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Thoughts & Feelings in Writing Biography: Get into Your Subject’s Head

Biff Barnes

Recreating a person’s life is hard, but that exactly what biographers, family historians, and memoirists must do.

That begins with a factual skeleton. Research can help you to answer most of the questions posed by the journalist’s 5 Ws: who, what, when, where, why and how. Gathering the accurate details of a person’s life is important, but it’s only the beginning of telling a person’s life story. An engaging account of a person’s life depends on discovering the answers to the last two questions: how and why. Those answers may not be readily apparent in the documentary records.

David McCullough, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, knows plenty about how to do that. He advises, “I believe very strongly that the essence of writing is to know your subject…to get beneath the surface.”

How do you do that? How can you know what a person now gone was thinking or feeling during their lifetime? That involves some speculation. The question a biographer must deal with is how to speculate within a factual framework. You have to make inferences and deductions from the facts you know to get at your subject’s inner life. Let’s look at the ways two of the leading practitioners of the art do it.

Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro, who also has won two Pulitzers and a National Book Award, explained one method in a 2011 talk at the 2nd Annual Compleat Biographer Conference :

The greatest of books are books with places you can see in your mind’s eye…If the place is important enough in the character’s life; if on the most basic level he spent enough time in it…; if the place, the setting, played a crucial role in shaping the character’s feelings, drives, motivations, insecurities, then by describing the place well enough, the author will have succeeded in bringing the reader closer to an understanding of the character without giving him a lecture, will have made the reader therefore not just understand but empathize with a character, will have made the readers’ understanding more vivid, deeper than any lecture could.

Caro illustrates how he did this in his Johnson biography. In an interview he was told that when Johnson first arrived in Washington, he always seemed to be running as he came up Capitol Hill in the morning. Caro traced Jonson’s route from the hotel where Johnson lived at the time to the capitol. Here’s what he wrote:

When Lyndon Johnson first came to Washington, he lived in the basement of a shabby little hotel, in a tiny cubicle across whose ceiling ran bare steam pipes. Its slit of a window stared out across a narrow alley at the weather-stained red brick wall of another hotel. Leaving his room early in the morning, Lyndon would turn left down the alley, walking between the red brick walls of other shabby hotels, but when he turned the corner at the end of that alley, suddenly before him at the top of a long gentle hill would be not brick but marble, a great shadowy mass of marble. Marble columns and marble arches and marble parapets, and a long marble balustrade high against the sky. Veering along a path to the left, he would come up Capitol Hill and around the corner of the Capitol, and the marble of the eastern façade, already caught by the early morning sun, would be a gleaming, brilliant, almost dazzling white.

A new line of columns, towering columns, marble for magnificence and Corinthian for grace, stretched ahead of him, a line of columns so long that columns seemed to be marching endlessly before him, the long friezes above them crammed with heroic figures. And columns loomed not only before him but above him. There were columns atop columns, columns in the sky. For the huge dome that rose above the Capitol was circled by columns not only in its first mighty upward thrust, where it was rimmed by 36 great pillars for the 36 states that the Union had comprised when it was built, it was circled by columns also high above, 300 feet above the ground, where just below the statue of Freedom, a circle of 13 smaller, more slender shafts for the 13 original states created a structure that looked like a little temple in the sky, adding a grace note to a building as majestic and imposing as the power of the sovereign state that it has been designed to symbolize. And as Lyndon Johnson came up Capitol Hill in the morning, he would be running.

What reader could fail to understand Johnson’s feelings?

If you are working at a greater distance, measured in miles or years, from you’re the events you are describing it’s more difficult to get at your subject’s thoughts and feelings. Making inferences and deductions from the facts you know can, however, allow you to speculate on your character’s state of mind with reasonable accuracy.

Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Stacy Schiff’s recent book Cleopatra: A Life offers a good model of how to do it. Let’s look at how Schiff dealt with the days after Julius Caesar’s assassination. She begins by telling her readers that there is no record of exactly what Cleopatra was thinking at that time, then speculates:

…whether she grieved personally [for Caesar] or not, she had cause for apprehension. Not only was there no one to intervene on her behalf in Rome, but she had now inserted herself dangerously into the blood sport of that city’s politics.

Next Schiff looks at the state of Egypt at that moment.

She returned to a kingdom that was prosperous and at peace…There are no extant records of protests concerning tax collections, no evidence of the kind of revolt that had greeted her father’s return. The temples flourished…”Home is best,” went the Greek adage, and so it must have felt to Cleopatra.

To illustrate that feeling, Schiff returns to facts in the historical record to show that Cleopatra was indeed happy to be home. “She embarked on an ambitious building program,” says Schiff. “Under Cleopatra, Alexandria enjoyed a robust intellectual revival.” And Cleopatra’s people held her in even greater esteem than she had enjoyed earlier in her rein. As Schiff explains, “If Caesar had returned from Alexandria more royal than before, Cleopatra returned from Rome more godly. She vigorously embraced her role as Isis [the Egyptian goddess Cleopatra was supposed to embody] It did not hurt her that on the first day of 42[B.C.] Caesar was - in a solemn religious ceremony – declared a god.”

All in all, Schiff provides a pretty good insight into Cleopatra’s likely state of mind.