When you are researching a person’s life story for a biography or family history the process often involves creating a timeline. As you discover additional information about your subject you fill it into the appropriate place in the list of things you already know. Eventually you reach a point where your timeline is complete; you have listed the sequence of all of the significant events in your subject’s life, or at least all you believe you will be able to discover. You now have the raw material with which to tell your subject’s story.
A lot of people writing life stories, particularly first time writers, lock into the timeline they have created to produce a draft that essentially says, “This happened, then that happened, then the next thing happened.” The resulting draft is a list of events chronicling the subject’s life without much analysis or interpretation. The incidents are recounted with a somewhat plodding quality. The account reports the details of its subject’s life, but doesn’t engage the reader.
It shouldn’t be that way. You as an author need to step back from the chronology you have created to find its meaning.
As with any book that deals with people – fiction or nonfiction – the best place to begin is with your main character. Why did she do what she did? What were her ambitions? What motivated her actions? What emotional response might she have displayed as various events in her life played out?
What was the broader context for the events in the life of the character you are describing? If you look at what’s going on socially, politically and economically during your character’s lifetime you can make some inferences about how the broader sweep of history might have shaped her actions.
Trying to provide a detailed account of all of these things for every event in your character’s life is generally not a wise idea. Each event is not of equal importance. One way to decide what deserves greater emphasis is to look for turning points in your character’s life.
I am currently editing a biography of Henry Bothin who was the president of one of the most successful steel companies on the Pacific Coast, the largest commercial real estate owner in San Francisco at the time of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, and the founder of one of the first charitable foundations in California. Let’s look at how author Mike Casey is employing the turning points in Henry’s story.
The first occurs in 1870 when Henry runs away from his parents’ farm in Wisconsin to join his older sisters in San Francisco. On the personal level Henry saw no future for himself in the relative isolation of farm life in the Upper Midwest. But Henry’s action was part of a trend seen all over America. On the one hand, thousands of people had responded to the advice Horace Greely had offered less than five years earlier, “Go west young man and grow up with the country.” Henry was also joining a second migration, from rural farms to cities, which just beginning as he headed for San Francisco.
When Henry arrives in San Francisco his sisters get him a job in the wholesale grocery business run by their husbands. Eventually he starts his own company selling coffee, teas and spices. He builds his business to a level of moderate success.
The second turning point occurs in the late 1880s. Henry leaves the commodity business and becomes a large stockholder in a steel manufacturing company, eventually becoming its president. At the same time he begins buying commercial real estate. This seems like quite an abrupt change, but if you look at the people Henry had befriended they were the children of the city’s most successful businessmen. Clearly he wanted to join them at the pinnacle of economic success. On a broader scale Henry is following successful role models like Andrew Carnegie into the steel business. The nation had just seen the first steel frame skyscraper built in Chicago. Applying that new technology to the limited geographic area of San Francisco’s commercial district made building vertically the best way to maximize profit from real estate. So what Henry was doing was capitalizing on two trends just getting underway nationally.
By 1906 Henry had become a wealthy man, indeed city’s largest commercial property owner and rapidly expanding his empire when Mother Nature precipitated the third major turning point in Henry’s life – the devastating earthquake and fire which destroyed much of San Francisco including 79 of Henry’s 81 commercial properties. Henry rebuilt immediately, but his life shifted directions. He no longer bought property, but rather seemed content to manage what he had. Instead, philanthropy began to absorb an increasing share of his attention. Part of the change was not doubt the impact of the ruin of the city which followed the 1903 death of his son from polio. It may have made him question whether devoting all of his energy to business was truly worth it. But he was also emulating a number of the industrial barons like Carnegie when he created his charitable foundation.
Focusing on these turning points in Henry Bothin’s life provides a context for a much briefer discussion of the events in the intervening and subsequent years.
By slowing down the narrative of a person’s life story to focus on turning points you create the opportunity for your reader to gain a deeper understanding of your character and the lessons her life has to teach.