Monday, 3 March 2014

Writing a Biography - by Marion Andrews

[It's a delight to welcome my long-time friend Marion Andrews to our ACW blog today to share from her own experience of writing her father's biography, 'My China Mystery' (Even Before Publishing, 2012). Thank you for sharing with us, Marion. Jo-Anne Berthelsen]

Whose biography do you want to write? Is it someone famous you don’t actually know? I asked a famous politician once and received a kind but firm reply in the negative.  So how do you choose a subject?


It seems to me there are three possibilities.
  1. The person you write about has to be famous enough for people to want to read about them. 
  2. Another option is to write so well that celebrities desire your attention and publishers line up to take your work.
  3. If these opportunities do not come your way, look for such a remarkable life story that people will be pleased to read it.  
As a Christian, I prayed about these options and received answers to my prayers. Without divine intervention that was too remarkable to be coincidence, I would never have found my story. You’ll find details of my own personal search in My China Mystery. It started with a book of inscribed photos and a bundle of old letters that told me more than I ever expected to know about my parents’ years in China.


Perhaps there is a half-formed mystery hiding in the back of your mind. Perhaps you have questions that are too vague to put into words. Perhaps the pointers are there and you just have to step down the path. For me, it was making contact with the Gurkha Museum in Winchester, UK.


The thing to do is to start looking. Start with the mundane, the facts about your character. Gather your papers, photos, documents, books. Decide on your time and space frame: that is, rule up a time line and draw a map. Search the internet for historical and genealogical information. Read history within your time frame; in the world, the country and the locality of your setting to determine what would affect your character. Love and hate, war and peace, birth and death are compelling themes in any story.


When your facts are in order, find out all you can about the person’s character. Even if this is someone very close to you, like a parent, get to know them all over again through other people’s eyes. You need to be emotionally engaged as well as objective.


I wrote my parents’ China story little by little, over about six months, each week including another instalment in my family letter. I work best by reaching regular deadlines. You may be different and achieve your goal in a continuous burst of white heat like George Frideric Handel writing The Messiah.


If you have a great story to tell, but are not confident of your writing and reporting skills, take a course in journalism. I am thankful that I was able to study journalism via the internet. You need research and reporting skills, as well as the ability to sift essential from peripheral information.


If your story is incomplete, start looking and see where the path leads you. I got to know my father as a young man, before the horrors of war scarred him. My search led me to Buckingham Palace via Inland China! No one is more surprised and pleased than I am.

I have loved expressing myself and communicating through writing since childhood; letters, school compositions, club contributions and the odd story. In a life-time of ministry, I have had ample opportunity to write for local congregations as well as the wider church. I have written columns on parenting edited a newsletter for ministers’ wives. I wrote “Recover the Family”; the results of a questionnaire from 70 Australian Christian families; as well as various desk-top published family and church histories.
I longed to write a book about my parents. The catalyst that defined my task was a bundle of old letters that my cousins sent me. These told me more than I ever expected to know about my parents’ China years. Together with my mother’s memoirs and many old China photos I put together an account of their China years. Then I started looking for information about my father’s war service. That was when my information exploded. The Lord God gave me the desire of my heart and before long I had a story worth sharing.

22 comments:

  1. I think you deserve a medal in your own right, Marion, along with the one you collected from the Queen at Buckingham Palace on behalf of your father, for persevering in writing down through the years and specifically with your parents' biography. Hopefully this in itself, along with your helpful tips above, will be an inspiration for other potential biographers.

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    1. Thank you, dear friend, for giving me this opportunity. I guess my book is my medal! I too hope this blog will inspire other potential biographers.

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  2. Thanks Marion, its interesting to see what the process is for this type of writing. How fascinating and precious to delve into your parents story!
    Thanks Jo-Anne for the post :)

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    1. So glad you found my blog interesting, Catherine. When my two school friends, Jo-Anne and Carolyn, encouraged me to pursue my parents' China story, I felt instinctively it was the right time to do so, and it was.

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  3. Hi Marion, what a treasure trove to discover a bundle of letters. I've started writing parts of a memoir about my family's time in Africa and was very chuffed to see the letters my mother had written to her mother over the years, including the years in Africa. While I have been thinking of writing this down for a while, doing a unit on Writing History in the Master of Arts (Writing) I'm currently studying was a great impetus to get started. I would suggest maybe also taking a course on memoir writing or writing family history as some of the skills and issues are different from straight journalism. Thanks for an interesting and stimulating post.

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    1. So glad you found my post interesting, Jeanette. It is amazing what you can learn from old letters about people you have know and loved. Thanks for the note about other courses. I envy those who live in or near the big population centres, with all the array of courses available. I live six hours drive from Sydney and eight from Brisbane. I was so excited when my old university offered a writing course on the internet - any course!!! That was fourteen years ago now, and there may be more courses like you suggest offering for us isolated people now. I hope so!

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    2. Hi Marion - the course I'm currently doing (Master of Arts (Writing)) from Swinburne University of Technology is completely online. The course is in offered in Melbourne and I live in Brisbane. It is a nested degree so one can start with the Graduate Certificate and build from there. Other Unis also offer online courses. It does make these courses more available and more flexible.

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    3. It's great that there are so many courses offering on line now! I did a Graduate Certificate in Journalism from UQ here in Tamworth and thoroughly enjoyed it. The tutors were amazing. Enjoy your course, won't you! Happy writing!

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  4. I was really touched to hear about your receiving a medal from the Queen on behalf of you father, Marion. How proud you must have been. And to do all that digging to discover so much about your roots. And what skill it takes to write it for posterity.

    I only wish my grandparents had left letters or diaries from the years they spent as matron amd manager of various NSW Aboriginal reserves. I only have the memories of what Grandma shared with me. Some funny, some not for print. I do have a bundle of letters I wrote home many many years ago when we lived in America. They were full of comparisons. Maybe my son will use them some day!

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    1. Thanks Rita. I hope your son can use those letters one day too. What a great attitude and hope! I think it is healthy and liberating to remember that our generation is not the only one with wisdom and perception. We can build something and leave space for those coming after, is that not so?!!

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    1. Are you referring to my last comment, Son? If so, you might be overwhelmed when you see how many building blocks and space I'm leaving you!!! - and archive boxes full of letters (smile). You really will need that mansion at Vaucluse when the time comes.

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  6. Hi Marion. I was delighted to read your comment, especially as I'm just reading your book. Many of the places and events you mention are familiar to me, because I've just completed a manuscript about my husband's uncle, who volunteered to work in China, during World War II. He was in the FAU as a conscientious objector and worked in ambulance duties, during the London Blitz. Later he left for China but was held up in India for some time until he was flown over the 'Hump' to Yunnan, where he was stationed. Perhaps your father and he met during the war. I am currently looking for a publisher.
    Do you still live in the Redlands? I live in Thornlands.
    Hazel Barker

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    1. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the two met, Hazel. I hope you get a publisher. I'd like to read your book. There is very little written about that corner of the world during WW II.

      No, I live in Tamworth, NSW, but sometimes visit my darling Auntie Ruth at Redland.

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    2. Thanks for your kind words, Marion.
      Hazel

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  7. I did so enjoy your book. It was one of those I read it while I was writing a biography, Cambodian Harvest, for EBP. But how I wish I had had the benefit of your blog as well! Well done, Marion.

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    1. I plan to order your book! I'm sure I'll enjoy it!

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  8. Hi Marion, Thanks for visiting ACW and sharing your fascinating journey of writing your father's biography. It was great to read your helpful tips on how to go about writing a biography.

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    1. Thank you Narelle. The joy is all mine. Thanks for the opportunity.

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  9. Thanks, Marion, for the helpful points you make for bio/memoir writers. I read your "My China Mystery" while I was writing Cambodian Harvest (bio of Marion Fromm in Cambodia) and enjoyed it. Regards, Rhonda Pooley.

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    1. Thanks Rhonda. That's wonderful to know you took time to read my book while writing another. I look forward to reading your 'Cambodian Harvest' - Marion.

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