You’ve chosen the person. As you start collecting data, you should start seeing themes as well. What is the importance of this person’s life?
When I first began working on the biography of Berta and Elmer Hader, I wasn’t sure how to start. I knew their writings were considered to be excellent, were well reviewed and usually acquired by libraries. When I became a school librarian I realized I'd read some of their books as a child. I don’t remember any particular impact on my life, except the Hader books along with the Thornton Burgess books gave me a lifetime appreciation for the natural landscape. I suspect this theme may have also impacted many of today’s adults.
Susan Vreeland, author of historical fiction, spoke in Port Townsend, WA, in March. According to the online version of the Peninsula Daily News, (3/27/11) she said that “Historical novels are thematically based and biographies rarely are.” The theme of the Emily Carr story, The Forest Lover, was the artist’s affection for place. “It took me years to find this theme. If I had identified it earlier, I would have finished the book much earlier.”
Some of the most interesting biographies do have a theme, besides the chronological time line of a person’s life. Biographer T. J. Stiles in his Biographer’s Blog chooses his subjects, such as Jesse James and Cornelius Vanderbilt, because their lives do represent themes. After stumbling on the topics of cash being shipped around the U.S. and the rise of railroads, corporations and the modern financial system, he looked for a subject to represent these themes. He discovered Vanderbilt, known in his time as the Railroad King.
Bob Welch wrote American Nightingale, a biography of World War II Army nurse Frances Slanger, who landed on Utah Beach and slogged her way into Belgium with her medical unit. Her letter in Stars and Stripes celebrating the American GI was published after her death. In his book Pebble on the Water, Welch says “What proof did I have that Frances Slanger had made any difference in the world around her?...How had she touched those around her? How was the world different because of her? If I couldn’t answer those questions, I didn’t have a book.” Theme again. He also went on to comment: “Writers start their research with the presupposition that everything means something. Not that you can hope to answer every question that the evidence triggers. But you look for themes, patterns, tendencies, then connect the dots, taking into account not only what the information suggests but from whom it came.”
So, it seems that theme is just as important in biography as it is in fiction. Having a theme in mind is helpful. The downside is the tendency to ignore facts that don’t match the theme—which a true biography cannot do! Any answers to this dilemma?