Do you like your subject?

I have heard authors interviewed who have just completed a biography, as to whether they liked their subject. I have thought that an odd question, given that a good biography should be impartially based on facts – a retelling, as it were – of actual events. Liking, or not, should have no bearing on the subject or the telling of a great story.

So, having completed a biography where – thankfully – lots of great details came to light during research, I had to ask the same question of myself: Did I like my subject? Not at first, I had to admit, though he was intriguing, his family background fascinating, and his own travails were riveting. He did not initially appear to have much moral fibre, which led him into great difficulties. Of course, this, in itself, can be the basis of a story worth telling.

But tracking someone over the course of their lifetime gives you an greater understanding of their life, their interactions, and their development as a person. As their life unfolds, their experiences broaden, and their changing reactions to a variety of circumstances are revealed. And knowing a man as closely as it is possible to know him, after the fact, allows you to answer that question. Yes, I like him.

Rewarding Research…

Research is sometimes fun, mostly very hard work, but always rewarding. During the course of assembling the background for my first biography, I was thankful that small town newspapers actually existed, and stalwart reporters actually reported. The minutiae of details that made it into print in the late 1800s and early 1900s is staggering, when seen through today’s eyes. We may have Twitter, texting, email and Instagram, but they are essentially ephemeral mediums. Here right now, and then replaced with something even newer.

Not so with old newspapers. Within their pages was the only means for people to keep in touch with the events in their town. Who was staying at the local hotel? Who had just left town to visit a sick relative? What colour was their cat? (I’m not kidding…)

Like today, people were intensely curious about other people’s lives. With no other alternative to keep up with their neighbours, this marvellous recording of lives exposed the ebb and flow of society. Contained within yellowing sheets of acidic paper is a great richness of information, just waiting to be mined.