Deborah Heiligman's Casual Scream
Deborah Heiligman was scared. She wanted to write about Charles Darwin but she had a lot of questions. She wondered, Who am I to write about Charlies Darwin? How can I find my way? Where can I find the courage? Hasn't enough been written about Darwin, his voyage on the HMS Beagle and his book The Origin of Species?
Have Faith in your Process
These are questions Deb first asks herself before taking on any subject. First and foremost is that she needs to connect with the topic. How? She knows it's right when she becomes completely and utterly obsessed by it. The story needs to be an important one, one that needs to be told. Then she has to make sure she is the right person to write it. The story must have a beginning, middle and end. Perhaps most important is to check and make sure there are enough primary sources and that the information is available. Deb learned this the hard way. She spent many months researching a potential biographic subject before she realized that a story couldn't be put together due to a lack of information.
Tricks of the Trade
Yes, use the "tricks" of fiction, Deb says, character, plot, story arc, etc--BUT nothing is made up. You have to know he leaned against the gas lamp. You can't say it unless you know it. Regarding contemporaneous facts and descriptions--those that exist, occur, or originate during the same time period--that's a judgment call. Such as when you say he walked over the horse poop in London. That's okay because everybody had to do it. Again, bottom line is that you can't make anything up. Biographer Beware: A pitfall to keep in mind is possible bias of the person(s) who created the primary sources.
Deb's take-away: Remember, everything is slanted. The choice you make gives you your angle. Immerse yourself in everything about the time. I read Austen because Charles and Emma both loved Austen. My take-away: I found that what I learned from Deb can be applied to my work, both in fiction and nonfiction. Before beginning a project I immerse myself in studying publisher's guidelines, searching for what agents, editors and publishers are looking for, and making sure I have access to photos before beginning a nonfiction project.
Source: Deborah Heiligman is the award-winning author of the biography, Charles and Emma: Darwins' Leap of Faith. I heard her speak at a Highlights Foundation workshop in Honesdale, PA last October.
If you would like to read past posts in this series, please visit:
Part One: Two Ways to Hook and Keep Your Reader
Part Two: Nouns Need to be Concrete and Appear More than Once
Part Three: Tent Pole Structure
Part Four: Leonard Marcus: Maurice Sendak, Storyteller and Artist
Part Five: Leonard Marcus: Let the Wild Rumpus Start
Part Six: Behind the Scenes with Deborah Heiligman
Biography of Deborah Heiligman
For August, Part Eight: On the Same Page with Betsy Bird
Grand Finale in September: Concluding Thoughts with Patti Lee Gauch
A list of the presenters' favorite books
Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 40 articles for children and adults, six short stories for children, and is in the final editing stages of her first book, a mystery story for 7-9 year olds. Publishing credits include seven biosketches for the library journal, Biography Today, which include Troy Aikman, Stephen King, and William Shatner; Pockets; Hopscotch; and true stories told to her by police officers about children in distress receiving teddy bears, which she fictionalized for her column, "Teddy Bear Corner," for the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office Crime Prevention Newsletter, Dayton, Ohio. Follow Linda on Facebook.