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.


Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, great information on writing a biography and for other genres. I had to research the 16th century carefully when I wrote my middle-grade fantasy set in China. It's often important to be careful with facts, even in fiction.

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks, Karen. That's so true about being careful with facts no matter what we write! I have beehives in my present work and have asked professional beekeepers to review the information that I researched for accuracy. Also, I've asked them to write a letter stating that the facts are accurate to include with my book proposal when I start shopping my book around.

Kathleen Moulton said...

Linda, this was great information. Thanks for the reminders about facts.

Also, this helps people know they can write about anything - just need to research.

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks, Kathleen. Yes, research can only go so far. I think it's best to have an expert review it before submitting.

Magdalena Ball said...

It's certainly a daunting task taking on any biography and these are great tips. Thanks!

Linda Wilson said...

Yes Maggie, thanks! If you haven't already read it, I think you would enjoy Charles and Emma. It's a terrific book.

Anne Duguid Knol said...

Started planning my first non-fiction book now and found this very helpful. Obviously there are biographers out there who are not as ethical as others and cramming together so-called "facts" from internet-resourced information is risky.

Linda Wilson said...

I'm glad it was helpful. Your post made me think about what happened to one of my favorite authors, Doris Kearns Goodwin regarding her book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. She had been a regular on PBS (if I remember correctly) but was asked to leave because she had been accused of plagiarism. Here's a quote about it that I've copied and pasted from "On January 22 the Boston Globe published the first newspaper story about Goodwin, who lives in the Boston area. The Globe reported for the first time that Goodwin had paid Lynne McTaggart an undisclosed amount in their settlement. Goodwin told the paper she's "absolutely not" a plagiarist. She said there were extensive footnotes" in The Fitzgeralds. She said that her mistake was not properly marking quotations in her 900 pages of hand-written notes. She explained that this was the "first big work of history I have ever done." The Globe story pointed out that in 1976--eleven years before--she had published Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. Ms. Kearns added that at the time she criticized Joe McGinniss she was unaware she had borrowed quotes without attribution." It just goes to show you how careful we must be with facts. When my family lived in Westford, Mass, we used to have breakfast at The Concord Inn in Concord, Mass, and frequently saw Ms. Goodwin breakfasting there.

Active vs. Passive Writing: Energize Your Prose!

 by Suzanne Lieurance Ever feel like your stories and articles are a bit slow-paced and wordy?   If so, that’s probably because you’re using...