The Geography of Biography

I wrote the first draft of this entry in Camperdown Park in Dundee.

It’s a place I visited many times when I was young, often for the playpark or the boating lake, or sometimes the zoo. Its 400 acres leaves plenty of room for a large expanse of grass and – until last year – a golf course. But I chose to sit beside the duck pond, tucked away between the trees.

It’s hard not to compare my memory of Camperdown from childhood to how it currently appears. On the whole, the whole area is recognisably the same, although some parts don’t appear quite as massive now. I do feel the playpark has suffered from the loss of the pirate-ship climbing frames, even if the new modern equipment is less of a death-trap.

The chances are that most people reading this won’t know where this park is or my connection with it, and frankly, won’t care. Yet memoir and biography are two genres that consistently sell well, so it must be possible to draw the reader into someone else’s nostalgia.

In my experience, the key is to give as much context and description as possible, and tell it as if it were a fiction story.

In this case, I might expand upon specific memories, like playing a golf game on my GameBoy near the duck pond or becoming annoyed with somebody who deliberately splashed me on the boating lake. I’d also look a little wider, perhaps that a school friend lived nearby or how we’d often visit the Little Chef while in the area.

Even when writing fiction, I find it useful to base made-up places on real ones, as it helps to keep the description consistent. If I ever need to set a story in a zoo or on a climbing frame shaped like a pirate ship, I know where I’ll use as a model.

Based on a True Story

Every so often, you’ll see a film or a novel that purports to be based upon true events. Recent examples include the Don Shirley biography Green Book and the Freddie Mercury story in Bohemian Rhapsody. But how much can we trust the version of events portrayed?

Life writing often involves considering difficult questions about the subject matter. Is it ethical to repeat an anecdote told in private? Can details be left out of the story to improve clarity for the reader? When is it right to use people’s real names?

The answer to these questions will vary depending on the situation. In a historical piece where the people involved are all dead, the writer is unlikely to run into ethical problems.

But if the subject is still living and perhaps still active in their field, they might be entitled to take legal action. Here is an introduction to the laws regarding libel and slander.

One notable publication was Spycatcher by the former MI5 agent Peter Wright, in which he alleged the head of his organisation during his career was a Soviet spy. The book was ultimately cleared for publication a year later.


I’m Sorry, But…

Almost every writer who wants to be published will have to face rejection somewhere along the line. Perhaps it’s not what they’re looking for at that time; maybe they liked it, but other work was of a higher standard.

Last week, though, I was in the position when I had to turn down an offer. I have a friend – let’s call her Alice – who runs community engagement activities for a historic trust. This time, she was running an event for people aged 60 and over to share their memories for a children’s’ book. Unfortunately, one of the participants had fallen ill, but she had an unusual story of World War II that deserved to be told.

Anzacwoundedturk
Wounded soldier (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alice furnished me with the important points. I considered the offer for six days, but I found it impossible to shape a poem or a story around the facts I was given.

The difficulty with biography is that when you don’t know the individual personally, it’s necessary to conduct a lot of research. There was a Middle Eastern leader some years ago who would carry out an hour of research for every minute he planned to spend with a visitor; inconveniently, my own research has not turned up this guy’s name.

I need to stress that this wasn’t Alice’s shortcoming, but from the information I was given, I felt I’d be unable to do justice to her story. So I made the decision to decline the offer, but not before referring Alice to a tutor friend who teaches life writing. I do hope the participant’s story can be told in a suitable manner.

Of course, if there’d been no requirement to tell a true story, I could easily have taken the available facts and fictionalised the rest. It would have been very different, but probably rather compelling.

The Shock of The New.

Even although I’ve had stories published, I’m very keen to keep expanding my horizons. DamyantiWrites made this very point in her recent entry Do You Swim Free?, where she discusses authors who are happy to sit on the well-worn cushions of their comfort zone, rehashing the same ideas for years.

To this end, I’ve joined a Life Writing (LW) class at the University of Dundee. Thus far, the vast majority of my scribing has been about fictional characters in fictional situations, but LW is all about the self: memoirs of a specific event you experienced, an autobiography of your entire life, or a biography of someone else’s.

In last week’s class, we wrote a passage about a recent holiday; in my case a boat trip up the River Forth in Edinburgh. Part of our homework involved rewriting the passage using reference material such as photographs, maps and articles. The next class is on Tuesday, when we’ll be discussing the LW we have enjoyed and/or disliked.

I hope to expand my horizons in other ways too, such as poetry, and the performance type in particular; I intend to come back to that subject in the future. I’ve also written a stage play and I’m kicking about an idea for a screenplay.

There are authors who can carry off taking the same path over and over again. Read almost anything by Agatha Christie and it follows a familiar pattern where everyone ends up in the drawing room while Poirot or Miss Marple whittles them down to reveal the murderer. And I dislike Dan Brown’s style, but looking past that, he is another good example. Historical facts, symbolic minutiae and conspiracies spill out onto every page of every book, and the public lap it up.

I really yearn to pull something unexpected out of the bag. P D James is one author who did just that. For years, she penned detective books, then at the age of 72, wrote the science fiction novel Children of Men. And Roald Dahl is famous for his children’s books, but additionally wrote macabre short stories for adults, and the script for the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. That’s like Cliff Richard releasing a hip-hop album.

To that end, I’ll attempt to wring every possible benefit out of the LW course, and not just from the teaching in class. Being a student allows me into the university library, where I’m writing this, and into the cheap campus bar. And that means it’s easier to take Ernest Hemingway’s slightly dubious advice to, “Write drunk, edit sober.”

But I’ll need to squeeze it all in before December, when the course ends and I’ll lose these privileges.