The gathering and organization of biographical details is the initial task of any memoirist or family historian. For a memoirist it’s a matter of recalling the events. For a family historian it’s a matter of researching them. In either case one collects a list of factual events and experiences, usually assembling them into a chronological sequence.
But as William Zinsser wrote in his Introduction to Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography, “Research, however, is only research. After all the facts have been marshaled, all the documents studied, all the locales visited, all the survivors interviewed, what then? What do the facts add up to?”
Begin by looking at the chronology you have created. Divide events into periods (no more than 6-8). One way to do so is to look for events that were turning points in the subject’s life. For each period fix its temporal limits. Tell the story of the period seeking both to summarize the events which occurred and to affix a symbol to the period.
Next, survey the periods looking for commonalities that may occur in more than one period. If a commonality appears in several periods, it might represent a theme that you would want to develop in telling your story. Then try to recall and recreate the situation or events which comprise that theme. This may involve using the tools of creative non-fiction to create scenes and dialogue to dramatize the events which make the life you’re writing about meaningful.
As Zinsser put it, “This is the act of intellect that keeps the biographer going: to give coherence to what would otherwise be only data.”