Friday, January 13, 2012

What It Takes To Be A Biographer


Heather kindly offered to let me chat today on the Cozy Chicks. I’m currently finishing a biography of Erle Stanley Gardner, which has consumed my life for nearly 3 years now. It’s nice to be able to write something else, even if it is related to Mr. Gardner still.
I’m finishing work on my third full-length biography and about to begin my fourth, and I’ve learned a few things about what you have to do in order to write a good biography. I thought I’d share a few lessons learned.
Perseverance
If a short story is a sprint and a novel is a marathon, then a typical biography is a race across America. A biography is 200+ pages of facts, each one which needs to be accumulated and synthesized. It’s not enough to just have those broad outlines sketches of the people in the subject’s life, you have to know each person and find out about each one of them as well. So parents, partners, spouses, children and more are all involved.
And dead ends abound! I’ve run into many promising leads, only to have them evaporate like a puddle on a summer’s day. Stories that went nowhere, people who did not want to be quoted on the record, and those who simply got their facts wrong.
It also means a lot of reading. I’m happy to do that, but 200 letters between the subject and the green grocer or financial statements with the banker can become a bit tedious. Still even in the smallest of places you can find tidbits. One of the best pieces of information on Erle Stanley Gardner was tucked away in a brown paper grocery bag at the library.
Details
I make a joke that I know it’s time to start writing when I begin to correct the correspondence I’m reading. Craig made a mistake about how much she’d made the previous year, and I knew it. Gardner said that he’d sent a copy of a particular book to Marlene Dietrich, and I knew better.
And the devil is definitely in the details. For some reason, marriages seem to take an inordinate amount of time in my books. You’d think they would be easy – were they or weren’t they, but they’re never black and white in my books. Was Craig married to this man, or just saying so? For “husband” number two, I had to finally assume that they weren’t married. I scoured courthouses in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas but couldn’t find anything to support a marriage, even though she called herself a wife.
Why did Gardner not divorce wife #1 for his secretary? Many answers have been posited through the years, but no one knows for sure. All of these things have to be answered and answered correctly.
Curiosity
I’ll admit that I’m nosy.  I can watch those silly gossip shows all night, if they had them. So it’s not bad for me to read other people’s letters and notes. There is a small twinge when I’m reading some poignant like the break-up letters between Erle Stanley Gardner and his wife, citing their reasons for separation? I highly doubt that 80 years ago, he expected anyone to ever read those and comment on them. Even more so, the letters where he complained vigorously about other mystery authors and their books, but all of it has to be read and commented on.
Do I ever draw the line at anything? I have. There are some items that I’ve merely alluded to, rather than write about in detail. I couldn’t see that it served any purpose other than to cause needless pain and suffering. Other than that, everything has a place in a good biography.
Jeff