all, what follows is the rewrite, and that’s the part I love.

Four Tips for Using Quotes

Quotes add punch to biographies for children and that helps to hold the readers’ attention. However, simply inserting a quote here or there does not make the writing interesting. It’s important to know when to use quotes and how to make them fit into the flow of the writing. Here are 4 tips for using quotes effectively.

  1. Use quotes when the person you’re writing about says it better than you could in your own words.

That was something I learned by chance when I was working on my very first biography which was about Alice Walker. I wanted to describe the day in 1961 when Walker left her small town in Georgia to head off to college. She took a bus to Atlanta, where the college was located, and made the mistake of sitting too close to the front. A white woman complained to the driver who asked Alice to move to the back.

I worked and worked on that paragraph trying to find a way to show how Walker felt about that experience, but I only got more and more frustrated. I finally realized it was impossible for me to describe how she felt. It was better to let her say it in her own powerful words: “But even as I moved, in confusion and anger and tears. I knew he had not seen the last of me,” Walker wrote in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.

  1. Use quotes to show character.

In The Great and Only Barnum, Candace Fleming used a quote from P.T. Barnum to show his aversion to farm work as a child. “I always disliked work,” he noted. “Head-work I was excessively fond of. I was always ready to concoct fun, or lay plans for money-making, but hand-work was decidedly not in my line.” It’s easy to see how Barnum’s gift for thinking up ideas for fun and profit as a kid may have led to his future as a great showman.

  1. Use quotes to build or expand on an idea.

In an article about how U.S. presidents kept fit while they were in office, I wrote this paragraph about Truman. “Harry S. Truman was famous for his early morning walks. Reporters and photographers sometimes tagged along, but keeping up with him was not easy. Truman kept a brisk and exact pace.” That provided the basic information, but I decided to show how brisk and how exact by ending with this quote from Truman’s memoirs: “I walk two miles most every morning at a hundred and twenty-eight steps a minute,” he noted. The quote also showed a bit about his character.

  1. Keep quotes short.

Think of quotes as dialogue in a story. Readers lose focus if a character rambles on too long. So it’s best to interrupt the dialogue with action or another character’s comments. It’s the same with nonfiction. A good way to keep quotes short is to weave in background information and then end with a short quote. It’s what I did with the paragraph about Alice Walker heading off to college. A long description of that day in Walker’s own words would have taken away from what I felt was a strong quote. So I provided the background about her sitting too close to the front of the bus and the white woman complaining to the driver. Then I ended with Walker’s words.

Finding just the right quotes and weaving them into a manuscript is hard work, but it’s worth the effort. They can turn a dull manuscript into one that holds the readers’ attention.

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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