How to Write a Biography - Notes from a Published Author

In this authonomy writing tips article Richard Holmes, the best-selling biographer, gives his advice on writing biographies. For more writing tips and advice on how to get published check out our writing tips section.

Richard Homes

by Richard Homes

Richard Holmes is a Fellow of the British Academy, Professor of Biographical Studies at the University of East Anglia (2001-2007), has honorary doctorates from UEA, Kingston and the Tavistock Institute, and was awarded an OBE in 1992. His first book, Shelley: The Pursuit, won the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1974. Coleridge: Early Visions won the 1989 Whitbread Book of the Year Award, and Dr Johnson & Mr Savage won the James Tait Black Prize. Coleridge: Darker Reflections won the Duff Cooper Prize and the Heinemann Award. He has published two studies of European biography, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer in 1985, and Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer in 2000.The Romantic Poets and their Circle was published by the National Portrait Gallery in 2005 and his most recent book, The Age of Wonder, was published in October 2008. He lives in London and Norfolk with the novelist Rose Tremain.

Does nationality play a part in shaping a biography?

It has always been characteristic of the British tradition to approach the genre of biography with a certain good-humoured scepticism. As long ago as the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson’s learned friend Dr Arbuthnot observed: ‘Biography has added a New Terror to death.’

One could compile an anthology of such gentle witticisms, which, in the English manner, often disguise serious reflections. ‘Every great man has his disciples,’ observed Oscar Wilde, ‘and it is usually Judas who writes the biography.’ ‘There are only three rules for writing biography,’ remarked Somerset Maugham, ‘and fortunately no one knows what these are.’

What is certainly true is that in Britain today we are immersed, not to say drowning, in a sea of biography, autobiography and memoir. According to figures recently produced by British BookScan, no fewer than 4000 new biographical titles are published per annum. The earnest student of the form would need to read ten biographies a day to keep abreast of developments.

Mind you, this figure includes the personal memoir, which has become immensely fashionable in recent years. Distinguished British authors who have followed this trend, moving significantly from biography to autobiography, include Michael Holroyd (Basil Street Blues, 1999); Lorna Sage (Bad Blood, 2000); and even my old teacher George Steiner, in My Unwritten Books (2008).

Memoirs of the more populist kind lay great emphasis on unhappy or dysfunctional childhood experiences. Huge sales figures have also been achieved by disguised or ghosted ‘Misery Memoirs’. One example is Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story - In Her Own Words, secretly compiled from taped interviews with the princess and originally published in 1992. Sales of Morton’s book now run to more than two million copies.

British television now has a dedicated biography channel. Biographical series such as Secret Lives, Reputations and Who Do You Think You Are? have proven popular. The National Portrait Gallery in London runs frequent exhibitions featuring contemporary celebrities, and publishes series of books on biographical subjects. The British Library recently launched a kit known as The Family History Box, which offers biographical entertainment. It is just like the old chemistry sets we used to have as children.

Meanwhile, the internet hosts numerous sites for genealogy, family history, surnames and clans. And we all now know what it means to ‘Google’ someone. Biographical films are all the rage, having cleverly usurped the British love of costume drama, especially when a heroine is at the centre. Recent examples include biopics of Elizabeth I and the current monarch, Beatrix Potter, Jane Austen and the glamorous eighteenth-century Duchess of Devonshire, based on Amanda Foreman’s outstandingly successful life of Georgiana, an avatar of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Perhaps the most significant recent biographical development in Britain was the publication of The New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004). The new DNB expands the original number of individual lives from 38,000 to 50,000. It is no longer written by a small team of scholars. Rather, it has become a communal project, gathering contributions from no fewer than 12,000 biographers.

Although all of the old entries have been retained (if briskly rewritten), DNB’s principles of selection have radically changed. In essence, the notion of ‘achievement’ has been greatly widened and democratised. There are fewer clergymen, aristocrats and bureaucrats; more women, workmen and rogues. Or as one critic remarked, ‘less bishops and more actresses’.

How strong is the connection between biography and storytelling?

People often suggest that the future of biography lies in a radical change of form, in the development of fractured or postmodern narrative modes. Brian Matthews’s experimental and award-winning biography Louisa (1987), a Po-Mo biography of Henry Lawson’s heroic mother, is one example. It used multiple biographic voices and dramatised self questionings. Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens (1990), with its flamboyant insertions of fictional interludes, is another example of this technique. Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) used a fictional biographer – Geoffrey Braithwaite – to explore factual, or counterfactual, questions about Flaubert (e.g. what colour were Emma Bovary’s eyes?).

My own book Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985), in which the biographer continually steps in and out of four different Romantic ‘frame’ narratives (the lives of Stevenson, Wollstonecraft, Shelley and Nerval), might claim to be a fourth.

It is interesting that all these experimental works appeared in the mid-1980s, a period when we all wanted to ‘shake the cage’ of conventional biographical form and see what happened. The traditional art of storytelling will always be central to biography and its power. What we may need more is a change of subjects or a development in our ideas of the kind of materials that biography can deal with. It is new biographical subjects which will redefine the narrative form, not vice versa.

Even if it is not presented chronologically, biography always takes the form of a human story, a narrative action, an agon. When I suggest that biography is non-fiction storytelling, I mean the following. It has a protagonist, a time sequence, a plot and a dramatic pattern of human cause and effect. Its essential discipline is secular; it resists supernatural explanations. The rhythm of biographical narrative is that of suspense/mystery followed by resolution/explanation. The basic unit is the anecdote, strung along the narrative like beads on a string.

But there are numerous epistemological problems in storytelling. How reliable or selective are our sources? What are the vagaries of human memory? In what sense can one write he or she ‘thought’ or ‘felt’ something? How far can we ‘know the other’, philosophically speaking?

On a more practical, writerly level, I would suggest that nearly all biographical problems can be answered by finding appropriate forms of narrative. A good example of this is one of the earliest breakthroughs in popular biography, Daniel Defoe’s Life of Jack Sheppard (1724, now available as Defoe on Sheppard and Wild, 2004). Here, a master storyteller brought traditional forms of narrative to bear on a new and subversive subject, and, in the process, completely transformed the genre. Defoe’s treatment of Jack Sheppard (1702–24) was revolutionary. In an age accustomed to biographical eulogies of the good and great, how could Defoe create a significant biography of a petty thief? Defoe was writing in an early and much neglected biographical tradition, known to scholars as the Prison Confessions. From the period 1720–60, twelve hundred male and fifty-eight female ‘confessions’ have survived. These were usually brief, homiletic biographies written by the Newgate Ordinary (the prison chaplain) and sold as cheap pamphlets. Mostly, they were lives of the failed, the lost, the forgotten, the condemned. With brilliant originality, Defoe (himself a former inmate at Newgate) stood the genre on its head. He reversed the reader’s expectation. Before his execution, Jack Sheppard had escaped not once but three times from his death cell. Defoe presented Sheppard not as miserable petty thief but as an heroic and resourceful escape artist. Defoe set out to show his pluck, his humour, his incorrigible determination – and his terrible cockney jokes.

Defoe’s short biography ran to eight editions in six weeks. In a touching gesture, he handed a copy to Sheppard on the gallows. In death, Jack had been given another Life. It turned him into a legend, and one could see how easily his story could transfer into other media. It did so: John Gay’s hugely popular eighteenth-century Beggar’s Opera (1728), numerous Victorian music halls, a thriller by William Harrison Ainsworth (1839), Bertolt Brecht’s Three-penny Opera (1928), a Hollywood film and, most recently, a television dramatisation.

It also reaffirmed the value of the Lost Life – and launched a tradition which can be traced back to Samuel Johnson’s Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), and which includes Alexander Masters’s highly original Stuart: A Life Backwards (2005) and Ben Macintyre’s comic-thriller biography, Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love and Betrayal (2007).

Is there a future for biography?

The future of biography; or rather, its futures, for biography has always been destined to have separate roles in different cultures. The tasks to be carried out look subtly different between a post-imperial England and, say, a pre-republican Australia. They are certainly very different in France and the United States.

As far as Britain is concerned, many biographers now sense what Jonathan Bate (a leading Shakespeare scholar who has now turned Romantic biographer of ‘John Clare’) has recently called ‘the approach of a paradigm shift’. It is true that the traditional form of major Life and Times biographies, often in two volumes, are still being written, often magnificently: Claire Tomalin on Samuel Pepys (2002); Hilary Spurling on Henri Matisse (1998, 2005) Hermione Lee on Edith Wharton (2007); and, most recently, Michael Holroyd returning to mighty form with his massive study: A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families (2008).

Yet clearly, something is happening at the cutting edge. There is a widespread questioning of the traditional forms and chronology, and a fascination with briefer and more experimental work. There is renewed interest in marginal and subversive subject matter. The ‘monolithic’ single Life is giving way to biographies of groups, of friendships, of love affairs, of ‘spots of time’ (microbiographies), or of collective movements in art, literature or science. Many concern what Virginia Woolf called ‘neglected lives’, or collective lives, those held together for an historic moment by a common endeavour, place or ideal, and therefore not dependent on the ‘single life’ or traditional womb-to-tomb story. In consequence, because of the unusual nature of their subjects, they tend to develop unusual narrative forms.

Let me suggest nine popular and highly influential biographies that indicate this new pattern. Some of these titles are frequently proposed as harbingers of a ‘paradigm’ change in biographical forms, but they really mark a rediscovery of different kinds of subject matter. They are:

  • Michael Holroyd’s Basil Street Blues (1999)
  • Bella Bathurst’s The Lighthouse Stevensons (1999)
  • Lucasta Miller’s The Brontë Myth (2001)
  • Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future, 1730–1810 (2002)
  • Alexander Masters’s Stuart: A Life Backwards (2005)
  • William St Clair’s The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle and the British Slave Trade (2006)
  • Anne Wroe’s Being Shelley: The Poet’s Search for Himself (2007)
  • Linda Colley’s The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History (2007)
  • Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (2008)

The narrative form of each of these books is highly unusual: for instance, the meta-biographical layerings of Miller’s Brontë book (exploring the phenomenon of the ‘Brontë industry’), and the tragic, reversed chronology of Masters’s life of his down-and-out subject. But Lives may be ‘experimental’ in a different sense: not because they concern obscure or marginal or ethnically undervalued subjects, but simply because they appear difficult, specialised or remote from common concerns or culture.

Is science (and the scientist) a sympathetic subject for biography?

Johnson is famously reported by Boswell as saying that ‘he could write the Life of Broomstick’. But could he write the life of a particle physicist or a pure mathematician or indeed a Newton?

The writing of scientific Lives represents perhaps the most significant new field in British biography, and it has already challenged many assumptions. For years, biographies of individual scientists have been traditionally regarded as a form of children’s literature. Their narratives have taken the form of simplified ‘eureka stories’: Isaac Newton and the fall of the apple and the instant discovery of universal gravity.

It has also been the convention of science biography to ignore or at least be nervous of the mistakes and dead-ends of scientific research. The messy process of actual research and experiment is ironed out as the Whig history of endless progress. Men and women of science are assumed not to have inner or emotional lives at all, but to be icy blocks of cheery rationalism, ‘men in white coats’. For nearly the whole of the twentieth century, it was assumed there were Two Cultures, and that arts-educated people could never speak to, let alone understand, the scientist, and vice versa.

The intensity of our concern about the planet, about global and environmental issues, has put the biographical element back into science with a vengeance. We realise that science does not – cannot – exist in a human vacuum. We want to know what drives individual scientists to make their discoveries (and especially their mistakes); and how they feel about non-scientific things: love, religion and politics, for example.

Renewed interest in the ethical dilemmas posed by scientific discovery requires a humanist response which the enquiring spirit of biography is ideally placed to provide. All this has lead to an explosion of biographical interest in the creativity of scientists, and the historic context of their work.

Here are some of the striking new works this has produced:

  • Dava Sobel’s Longitude (1996)
  • Michael Shortland and Richard Yeo’s Telling Lives in Science: Essays on Scientific Biography
  • Lisa Jardine’s Ingenious Pursuits: Building the 17th Century Scientific Revolution (1999)
  • Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: Voyaging (1995) and The Power of Place (2002)
  • Patricia Fara’s Newton: The Making of Genius (2002)
  • Anne Thwaite’s Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse, 1810–1888 (2002)
  • Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men (2002)
  • Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007)

Science biography confronts a central question of our age: how far can we trust scientists as guides to survival on our planet; whether science is a source of hope or dread.

My book, The Age of Wonder, is an attempt to grapple with these challenges in the form of a collective biography, or what I have called, rather sportingly, ‘a relay race of scientific stories’. The book covers the fields of astronomy, chemistry, geographical exploration, ballooning and experimental surgery at the turn of the nineteenth century. It re-examines such classic scientific tales as how Davy invented the Miner’s Lamp, how William Herschel discovered the new planet Uranus, how Joseph Banks went in search of Paradise in Tahiti, and how Mary Shelley invented the most famous scientist of all time – Dr Frankenstein.

Right from the beginning, science has held out both promise and menace, both progress and destruction, precisely the dilemmas we face right now. I argue that it was the Romantics who first faced them two centuries ago, and that biography is the way of finding how we got here. The past has a great future, indeed.

What is the future task of biography in emerging countries...such as China, India, Russia, Iran and South America?

It should not be forgotten that each of these has a fabulously rich tradition in fiction and poetry, and even film: yet biographically they are largely an unknown quantity, except for ideologically motivated Lives of the Great Leaders: Mao, Stalin, Ghandi, Genghis Khan, the Moguls – many in fact written by Western biographers.

Here again we can see the old historic tension emerging between the traditional ‘Great Men’ school of biography, and the modern impulse to recover ‘Neglected Lives’. From that point of view one might say that the finest Russian biography of recent years, though cast as a fiction, has been Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962).

In these countries, notions of not only human rights but of genealogy, privacy and individual identity itself may still be radically different from ours. It is a fascinating question how far biography as a form may in fact depend on the existence of liberal democratic institutions and the freedoms that go with them: relative freedom of expression, largely uncensored publishing, generally unrestricted libraries and open archives, and a secular culture of self-expression and self-development.

Can biography flourish in radical Muslim states? Can true biography flourish in any kind of one-party, authoritarian state? (The answers are not simple: after all, it could flourish under the Roman emperors and the enlightened despots of eighteenth-century Europe.)

One might hazard the guess that biography will do better in modern India than in China because of the prosperous professional and middle classes in India, its multicultural diversity, and its strong popular grassroots tradition of folksong, stories, poetry and now film. It is true that oral history has growing significance for China, exemplified by Xinran Xue’s China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation (2008), an attempt to tell the true story of Mao’s Cultural Revolution through scores of personal interviews. Yet even this book was written in London, and is not being published in Beijing.

These are large questions, and they will reverberate in coming years. But as one who has believed passionately in the wonderful form of biography, its unique combination of the critical and imaginative spirit, and who continues to struggle with it after nearly forty years in the field, I offer them to you here and leave them confidently in your keeping.

Can you offer some advice for those working on biography at authonomy and elsewhere?

My Ten Commandments for Biographers:

  • 1. Thou shalt honour Biography in all its Living forms and Experiments.
  • 2. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s Novel.
  • 3. Thou shalt recognise that Biography is a celebration of Human nature in all its glorious Contradictions.
  • 4. Thou shalt demand that it be greater than Gossip, because it is concerned with Justice.
  • 5. Thou shalt require that though it chronicles an outward career (the Facts) it reveals an inward life (a Comprehensive Truth).
  • 6. Thou shalt see that this Truth can be told again and again, unto each generation.
  • 7. Thou shalt greet it as a Life-giving form, as it is concerned with Human struggle and the Creative spirit, which we all share.
  • 8. Thou shalt relish it as a Holiday for the human Imagination – for it takes us away to another Place, another Time, and another Identity – from which we can come back refreshed.
  • 9. Thou shalt be immodestly Proud of it, as it is something that the English have given to the world, like cricket, and parliament, and the Full Cooked Breakfast...
  • 10. And lastly, thou shalt be Humble about it, for it demonstrates that none of us can ever know, or write, the last Word about the human Heart.

(This is an adapted version of the 2008 HRC Seymour Lecture in Biography, which Richard Holmes delivered in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in September. This lecture, which is endowed by Dr John Seymour and Dr Heather Munro AO, is presented by the Biography Institute at the Australian National University.)

A biography reading list

  • Great personal memoirs
  • Michael Holroyd’s Basil Street Blues (1999)
  • Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood (2000)
  • George Steiner’s My Unwritten Books (2008)
  • Interesting fractured or postmodern biography
  • Brian Matthews’s Louisa (1987)
  • Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens (1990)
  • Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985)
  • and also Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer (2000)
  • Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot (1984)

The story that lasted centuries

  • Defoe’s Life of Jack Sheppard (1724) (edited by Richard Holmes)

Masterful ‘Life and Times’ sorts of biographies

  • Great personal memoirs
  • Claire Tomalin on Samuel Pepys (2002)
  • Hilary Spurling on Henri Matisse (1998, 2005)
  • Hermione Lee on Edith Wharton (2007)
  • Michael Holroyd’s A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families (2008)

Lost ‘Lives’

  • Johnson’s Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744)
  • Defoe on Sheppard and Wild (2004)
  • Alexander Masters’s Stuart: A Life Backwards (2005)
  • Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love and Betrayal (2007)

Good science biographies

  • Dava Sobel’s Longitude (1996)
  • Michael Shortland and Richard Yeo’s Telling Lives in Science: Essays on Scientific Biography (1996)
  • Lisa Jardine’s Ingenious Pursuits: Building the 17th Century Scientific Revolution (1999)
  • Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: Voyaging (1995)
  • and also The Power of Place (2002)
  • Patricia Fara’s Newton: The Making of Genius (2002)
  • Anne Thwaite’s Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse, 1810–1888 (2002)
  • Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future, 1730–1810 (2002)
  • Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007)

Really interesting ways to write a biography

  • Michael Holroyd’s Basil Street Blues (1999)
  • Bella Bathurst’s The Lighthouse Stevensons (1999)
  • Lucasta Miller’s The Brontë Myth (2001)
  • Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future, 1730–1810 (2002)
  • Alexander Masters’s Stuart: A Life Backwards (2005)
  • William St Clair’s The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle and the British Slave Trade (2006)
  • Anne Wroe’s Being Shelley: The Poet’s Search for Himself (2007)
  • Linda Colley’s The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History (2007)
  • Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (2008)
  • Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder (2008)

The best Russian biography I’ve read

  • Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)

Oral histories from China

  • Xinran Xue’s China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation (2008)