Why Should I Write a Biography?

Biographical information is vital for historians. When writing histories, in general it is the people and their achievements or goals that are of interest. The social history of a country, an area or even a small community or club depends on the people who made the decisions and those who followed the rules - or not!

Biography or Life Writing, as it is sometimes called, can take many forms. It can be a simple list or timeline, it can include oral histories from interviews, it can include oral histories from interview, it can be a full account of someone's life, or it could focus on a single event or period within a person's life.

You might be thinking about writing a group biography. This is can be known as a prosopography, that is, a collection of interlinked biographies which seeks to present the common characteristics of the group. However, with this approach, it is important to have enough information about each individual to be sure that any lines drawn between them is based on an accurate reading of the data collected.

The most important aspect of writing any biography is solid research. The more information you can find the more informed the work will be. Cross-checking of research is vital; never take the evidence from one source at face value, always try to find at least one other source for corroboration. And, as with all history writing, it is equally important to assess the validity and integrity of each source. Think about what a particular document or witness might be saying and consider their agenda or bias.

It is also important to consider your own bias as a writer. Perhaps you have a link to the subject, they might be a prominent member of your favourite team, or you might even be related. As the author, stating your affiliation at the outset will help your reader to assess your agenda. 

Where and How Should I Publish?

There are many different outlets for biographical information. Depending on the amount and type of data you would like to present you might consider the following options:

  1. A short article
    1. on a webpage
    2. on a podcast
    3. on a blog/vlog
    4. in a newspaper
  2. A longer article 
    1. in a commercial magazine
    2. in an academic journal
  3. A short book
    1. traditional publisher
    2. self-published
  4. A full book
    1. traditional publisher 
    2. self-published

What Needs to be Included?

There are some essential pieces of information which need to be included in any historical biography work. You should always include:

  1. The full name (and any other names) by which the subject is known.
  2. The dates of birth and death (if applicable).
  3. Any other dates of relevant information.
  4. Full references for all sources to which you have referred directly. History works will generally use the Chicago Manual of Style for referencing (you can find information about this online), but you should always check with the publisher for their preferred format.

The subject should be placed within the context of their time and place. It would be impossible, for example to write about Marie Antoinette without attention to the French Revolution of 1789, or Geoff Hurst without reference to the football World Cup of 1966. However, it is important to keep focused on your subject and how the context relates to them, otherwise you could end up with a confused or discursive piece of writing. Also, don't feel that you have to include every single piece of evidence that you have found during your extensive research within the written work. The research is there to give you the best chance at an accurate portrait of the subject, not to be slavishly listed - unless, of course, your work is a list of sources found which mention your subject!

How and Where do I Research my Subject?

This is the fun part! Sources for information on historical subjects can be found in diverse and sometimes unexpected places. You will find that one source may lead to another. Obviously, archives are a good place to start. They might be local or national archives, or archives that specialise in a particular subject or club. When you approach archives, don't be afraid to ask the archivists for advice and help, they are usually pleased to assist, but do your homework first on what it is that you are hoping or likely to find. Many archives have online catalogues which you can search, but remember to think about context again. Your subject could have attended a particular event about which the archive holds records. The catalogue may not have listed your subject's name but dig deeper into those records and you could find a hidden gem.

Newspaper archives are always a good place to start looking for specific events or any mention of your subject. This can also help with your contextual viewpoint and enable you to focus in on dates for your other searches. These can be found online, for example The British Newspaper Archive, Trove from the National Library of Australia, or Welsh Newspapers Online. Otherwise, local archives will hold newspapers for the immediate area. With any online searches, the secret to success is to vary your search terms. There may be more than one spelling to try and don't forget shortened name variations. It can be useful to use quotation marks around a person's full name to bring up results which only have those words in that order, but equally this can prevent other near matches from appearing, so it is good to try all possible variations.

There are often family archives. These can be a challenge to track down but are frequently hugely rewarding. Don't forget to think about the archives of people with whom your subject was associated. Research is often about thinking laterally. If you are thinking about using interviews or oral history techniques it is important to consider the ethical issues which could arise. For example, does the interviewee know what you are going to do with their testimony, where it will be published etc., and do they still give their permission?

Join our Society 

If you are thinking about publishing your biographical work on a subject from the world of sport and leisure history, the BSSH can be a great resource. Join the society and tap into the vast cross-section of knowledge held by our members and Trustees. We are happy to hear from you if you have any questions.