You have a story to tell. If it’s an autobiography, it’s not necessarily interesting just because it happened to you. To get your readers to buy, read and enjoy your book you’ve got to give them a reason to care. If it’s a biography, it has been a couple of centuries since you could start with the day your subject was born and proceed from there. If it’s historical, how do you interweave your individual’s life with the major events of the day? Before you write a line, it’s important to dig deep. How does your subject experience an era, an extraordinary achievement or a basic human emotion?
There are many reasons for writing down family stories. Your immediate family and their descendants will want to know what has gone before, especially any funny experiences, honors or life achievements you wish to pass on. Or perhaps a dear friend and war hero has asked you to write his story, or you have fallen heir to an invaluable trove of letters from historic times. But why should anyone beyond the immediate family care? Can you make it more universal, by depicting a moral dilemma the person faced, a struggle against societal forces during a crucial time in history, settings and conditions which they helped to change during their lifetime? How have great biographers like Tim Russert (Big Russ and Me), St. Louis-born Marguerite Johnson, known as Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). and John F. Kennedy (Profiles in Courage) managed to universalize their life stories to give the larger population a stake in their tales and reasons to read and learn from them?
If you’ve got a great story based on your own life, a fascinating character, or several individuals you’ve come to know well, what are your options for telling it? Which form would be better—a first-person memoir, a straight non-fiction biographical account, a creative dramatization of real-life events, or a historical novel with totally fictionalized characters? There are compelling reasons for choosing each one of these genres for your story.
Much biography today is written as creative nonfiction, also called narrative nonfiction or, as Sean Penn has tagged it, “immersive journalism.” Using this technique, historical characters can be treated fictionally. You can create scenes with setting, mood and characters. For example, I could bring potentially boring war and radio history material to life through my characters’ own personal experiences with it. My rule is to create scenes you know happened, but which were never written down. In the case of persons still living, you can either corroborate the quoted dialog with them, or refer to what he or she said by avoiding direct quotations. You’ll be communicating truth, but it is not necessarily documented fact. While writing my first book I remembered times when I had met Mike Wallace, who was still living at the time of writing. About then, I happened to meet Garrison Keillor when he was in town lecturing. I asked him whether I could include scenes I recalled when Mike was visiting our family. He told me,. “Yes. You have the right to memories of your own life. If you describe interactions with famous persons in a respectful manner, without slander or personal attacks, you are entitled to use them in your memoirs.”
Examples: Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, a World War II story. When an American flight crew survives ocean crash of their B-29 bomber, they endure Japanese captivity. Her first book, Seabiscuit, recreated scenes which must have happened but which more properly represented truth than documented facts, in developing the character of a skeptical and obnoxious sportscaster.
A first-person memoir, as seen through the eyes of your subject, however, can be even more vivid. Since I had my mother’s own well-polished stories, she communicated her own favorite expressions, dialogue and wit. Once she set the tone, I was able, in true creative nonfiction fashion, to continue her voice into the newly written parts of the story, which she never had the chance to tell. Here’s an example, from the opening page of book, which I wrote in her voice, concluding with a line she wrote in one of her “Leave It to the Girls,” wartime newspaper columns:
When Ben went off to war, I was left with everything else: running the household, juggling the budget and maintaining the car. So it fell to me to figure out how to do all this on Ben’s hundred-dollar-a-month allotment check, plus whatever else he could scrape together and send home from working in off-duty hours and winning at craps. It was obvious I had to go to work. But, with all these new duties and two small children under my wing, what could I do? There was a labor shortage. Sure. But was it so bad that some desperate employer would pay handsomely for two hours of a frazzled female’s time after a hard day? Shall we say, fifty dollars a week?
She was writing from the heart, voicing wartime wives’ deepest concerns and giving them a reason to care.
Would this be better as fiction?
There are many stories in a writer’s experience which are so edgy, so personal and so potentially damaging to persons still living, they cannot be told without crashing and burning the author’s fragile aircraft with him in it. And yet, because they are so poignant, so outrageous or so important, they cry out to be told. In many such cases the vehicle must be fiction. You change the names, make the characters—as suggested by my author friend Elaine Viets—thin if they really are fat, Chinese if they are really American and change the names to protect the guilty. Then mix up the events in time and place, add the personality traits of other people, and stir well. When you do this, people almost never recognize themselves. But really, who says this stuff is “made up?” Authors put their heart and soul into these tales and call them fiction. While they are not factual, they are very real to the reader. And yes, this is how a great novel is born.
Historical fiction, in fact, is so popular it has branched off into various genres, including military, mystery and romance. Elliott Roosevelt, son of President Franklin D. and Eleanor, wrote a series about his mother as a detective, an early version of television’s cozy Murder She Wrote series, featuring Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher.
Before she died, Mom gave me a cardboard carton containing all the letters Dad had sent home from the Pacific war. My parents were both writers, and during their separation of a year-and-a half, they wrote each other almost every day, carrying on an almost casual conversation across 8,000 miles, as a substitute for their daily review of the day’s happenings and world events back home over their evening cocktail. Since Mom preserved Dad’s letters in their original postmarked envelopes. I could locate his whereabouts precisely on any day during the Pacific war.
Research into World War II was the next necessary element in placing Dad’s role in the war into its historical context. I read a dozen books about World War II, including several personal histories of the war in the Pacific. They included such tales as Coral and Brass, the autobiography of General Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, the stubborn founding commandant of the U. S. Marine Corps, a newly minted branch of the Navy; an Atlas of the Pacific War, with maps showing the scope of key naval battles, and Tales of the South Pacific, by James A. Michener, which inspired Rodgers and Hammerstein’s postwar hit musical. With this knowledge, I could place Dad’s activities and his comments on events in the context of historical events, such as the day Roosevelt died, the battle of Iwo Jima and the Japanese surrender.
In that last event, Dad made history! From his post at Radio Station WXLI on Guam, he scooped news that Japan was forwarding a message through diplomatic channels, accepting Truman’s demands for unconditional surrender. It was picked up by Armed Forces Radio in San Francisco and relayed to NBC, CBS the Mutual Broadcasting System and the world.
Example: Radio: One Woman’s Family in War and Pieces
A few years ago, when I was trying to finish Radio, Catherine Rankovic, my editor, told me I needed more details about my mother’s childhood and early life. This time I prevailed upon my sister Linda to search in her overstuffed garage, which holds the contents of three inherited households but has no room for cars. She produced a couple of cartons which contained a treasure trove of Mom’s writings, and a scrapbook she kept, like the true press agent she was, of her father’s many newspaper clippings. These documented important milestones in his successful construction career—completion of Chicago’s three-level Wacker Drive in 1927, the day he won the bid to construct the State Street Subway, through a very clever strategy which would enable him to save money on the job and complete it in less time, and articles about his growing success in the industry. Also included in this collection were a short story called “Indian Gift, probably written in Thornton Wilder’s creative writing class at the University of Chicago. I also found a monograph she wrote, the first of many humorous memoirs which were to make up her autobiography, this one entitled. “Why Is Alice’s Hair Always Hanging in Her Eyes?” I also discovered five newspaper articles she wrote for a proposed newspaper column about the plight of women in wartime. She shared both her remodeling of our ancient Victorian house and how the experience engendered a new mutual respect between contractor father and jo boosdaughter, in a story called, “We Bought a Crooked House.” She wrote a script, “This Your Life, Ben Green,” for Dad’s surprise 48th birthday party. It seemed she really did have a book in her, and it was laugh-out-loud funny! But she never did finish it—it seems life always got in the way. I knew what I had to do. So I finished her story and filled in the rest of her poignant autobiography. After all, it spanned the Great Depression, the Golden Years of Radio and the postwar housing shortage—all during an era when women got the vote and learned to assert themselves in their hundred-year unfinished struggle for gender equality under the law and throughout society. That’s how I placed her autobiography in the context of history and gave readers a reason to care!
A technique I’ve found helpful in recreating scenes from my subjects’ past is to look at historical photographs and family pictures of the locations of remembered events and the people I was portraying. I looked up the train Dad took to boot camp, The Californian, and learned it departed from LaSalle Street Station. I searched on the internet for a photo of that station’s main waiting room, and memories flooded back from the night my father went off to war, a pivotal event in my four-year-old life.
Arched windows interrupted the vaulted ceiling. A sign for the “Nickel Plate Road,” the nickname for the New York Chicago and St. Louis railroad company, adorned one wall in cutout shiny silver letters. I remembered puzzling over the meaning of those three familiar words as used in the sign, although my mother, who held my baby sister in one arm as she dragged me with the other, was too busy to answer my questions. She raced to keep up with my father, who rushed to catch his train in the crowded terminal. A photograph of the head house with gates to the train shed recalled other memories. A Fred Harvey lunch counter and magazine stands reminded me of people darting back and forth to meet arriving or departing trains. The next moment we found the gate where Daddy’s train would leave. Here we hugged as a family as he went off to war, perhaps for the last time. This became the opening scene of Ben’s War with the U. S. Marines.
Family pictures can also recall key moments in family members’ lives. My parents’ only photo from their wedding 1936, a well kept secret, was perhaps taken by a friend to commemorate the day. They eloped to escape the disapproval of both Mom’s parents: Mom’s heavy-handed father, who guarded his daughters in an latter-day ivory tower. Her uncomprehending mother was not much better. She failed to understand her children once they passed the age of puberty. An official Armed Forces Radio shot of Dad proudly pointing out Japan on a map, taken shortly after Japan’s surrender, celebrated their news reporting scoop. Since this shot commemorated this triumph, which was every newsman’s dream, it fittingly belonged on the book’s cover.
Since these photos were so important to the stories, I decided to illustrate both biographies with family photos and sketches sent home by Dad in his letters. He drew many fountain pen sketches to show my sister and me. We couldn’t read yet, so he illustrated what he was doing in his day-to-day military life. In layout of the book’s interior, I chose to skip the usual separate sections with all the images grouped and printed on slick paper. With little sacrifice in quality, I placed each black and white photograph and line drawings on the page where it occurs in the text. This enhanced the flow of the story and helped bring the narrative to life. This feature caused me difficulty in creating the e-book, but that’s another story, which I’ll discuss later.
But why should anyone care about my family? Dad was not a combat journalist like Ernie Pyle, risking his life to bring us the news in both Pacific and the European campaigns. Nor was he a combat ace flyer like Col. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, a Marine flyer credited with the destruction of twenty-eight Japanese aircraft, who was captured by the Japanese,eventually released and ultimately awarded the Medal of Honor. Compared to them, Dad wasn’t exactly headline material.
My mother Alice, likewise, was a good cook, and like so many women in that time, a resourceful home economist. But she was no Julia Child, a World War II nurse who wrote the first cookbook on French cuisine for Americans I doubt that Mom will be portrayed by a great contemporary actress like Julia Roberts in a feature film. But she was one of nineteen million home front heroes, giving readers a strong reason to care,
No, like so many brave Americans from that heroic era, my parents were just ordinary people. In this spirit, however, Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., Commander of the Pacific fleet, said it best: “There aren’t any great men. There just great challenges that ordinary men like you and me are forced by circumstances to meet.” So how does one universalize the stories of ordinary people?
One difference in my subjects was that these two were writers—good ones, with a sense of humor and a feeling for the history being made in their lifetime. I had already written a book based on Dad’s wartime letters. From these I learned not only about how history affected them, but also how they, in their own individual ways, affected history.
Pioneers in radio
From initial gathering my source material, I began to get an inkling of the true universal significance of their of their lives. World War II was a tipping point for social change in America. With their men at war, nineteen million women joined the work force. Radio, the first instantaneous mass medium, provided daytime serial drama, entertainment and news,. This included pronouncements of world leaders and terrifying war reports. President Roosevelt used the new medium to rally the nation to arms and win the war. the focus on radio itself in this story helped give readers a reason to care.
Maybe my father could stand for the millions of the typical taxicab jockeys, office clerks or factory workers, magically transformed into warriors, wondering what the heck they were supposed to be doing there. Mom was like many other wives, mothers and homemakers. Her breadwinner, head of household and answer to any problem too big for her to solve was summarily snatched away from her. She was left to cope with everything.
Moreover, my parents were original pioneers in this magical radio medium that transformed the world. Dad, an advertising executive, was a creator,of advertising campaigns for his clients, such as Procter and Gamble, and Lewis Howe Company, maker of Tums. He also produced and directed the shows they sponsored, such as Knickerbocker Playhouse, Abie’s Irish Rose and The Guiding Light. The latter was a daytime serial drama written by Irna Phillips, one of the most prolific writers of the day. You might wonder, why did admen create the shows? In the early days, a sponsor bought radio time, but did not have the creativity or resources to create the content. So admen commissioned the scripts, hired the actors and bought the right time slot for the expected audience. In the book I go into more detail on why and how this worked.
Out of the chaos: Some income and a sense of self
In the early years of her marriage, my mother continued her role as press agent. Today she would be called a publicist. She interviewed radio personalities: an engineer who became a musician. A piece called “From Slide Rule to Slide Trombone” described an up-and-coming musician—Guy Lombardo. Another concerned a barber who liked to sing in his shop and eventually pursued a musical career — Perry Como.
Ben, who once handled their publicity accounts, introduced Mom to performers at the National Barn Dance, an early version of the Nashville country music scene, broadcast from the Eighth Street Theater in Chicago. She met Lulu Belle and Scottie, who met in Chicago on this show. They discovered they grew up within forty miles of each other near Boone, North Carolina. Mom’s charming article, “The Hills of Home,” related how first they became a singing duo and later a romantic dream couple. Married to Ben Green, both before and during World War II, Alice became a consumer and critic of radio’s daily fare. Although she barely supplemented her income on her occasional success, her writing career blossomed, her independence grew and her achievements bolstered her sense of self.
I didn’t have to look far to find these larger-than-life characters, who had so dominated the family that I barely escaped to lead my own life. I merely had to find ways to let their true personalities dominate the pages. My cousins always considered my mother to be our family’s own version of Auntie Mame. She was a painfully shy person, yet nevertheless often managed to be that embarrassing relative who was blunt, outspoken and called ’em like she saw them. If someone staggered into a room with a hangover after a wild night, she’d be quick to observe, “Your eyes look like two holes burned in a blanket,” regardless of its impact on the subject and the rest of us. About a celebrity who typically said dumb things, she would bluntly tell you: “He’s a case of arrested development.” My mother, a master of “the killer phrase,” wasn’t afraid to engage in wickedly funny sarcasm. In short, Alice was politically incorrect way before her time. Her humor gives readers another reason to care.
I had some of Mom’s essays and stories and a lifetime of commentary, discussions of current events and favorite sayings from both Mom and Dad. From these I was able to glean a sense of history, and how my parents related to it. When my mother wrote “We Bought a Crooked House,” her humorous take on their a massive makeover of our Victorian house in 1947, we all celebrated it with great hilarity. In the face of a desperate postwar housing shortage, she and Dad were dragged, kicking and screaming, into this project by her “big builder” father. He considered this “minor” project his play-toy, a delightful diversion from his weightier construction challenges. These included water treatment plants and the foundations for downtown skyscrapers.
By using her talents to become literate and funny, Alice earned her place as a real person in her boisterous, outrageous family.
Giving the reader a reason to care
Just remember these few pointers to give the reader a reason to care about your story, and you’ll be well on your way to creating a marketable biography or memoir:
- Illuminate the significance of your subject’s actions, relevance to a particular time or place in history and dedication to a mission or goal
- Pick the best genre for your particular story
- Gather and evaluate your source material and do needed research
- Use photos to jog your memory, document facts and enhance the story
- Show your subject’s universal qualities, values and struggles
- Breathe life into your characters. Use dialog, scenes and action to make their best and worst moments vivid.
If you want to see how I did it, you can take home a copy of Ben’s War with the U. S. Marines or Radio: One Woman’s Family in War and Pieces: see Pub 10.0 Pete’s Bookshop.
From early reviews, it appears that women love Radio, and men appreciate Ben’s War. It helped to have two genuine characters as parents, although I wouldn’t recommend it, if it can be helped. I just barely escaped from the madhouse to survive and tell the stories.
We live in an era when it’s more important than ever to speak the truth to power. Both of my argumentative, clear-eyed parents strove to do this, even when it was unpopular, embarrassing or inconvenient. They never minced words and they loved a good argument among friends. Who still remembers those days when that was possible? You really need to meet and get to know Alice and Ben.
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Pub 1.3 Don’t Like the Weather? Change it. [Authors control their worlds]