Biography Challenge finalists:
to those authors, each of whom received a parcel of books
courtesy of Hodder and Earlyworks Press. The
overall winner is
his historical biography
Fixer and Fighter!
The tumultuous life of Hubert de Burgh (1170–1243)
Hubert, Earl of Kent and Saviour of England for the English, the man who saved the throne of his 9-year old king during a successful French invasion of England and sent that French army packing permanently, sinking their fleet. The man who countersigned Magna Charta, who protected and modernised the English economy, even to counting the pennies. The man who perfected the art of castle warfare.
A man as lethal and uncompromising in the political arena as on the battlefield, who held Dover Castle against all the odds and saved the nation. The man who laid the foundations for an English national government.
Hubert de Burgh,an ultimate survivor who outlived all his enemies to die peacefully in his own bed. Circaidy Gregory Press looks forward to publishing this white-water-ride of a biography in 2015.
Our sincere thanks to
judges Tony Palmer and Karen Bartlett for their work so far on the
Challenge, and for the following feedback which we hope will be
useful to all the entrants, and to
anyone interested in the crafting of biography:
Some of these entries were autobiographical while some chose historical subjects, but all the authors could have benefited from really focusing on what elements of their story were unique and compelling – and overall themes that could sustain an entire narrative.
For those writing about themselves, or close family, much depends on the writing itself – can you draw out those details in how someone spoke or acted, or a scene that took place, that really brings your story to
life? Is the whole of this person’s life interesting, or is one portion really much more interesting than the rest, and, if so, perhaps the narrative should be based on that time period or event. Can you show us a person’s true nature – including some of the bad points, which makes them so much more real? Can you also introduce enough, but not too much, historical
context to make the reader understand the unique sense of time and place?
For historical characters it is a challenge to find someone who has not been written about before, but has an interest for a wider audience. Or perhaps you have identified a very specific niche. Again, the challenge is to weave together the right amount of historical research and context with the personal details that bring your character and story to life… have you thought about what you really want to convey about this person, a warts and all account is so much more interesting!
To find a fascinating subject is, paradoxically, the easiest part of the process. It’s what you do with that subject which matters. It’s not sufficient merely to describe what happens. We have to understand, and feel, what happens. Otherwise the writing is all external. It is the internal workings of the mind and the imagination that make great writing.
Much of the writing I was asked to consider was drowning in adjectives. Cut them all out. Read Chapter One of Disgrace by J.M.Coetzee, one of the great pieces of writing in contemporary literature, and if you can find a single adjective, you win a prize. Yet the writing is spine-chillingly atmospheric and unforgettable.
On some subjects research is obviously essential, but you must never make the reader aware of that research. Schindler’s Ark was one of the most carefully researched books of recent years, and even though its historical accuracy has occasionally been questioned, its historical and emotional truth has never been doubted.
And never say “I remember...” unless it’s the first line of a novel. Did Joyce in The Dubliners? Or even L.P.Hartley in The Go-Between with that famous opening line -
"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Obviously he is remembering; but does he say so, in so many words? Of course not.
A novel, a memoir, is a journey of exploration. Most great novelists will tell you that when they begin a story, they have no idea where it will lead them. So for them too it is a journey of exploration. If you cannot make the reader feel precisely that, then you shouldn’t even begin the first line.
Above all, say what you mean, and mean what you say. What you say, not what someone else says. What you feel, not what someone else describes as your feelings. Get this right and you have taken the first step.