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Hiya Kossacks!

So here is the stone-skinny; I am thinking about writing a biography about my Dad. I think (ya'll are welcome to tell me I am wrong) that he had an interesting life story. He was born in a Lego Holler in West Virginia, the 11th child of a coal miner and his wife. He was born in a house with no running water or electricity.

He was the first in his family to go to college, he managed to outsmart himself and wound up in the army, became a lawyer, ran for Congress, was part of the team of lawyers that sued and won the right for girls to play Little League, was City Attorney, has the Trial Lawyer of the Year award in Michigan named after him, loved to sue insurance companies and generally spent his life fighting for the little guy.

Your basic rags to upper-middle class story.

What I am looking for help on is any resources folks might be able to point me to in terms of formatting and researching a biography. I never read them myself, so I am kind of all-at-sea when it comes to such things.

I want to be sure that I know and can prove the differences between the true stories about Dad and the apocryphal ones. Like Dad always claimed that by the time he was 11 he had read all the books in the local library. I find that hard to believe, but to be sure I'd have to know how big it was. If it was a couple of hundred books, well Dad read really quickly, so it might be closer to true (though I still doubt it).

So any help you might give is greatly appreciated. By way of payment in advance I'll share the army story with you.

Back in 1959 Dad was in just about to start his Junior year at Eastern Michigan University. Going to college was a really expensive proposition for him so he went after every scholarship he could, including ROTC.

Unfortunately ROTC only gave you two years of not very much money, but you had to make a four year commitment. That meant drilling and wearing his uniform around, including at work sometimes.

One night he was having some beers with a friend. He was complaining about this state of affairs when the friend had a brilliant (they thought) idea.

"Ron, didn't you have an operation on your eye when you were a kid?"

"I sure did, thank the Lions Club"

"Well, there is your ticket! You just go on down to the recruiting office in Detroit and volunteer. They'll take one look at you eye and declare you 4-F and you are out"

Dad loved this idea. So the next day, after buying his books for the fall semester he hopped in his beat up old car and drove to Detroit. He was going through the induction process when he came to the eye exam. The corps man had him read an eye chart then said "Go over to that table and they will test your hearing.

Dad, was really take aback by this and said "Wait! I had an operation on my right eye as a child"

The corps man took out an instrument and looked at his right eye. He said "So you did. Very nice work.

Then he took out a piece of paper and wrote on it; Teach this man to shoot from the left. He paper clipped it to the file and sent Dad to have his hearing tested. He never did make it back to his car, he had to call his brothers to come and get it from where it was parked. 10 weeks later he was in Korea.

That is just one of the tons of stories that would make up a book about Dad. Any help anyone has is greatly appreciated. The floor is yours.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tips? Flames? (16+ / 0-)

    Pleas for me to give up any thoughts of becoming a biographer before I damage anyone who reads it?

    •  writing biography (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cotterperson, FarWestGirl

      I'm currently reading Rabbit Creek Country, which is based on interviews, newpaper accounts, diaries, and such. The primary author is an English professor and offers several ideas about writing the kind of story in the book.  It deals with 3 people who built cattle operations in northern Colorado at the turn of the last century, and includes occasional speculation by the author about unverifiable matters. You might enjoy reading it, and might get some techniques.

  •  I'm not an avid biography reader either, but (8+ / 0-)

    as a general reader I do have some suggestions:

    I want to be sure that I know and can prove the differences between the true stories about Dad and the apocryphal ones.
    Why?  In some cases the apocryphal ones are how we construct our identity, which is more important to your dad's story than the specific number of books in the library.  I still think it's good to do the research (you may be surprised by what you find there), but don't neglect the way the apocryphal stuff is every bit as important to your dad's story as the verifiable stuff.

    Some things you will never be able to prove, one way or another.  This is a frustration, but don't think of it as a roadblock: let it inform the way you write the story.  

    Another thing to keep in mind is that you don't have to be exhaustive in the retelling.  If your dad was a well-known historical figure it might be important to include every scrap of marginalia you find, because future researchers may need it, too.  Otherwise you're trying to sell general readers on what made him special, so you can stick more closely to those aspects of his life you think will best convey what an exceptional person he was.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 12:10:30 PM PST

  •  Biography or fiction... just tell a story (6+ / 0-)

    The reader just wants to fall in love with a story, so be a storyteller.

    I would suggest, since you don't read biographies, that you at least read a couple before you start. I would go with David McCullough - one of the best there is.

  •  I'm pretty much with pico. (7+ / 0-)

    Facts can be interesting, and memory is notoriously fallible. If he and you are interested, an oral history would allow him to tell the meaning of those facts and memories, how he constructed who he is. The stories he chooses to tell are probably of much more value than a collection of facts. They can give him a chance to establish integrity and wisdom in the lingo  of developmental psychologist Erik Erikson. The link is a very brief overview to give an idea what I mean better than I can ;)

    Everyone who contributed to the oral histories I did for some graduate research seemed to enjoy it. The one I finally finished and self-published was well received by the interviewee and the local community. People were eager to participate -- even to the point of some old men seeking me out. Weird, yes, but also very telling about its importance to them.

    A bit more about oral history from wikipedia:

    Oral historians generally prefer to ask open-ended questions and avoid leading questions that encourage people to say what they think the interviewer wants them to say. Some interviews are “life reviews”, conducted with people at the end of their careers.
    That's about all I know, but I will add it was a joy all-around ;) Good luck to you, however you choose to do it.

    "Let each unique song be sung and the spell of differentiation be broken" - Winter Rabbit

    by cotterperson on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 12:39:29 PM PST

  •  Well, I read through a library by 12 (4+ / 0-)

    Ok, so it was a very small library :)

  •  Research (5+ / 0-)

    I've been researching my grandfather who was a great man, at least to me, and so have been reading the newspapers of 1917 in NYC where and when he was active.  One of the stories in his notes to an autobiography concerns  a speech he gave in Philadelphia.  There are two versions in his notes, both different, and he mentions that his speech was published in one of the papers of the day.  So I started hunting it down.  [This research earned me a three month pass to the Harvard University libraries, a much coveted possession that I intend to make full use of.]

    Turns out the version in the newspaper is different from the recollections of my grandfather.  In fact, there are two accounts, one on the day of the speech and another note on the day the speech was published.  

    Both the newspaper version and my grandfather's version could be true but it doesn't really matter to me.  The confusion around the "facts" makes things interesting.

    If your father is alive, ask him about the past, record his voice so that you have something for the family and to get the rhythms of his speech right.  If you want to nail down the "facts," do further research.  Contact, if possible, the town in the holler and find out how many books there were in the library and such.  That will be another adventure.

    Good luck and good on you for caring so much about your father and history.

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

    by gmoke on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 12:42:58 PM PST

  •  What's your goal? (5+ / 0-)

    A book to share with family, as an homage? Publication? Self-publication?

    "Gussie, a glutton for punishment, stared at himself in the mirror."

    by GussieFN on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 12:59:10 PM PST

    •  Ideallly publication. I know, high goal (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      4Freedom, GussieFN, cotterperson

      but self publish if I can't achieve that. I do know that sometimes it goes self, then it gets picked up.

      •  Well, in terms of publication, (0+ / 0-)

        this strikes me as a bit of a long shot, even for publishing. Biographies of decent, not-too-dysfunctional, non-celebrities aren't easy sales, unless there's some marketable hook. But that said, beautiful writing is beautiful writing. If you write anything well enough, it'll sell.

        I wonder if it's possible to wrap his story in your story, somehow, for a sort of trans-generational memoir. Memoir, I know, is still selling fairly well. But unless you're able to really amp up the dysfunction, that's tough, too. (Same caveat about beautiful writing applies ...)

        "Gussie, a glutton for punishment, stared at himself in the mirror."

        by GussieFN on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 02:40:48 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  There are a lot of new venues for'self publishing' (0+ / 0-)

        these days. Amazon is only one of them. fast is another you might want to look into.

        Information is abundant, wisdom is scarce. The Druid

        by FarWestGirl on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 08:47:12 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Some suggestions (2+ / 0-)

    1. Read Doris Kearns Goodwin's Wait til Next Year. It's memoir, but she didn't just rely on memory, she went back and verified everything.
    2. Public library reference librarians are your bestest friends. If your Dad really did read everything in a library, the library should be able to verify that -- someone would remember that, or they'd have a record for some award they gave him.
    3. Decide whether you're writing his biography (which to get published has to be more than just one out of 100 million stories), or a memoir about your search for him. Obama's is one of those. The question you need to answer is: Why does it matter, to anyone other than his immediate family? What's surprising, unusual, memorable? Remember that conflict and failure are usually more interesting than success, and moralizing is best done in very small doses -- show not tell.
    4. Ask around the family. Letters home from Korea? a clippings file? photographs? All sorts of things turn up.

  •  let me think on it, and i will get back to you.nt (0+ / 0-)


    by doesnotworkorplaywellwithothers on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 03:09:59 PM PST

  •  Hate to say it but the Army story sounds (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    apocryphal. Wasn't sure if he got in ROTC, but if he did, he would have had a physical before he joined. If he was in ROTC, he couldn't just opt out.

    We had a draft in 1959. Before your draft status was determined, you had a physical. That's where he would have gotten a 4F. That is a draft status.

    If he was in college, I think there was a student deferment in 1959. There certainly was one later.

    Lastly if he were inducted he couldn't be in Korea 10 weeks later. Putting aside processing and transportation times, basic training was 8 weeks followed by at least another 8 weeks of Advanced Infantry Training.

    Don't have any thoughts on writing a biography, short of reading a bunch of them, or taking a class at your community college. But maybe your stories of him would make a good piece of fiction, inspired by his life.

    Further, affiant sayeth not.

    by Gary Norton on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 03:36:56 PM PST

  •  Another thought (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    You might want to find yourself a co-writer. Someone who has established themselves as a biographical writer (not necessarily someone who is published) who can help provide an emotional distance that you seem to be looking for.

    Best of luck.

  •  Once you have a rough-rough draft done, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    FarWestGirl, joe wobblie

    see if there are writer's groups locally, or even a college writing workshop that might take you in--even if the workshop  is technically for fiction and poetry, speak with the instructor: for much of a biography, a story is a story!
    And there are specialized courses that focus on biography as well. You will never regret getting feedback from specialized writers, even if you decide to ignore most of it.

    The labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce. Clayton Act, Section 6.

    by Ignacio Magaloni on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 08:32:01 PM PST

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