Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Posts tagged ‘Research’

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.

A Writer’s Notebook

research photoI’m starting a new book, which is always exciting. Especially since the first step is the research, my favorite part. I think of the research as a mystery to be solved. I start with a few general sources to get the basic framework. Then I follow the clues with one leading to another.

This makes it sound like my research is very orderly, but that’s not the case. As I follow clues, I often end up flying off in several directions trying to research different parts of a book all at once. It’s my special form of procrastination. Researching so many ideas makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something, but the truth is that I’m not making any forward progress.

Fortunately, I’ve learned to rein myself in a bit thanks to a tip I got from James Cross Giblin at a writers’ conference where he was speaking. He said that he always kept a notebook nearby when he was researching. When he got an idea he wanted to pursue further, he jotted it down in the notebook as something to investigate later. It was a way to make sure he wouldn’t forget that thought, but in the meantime, he could focus on the idea at hand. So I began keeping a notebook for each book. It has helped make my research time more productive.

In addition to jotting down ideas to check out later, I make notes about possible sources. Often the author of one source refers to another reference that I want to check, but following that clue when I’m in the middle of a productive writing or researching cycle is not a good use of my time. So I add the source to my notebook and check it out later.

Finally, I use the notebook as a place to store whole paragraphs that I might use in the text. I don’t set out to write paragraphs, but sometimes passages come to me and I don’t want to lose them. So they go into the notebook. A bonus is that those pre-written paragraphs help when I’m struggling to write the first draft.

I still tend to fly off in several directions at once when I’m researching. The excitement of a new book is hard to control. But my notebook can usually get me back on course. It helps me focus on following each clue one at a time.

The Persistent Researcher

“The best biographies are those that peek into the heart and soul of their subject,” says Candace Fleming, who has written about people such as Benjamin Franklin, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Amelia Earhart. “They delve deep beneath the surface of ‘fact’ to find the real human story.

9780805083194[1]Of course, the key to finding that “story” is research, and sometimes the biographer needs to be persistent in tracking down details. My favorite example of a persistent researcher is Charles J. Shields, the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. Lee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird, was notoriously private and had not given any interviews since 1964. So Shields started his research knowing he would not have her help.

He followed Lee’s paper trail as far as it led, finding archived materials that included newspaper and magazine articles. Knowing that Lee had helped Truman Capote with his research for the book In Cold Blood, Shields went through Capote’s papers at the New York Public Library as well as the papers of Lee’s agent, Annie Laurie Williams.

He also set out to contact people who had known Lee. She had attended Huntingdon College for one year and then went on to the University of Alabama. Shields got their alumna directories and emailed about 200 people who had attended those schools in the mid-1940s when Lee was a student. He used the website to find people who had attended elementary and high school with Lee in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, and contacted them as well. Many of those people were not willing to talk to Shields, and in fact, Harper had asked friends and family members not to cooperate.

It was an interesting problem, but Shields did not get discouraged. “Actually, the obstacles I kept running into made me more determined to deliver a fair, accurate, and comprehensive account of her life,” he noted. The result of his hard work: 50-75 interviews by phone and in person with people who had known Harper Lee.

9781250012180[1]Shields was equally persistent when he wrote his biography And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life. He was able to interview Vonnegut, but finding his personal correspondence was tricky. “He told me he had lost all of his correspondence in a fire in his study,” Shields noted. So Shields tried a different angle. “Over the next three years, every time I spoke to one of his friends – and he had many – I asked whether they had copies of his letters.” His strategy worked and the letters began to arrive. “Sometimes, I received as many as 200 at a time,” Shields recalled.

Researching a biography is an interesting challenge that requires problem-solving abilities and creativity. It also requires persistence, never giving up until the author has found the “story” beneath the facts.


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