What is it I love about life story research?
One of the many perks of being a ghostwriter of memoirs and life stories is how much I learn not only about people, but places and topics that I would never have come across otherwise.
Things I've Learnt From Research
Here are just some of the topics I’ve learnt about since beginning ghostwriting:
A wide variety, as you can see, which obviously makes me fascinating company at parties.
Reasons For Life Story Research
Sometimes I have to verify the facts told to me by a client whose life story I’m writing, particularly if it concerns historical events. Our memories can be amazingly misleading.
For a story about a client who was bankrupted by government corruption, I had to check the political facts he gave me.
This included trawling through pages of Hansard, the transcripts of the proceedings of the Australian parliament.
(Not all research is exciting – I must admit to my eyes glazing over more than once).
Other times, if I am setting a scene in a certain place, and the client’s memory is sketchy on details, I will need to find the information myself - for example, sights, sounds and smells, so I can make the scene come alive for the reader.
And There Are Many More
For a recent memoir, I was writing a scene in which the client was arriving at University on her first day.
She couldn’t remember a lot of the details, so I did some investigating myself.
What did the University look like? What was the atmosphere like? Where was the car park she would have walked from? What sort of trees would she have noticed?
Sometimes photos are sufficient, but other times, it’s useful to find other people’s accounts of being in the same place at the same time.
Factors like sounds, smells and atmosphere you can imagine from the information you obtain – for example, the grandeur of the sandstone buildings, the cloying scent of jasmine, the excited chatter of the students sitting on the lawn.
Research Rabbit Holes
Most of the research I do is on the internet, so it’s easy to get side-tracked and find myself in a rabbit hole.
Read more about those in my blog post Down the Research Rabbit Hole https://www.storey-lines.com/2017/02/08/down-the-research-rabbit-hole/
Here’s a blog post, which perhaps I should have read earlier. How to Avoid Falling Down the Research Rabbit Hole.
The Art Of Research
There is an art to research. Here are the main points I’ve learned.
Check The Source of the Information
Wikipedia is not always correct – even though, in the English Wikipedia, information that is published must be verifiable and provide citation links, it’s up to the reader to verify those.
And information can be added by anyone, which may not be correct, or reviewed by the relevant editor.
Credible sources include government bodies, peer reviewed scientific journals, research think tanks and professional organisations. Major newspapers, because of their high standard of reporting, are also reputable.
Facebook is not a reputable source!
I accept information as being valid if I can verify it through two reputable sources. One of them can be Wikipedia, if the other source agrees.
Schedule Your Research
If the research is going to be time-consuming, I will put a placeholder in the manuscript, saying something like ‘MORE RESEARCH’ and do it later.
Spending a lot of time on research, especially in the first draft, can slow you down and make you feel as if you’re trudging through a field of treacle in wellington boots.
I often find it more psychologically uplifting to finish the first draft of the story, then go back and do the necessary background research to add colour and life to the story.
Set A Time Limit For Your Research
Sometimes it isn’t possible to write the story without doing some research during the process.
In that case, I find it useful to set myself a time limit – for example, an hour - to find a certain piece of information.
If you can’t find it in an hour, it probably doesn’t want to be found! However, I don’t always stick to my own rule, so in this case, do as I say, not as I do!
If you can find an expert on a certain topic and they are willing to talk to you, this is a great way of getting information straight from the horse’s mouth.
They will probably give you all sorts of extra material, and a personal perspective you won’t get from an online source.
Plus you can ask them the questions pertinent to your story. When I was writing The Ambo – From Field Ambulance to Civil Ambulance, the life story of Queensland paramedic pioneer Bob McDermant, I contacted the Queensland Ambulance historian, Mick Davies.
He was in the Queensland Ambulance himself and told me lots of colourful stories about the early days and sent photos, which added interest and depth to Bob’s story.
Research Is Fun...Yes It Is
If you just rolled your eyes and thought, here we go, then you wouldn't be the lone ranger as my partner often says. But seriously now, life story research is fun.
I agree with Albert Einstein that research is the same as playing.
It's amazing what you find out when you start delving into the depths of a person's life. There is so much history waiting to be unleashed on the world that for a writer, it's simpy exhilarating.
Life Story Research Conclusion
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you just can’t find a certain piece of information, or verify the information you have.
In that case, my advice is to wing it and write what you think is right. Chances are, it’s not a hugely important piece of information that is central to the story, otherwise you would have found it.If the book is published, some kind reader will soon let your client, who is the attributed author, know if you’ve got it wrong.
Writing Your Life Story
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I will reply as soon as I can and we can chat further.