Writing biographies is a great way to summarise our discoveries about our ancestors and honour their lives. By uncovering people’s experiences and connecting them to global events, we create relationships we wouldn’t have expected.
Start with the Basics
Even if we think there’s very little we know about someone, all those small anecdotes and snippets of information we’ve been collecting (consciously or not) will eventually align and give origin to a consistent chronicle of someone’s existence on earth.
Biographies are detailed third person accounts of another person’s life story, and as such they include all sorts of basic information about their life, such as their place of birth, education, and interests. Biographies are more than fact and figures. Relationships with family members and major events in the person’s childhood and how those influenced their upbringing are great examples of what constitutes a rich biography. But where to begin?
The first thing you should do is to organise your research. One way to do this is to compile your primary and secondary sources.
If you’re writing the biography of a person who is alive, they may provide significant details about their own story that can help you write about them. A good first step is, then, to reach out to your relative and ask them questions about their life. Events and dates are important for context, but try to delve into what makes us human: our moments of adversity, the major turning points in our lives, and the feelings that always come attached to memories.
Primary sources are firsthand accounts of a person’s life, and they are usually the most reliable sources.
If your relative is alive and you can reach them – I suggest you don’t waste a second to do so. Nothing will compare to someone telling you their own story, but the words of those that knew the person are also invaluable. My mother told me several stories about my grandmother, and so did my cousin who had lived with her for a few years. When I began writing my grandma’s biography she was still alive, but didn’t remember most things.
If you can reach out to your relative directly, ask them also if they have any documents that might help you in your research. These could be diaries, memoirs, emails or letters. With some luck, you might encounter objects that saved those bits of history that memory had already erased.
Secondary sources usually include things like magazines, newspapers and, if we’re talking about an ancestor’s biography, the sort of documentation genealogists focus on: Birth, baptism, marriage and death certificates, probate records, immigration records such as boat registries, and many others.
These sources are perfect to pinpoint events and keep track of how things changed in a person’s life. With some luck, you will access to not just dates but also the addresses of places where the person lived.
Secondary sources will also include historical events that were taking place while the person was alive (or before, if they had an influence).
While secondary sources can tell you what events had happened to and around a person, primary sources can tell you how they felt about them, and how they reacted to them. Also, an awareness of the context can give you good clues about how those connect and provide good literary tools.
Once you have organised your sources, a good second step is to create a timeline. The timeline should structure the main points of a person’s life in chronological order, as well as connect them to what was happening in the area, region and country.
Knowing the order of key events before you start writing can save you time and effort, and give you a nice broad overview of your subject. They can also provide excellent devices to explore the impact of global events in a person’s life and fill-in gaps if you can’t find too much information about someone.
For example, my great-grandmother became a widow in 1929. She inherited two large shops with several employees and clients. Unfortunately, the crisis was right around the corner. Her selling of the shops and most of the land can probably be explained by the historical context: Not only was she alone, but the economy had crashed. This is a deduction based on the following three pieces of information: The date of death of my great-grandfather, my mother telling me that she had had to sell the shops, and my awareness of the 1930 crisis.
Writing the Biography
It’s said that the most important sentence in a book is the fist one. When you’re ready to start writing your biography, it’s important to ask yourself: What do you want to express the most about this person?
The opening line, a sort of thesis about the person, should be the declaration that the rest of the biography will support.
I personally like to start my biographies with what I call a foundational trait. My grandma Delcia was an incredibly sweet woman. During her life, shje lost her father, her husband and her. Every night she prayed a rosary, because she was convinced she was going to meet them again. Those are the first things I wanted to mention about her, because they had marked her childhood, adulthood and elderly years.
It's Okay to be Subjective
Biographies are rarely just a collection of facts. It’s okay to share your own feelings and thoughts about your ancestors, they are after all part of your family and part of your own history.
Some actions people take affect the world around them, others leave an imprint on our own tree. Both happy and sad events leave a mark that sometimes lives through generations, and I feel they should be documented with honesty.
We are, after all, literally made of those that came before us.