Preparing to Write a Biography

Deb's office 4Two years ago I started researching a dynamite true story. Since then I’ve spent an average of 20-25 hours a week working on the book. We’re almost done with the first draft and plan to launch it in November. Perhaps you know of a true story you’d like to write. Where do you begin? This article will take you along my journey from the idea stage to actual writing and share some issues you might need to consider in writing your own book.

The Idea

It started in the backseat of our car in December 2010. I listened while Steve Brennecke, our friend and administrator, a former lawyer, sat in the front seat with my husband, talking about old law stories. He began to talk about Mary Weaver, a godly Christian woman, who had provided childcare for an 11-month old baby. One day the baby quit breathing. Mary did CPR and called 911, but within a day the baby died. The autopsy revealed severe injuries that were inflicted 7 to 10 days before death. Some doctors believed the cause of death, however, was an acute injury, a shaking and perhaps a slam, that was inflicted just before the baby quit breathing. Mary was with the baby for forty-two minutes before the incident so they believed she must have caused it. In time Mary, though completely innocent, was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Of course that’s not the end of the story, but it shows you how it begins.

I sat in the backseat of our car in New Zealand thinking about this story that had taken place years before in Iowa. That’s a great story! I thought. I could write that story. I could sell that story. Shortly afterward I contacted Steve and asked if he’d be interested in writing Mary’s story with me. Steve called Mary and gained her permission on one condition: God must get the glory for the amazing things he did. This must not be a story to glorify Mary.  I didn’t argue with that.

Should I write a book about my story?

If you have a great true story that you’d like to put into book form and publish, here are some questions to consider:

  • Is the story long enough and strong enough to make a good book? Anything shorter than 10,000 words is really too short for a book. Most published books are 75,000 words or longer.
  • Do I have the writing ability necessary to craft a book that is strong enough to sell, or should I just write my story, copy it onto a CD, and give it to friends and family?
  • Do I have enough documentation and information to make the story credible?
  • Do I need to get permission from anyone to write this story? I never would have tried to write Mary’s story without her full approval.

Gathering Information

In March we returned to the States for furlough and I was able to interview Mary several times. As a fiction writer, I wanted our book to read like the best fiction of a similar genre. That meant searching for true elements that could be structured into a plotline like fiction. Before I met Mary I worked through a possible book outline in my mind so I knew some of the information I would need. I prepared for the interview with detailed questions that would lead Mary to reveal what I needed to know. I also conducted interviews with Steve, Mary’s daughter, and a supporter of Mary’s. I recorded all of them.

Besides the interviews I had a mountain of information to work with. This helped to convince me that we should proceed with the book. Marge Wolfe, a friend and supporter of Mary’s, had put together two scrapbooks of information. They included all of these things: newspaper articles and editorials from two newspapers throughout all three of Mary’s trials, agendas for the Mary Weaver Support Group, newsletters the group send out, news clips from the evening news on three channels about Mary’s case, interviews with Mary on two national talk shows, pictures of supporters marching in the Oktemberfest parade, and a video of Mary’s pre-trial release. As Mary’s lawyer, Steve was able to provide many of the transcripts from Mary’s three trials along with transcripts of depositions, hearings, and police interviews. This information allowed us to check details and quote directly from testimonies given during trials. An extensive article in the LA Times related to Mary’s story also allowed us to give greater credibility to Mary’s story and its part in the shaken baby syndrome controversy.

Mary’s story needed careful documentation, but some other stories don’t. If you were writing the life story of a person growing up during the depression, for instance, you might be able to rely on that person’s memory. You could get details about the time period from the internet. Since you probably wouldn’t be writing anything controversial you wouldn’t need legal protection. You could simply change the names of anyone who might not want their part in the story told.

Fact or Fiction

One of the early decisions we had to make was whether to write the book as the true story it was or to write it as fiction-based-on-fact. Mary’s case, of necessity, points out flaws in the legal system. While Mary didn’t hurt the baby, someone did inflict lethal injuries. We were concerned about legal issues. We learned that you can be sued for writing fiction that conforms too closely to a factual situation. We were actually safer legally to write the story as fact.

Literary License

We actually preferred writing the true story, but that left us with other issues. Mary’s story happened between 1993 and 1997.  How could Steve and Mary remember details from incidents that happened some fifteen years earlier? I didn’t want the story to read like a newspaper. I wanted to use fiction techniques so that the reader could get caught up in the story as if he were there. It would be impossible to remember every conversation, gestures, movements, descriptions and details that make the story come alive. So we decided that we would make the story as factual as possible, keeping the scenes true to basic facts and spirit, but making up small details and conversations to convey the story. We would let the reader know what we were doing.

Slander

Our major legal concern was being sued, but we knew we had to hold ourselves to a higher standard. As Christians we didn’t want to be guilty of slander. Mary’s story involves someone who inflicted lethal blows to a baby and covered it up. It shows that doctors and police investigators cut corners to get a conviction. You can’t tell her story without showing that. What could we do?

When we shared derogatory information about someone we made sure it was true and could be proven by court records or articles. We did not paint characters as blackly as we could, but only shared information that we felt was necessary to tell Mary’s story. When people appeared in an unfavourable light we tried to show their side of the story fairly. This meant pointing out that we didn’t know who killed the baby. We show that investigators and doctors were motivated by a desire to wipe out child abuse. We try not to share derogatory information that the reader wouldn’t know if he was simply reading the newspaper in Iowa in the 1990’s.

Organising Information

In the seven months following my original interview with Mary, my husband and I travelled 25,000 miles across much of the United States. Art drove and I organized. First I photocopied almost everything in the two photograph albums. I read articles and underlined pertinent information. I made notes on the recorded interviews so that I could find information when I needed it. I carried a file box with folders and filed articles, letters, agendas, and editorials according to the subject matter or part of the book they pertained to.

Then I used the information to plan the structure of the book. I read Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell to help me think about plugging the information I had into the most effective placement in the book. Unlike fiction, I couldn’t make up stuff to make the book stronger, but I could use the information we had to best advantage. Once I had an outline for the book I had a much better idea of what further information I needed and how to organize the information to be able to find it when needed.

About seven months after that first interview with Mary, my husband and I flew back to our home in New Zealand and I could begin the fun part—the actual writing process.

Are you thinking about writing a true story in book form? You are welcome to share a paragraph about your story here. What do you think your biggest obstacles will be?

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