Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Posts tagged ‘Mahalia Jackson’

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.

Give Readers Something New

This week, I sent my editor at National Geographic a manuscript for another leveled reader. I always think I’ll give myself a few days off after meeting a big deadline, but that never happens. The pull of starting something new is too strong, especially knowing that the first step will be the research. For me, that’s one of the best parts of writing nonfiction and I can’t wait to get started.

JimIn 1991, before I had written my first book, I attended a week-long writers’ workshop in Bloomington, Illinois. I chose that workshop because one of the instructors was James Cross Giblin. He was a long time editor at Clarion and had also begun writing nonfiction books including biographies. With his experience as both an editor and as an award-winning writer, I knew I could learn a lot from him. I wasn’t disappointed.

One thing he said at that workshop really stuck with me. He said that he always tried to give readers something new. His research was not done until he had found information that had not been included in other books about a subject. It’s advice I try to follow.

Sometimes, that’s easy. When I wrote my biography about George Washington Carver I had access to so much primary source material that finding new details was not hard at all. But my job became much more difficult when I wrote about Oprah Winfrey.

That book was part of a series for third and fourth graders about people who had overcome great odds in achieving success and then gave back. I didn’t include Oprah in my original proposal, but my publisher wanted her in the series. I agreed that she certainly belonged in such a series, but there had been so many books about her already. I worried about how I would ever find anything new. The answer came when I focused on the theme of the series and began looking for stories to show how she had helped others. That was when I found an anecdote showing that she had already begun helping others when she was in elementary school. As a third grader, she heard about starving children in Costa Rica. She responded by collecting money on the playground for them.

Sometimes finding new information means getting creative with the research. I was discouraged with progress on my biography about Mahalia Jackson because I wasn’t finding anything new. I told myself that my book was different because while others focused on her gospel singing, I was including information about her fight for civil rights. Even so, I still didn’t feel like I was bringing something new to the table.

Then I came up with the idea of looking at her through the eyes of others. I knew she had been friends with author Studs Terkel, so I decided to research him. I learned that he had interviewed her a couple of times, and I located those interviews. They gave me some great quotes that had not been included in other biographies about Mahalia, and it made me feel that I had done my job.

It’s been more than 20 years since I attended the conference in Bloomington where James Cross Giblin talked about giving readers something new. But it’s advice I still think about every time I research a biography. Trying to bring something new to the table is a challenge, and I’m not sure I’m always successful. But it definitely makes the research interesting, and I hope the extra effort shows in the final result.

What about you? What advice have you been given that is still guiding your work or your personal life even many years later?

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