"Writing Biographies" with Kay Cornelius

Thursday, April 5, 2001

Moderator is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books and over 150 articles. Kristi also taught writing for fifteen years.

Kay is Kay Cornelius. Kay has biographies out on Chamique Holdsclaw, a star basketball player, and Francis Marion, a hero of the American Revolution. Upcoming biographies in 2001 include those of Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe.

Names color coded in blue are viewers who asked questions.

Interviews take place on Thursday nights: 9-11 p.m. Atlantic/Canada, 8-10 p.m. Eastern, 7-9 Central, 6-8 Mountain, and 5-7 Pacific

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! Welcome to Long Ridge's Professional Connection! I'm Kristi Holl, your moderator and the web editor for this site. Tonight we have with us Kay Cornelius. Among her works of nonfiction are four biographies. She's written about famous people still living as well as those long deceased whom she "brings back alive" for readers. Stories of people who inspire have always been popular and will always be needed, and Kay's here tonight to answer questions, giving us the "nuts and bolts" of writing biographies. Welcome, Kay!

Kay: It's good to be here.

Moderator: Kay, how did you get started writing?

Kay: I began writing as a child when I ran out of anything to read. Like every other writer I have ever met, I have always been an avid reader.

Moderator: What appeals to you about writing biographies, this "bringing them back alive"?

Kay: I have always liked to find out what made people do the things they did and what influences shaped their lives. Truth is stranger than fiction, and some lives are pretty strange!

Moderator: Did you have any favorite biographies as a child?

Kay: I remember reading about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman M.D., and Madame Curie and Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale in particular.

Moderator: Many of my own favorites! How do you go about choosing a person to write about?

Kay: The biographies I have written lately have been in a series and I chose the ones I had the most interest in. I have to have some interest in the subject myself before I invest the time it takes to write a biography.

Moderator: When you look at Books in Print, does finding a book on your subject or several mean you shouldn't write about that person?

Kay: Not at all. New facts come to light all the time, and every writer will have a slightly different "take" on the subject.

Moderator: Conversely, if there's no book on your subject, does that necessarily mean s/he would be a good subject for a biography?

Kay: No, it could just mean that no one else has had the idea yet. Many people who are not well-known public figures make good biographical subjects.

Kevin: How do you judge if someone you want to write about would "sell" both to an editor and to the public?

Kay: Usually if they are unique themselves or have done something unique. On the other hand, they might be interesting unknowns with a great story to tell.

Moderator: Kay, what exactly are you trying to accomplish when you write a biography?

Kay: I want to make the readers feel that they have actually met the person and made a new friend and/or learned something special they didn't know before. Biographies can inspire young people and help us all to live many lives vicariously.

Moderator: Do you try to include everything that happened in a person's life?

Kay: It would be neither wise nor possible to include everything in a person's life, even if we could find it out. The challenge is to select the key points, the turning points in a person's life.

Moderator: Do you avoid anything that makes the subject look bad?

Kay: An honest biographer has to examine the warts, but doesn't dwell on them. In the past, I think writers tended to believe that their subjects had to come off like saints as in Parson Weems' biographies of George Washington and other famous early heroes. In modern times, the reverse seems to be true. People tend to dig more dirt, so to speak. Tell-all biographies usually sell well, but they don't stand the test of time. Compare them with, say, Carl Sandburg's writings about Lincoln.

Moderator: Is it better to write about a well-known person or a lesser-known one?

Kay: That depends on your purpose. In general, the reading public is more interested in public figures than nobodies, but some of the most entertaining books I've read have been about persons who were not necessarily household names. Again, ordinary people who have overcome obstacles are always good biographical subjects.

Moderator: Should you start with the person's birth and go in chronological order through his/her life?

Kay: I would rather show the person in action and then go back and show how he or she achieved whatever it is I'm featuring. The rest of the biography ought to be chronological to avoid confusing the readers. Chapters can also feature different aspects of the person's life, but not necessarily in strict chronological order.

Kevin: Should the tone of the biography "match" the person's life? If you're writing about a comedian, do you have to write "funny"? etc.

Kay: I don't think so. But you'd have to show what made that person a comedian in the first place. Oftentimes, they didn't have funny lives at all.

Moderator: What's the first thing you do when you start a new biography?

Kay: Research, research, research. First, last, and always.

Moderator: Do you do an outline?

Kay: Yes. I always write from an outline. It's a large help in breaking down larger subjects into manageable bits.

Moderator: Exactly what type of outline do you do? How detailed is it?

Kay: I begin with the number of chapters I will be writing, and then brainstorm possible chapter units. For example, I know I will have to deal with the person's education at some point, so that goes onto the outline fairly early on.

JaciRae: Do you sell your biographies with an outline? Is that how it's generally done?

Kay: Yes. The editor for whom I work asks for the first chapter or so and a chapter by chapter synopsis of the rest of the book. The outline is always subject to change, but I find it helpful to have it in hand and know that the editor is satisfied with the material before I commit myself to writing the entire book. Most publishers work that way.

Moderator: Do you start writing right away, or do you do all the research first that you think you might need?

Kay: I have to do quite a bit of research before I can do the synopsis. The only part I write right away is the first chapter, the "hook" for the biography.

Moderator: How do you research the person's life?

Kay: I begin by finding out what's already been written about the person. I use the Internet quite a bit to steer me to books and other material, and I read everything I can find about the people. In the case of a living subject, I also try to contact him or her personally.

Moderator: Do you use other people's biographies for research?

Kay: Yes. It's interesting to see how widely different biographies of the same person can be. For example, Edgar Allan Poe was either a misunderstood genius or a raving, drunken madman, depending on the biases of some of the writers who have produced biographies of the man. Everyone has a bias or two about the subjects.

Moderator: How do I know that I won't be repeating errors written by other biographers?

Kay: Research, research, research! I did an article on a Union general who led the Federal forces which occupied Huntsville, AL, in 1862. I went to Cincinnati, his home town, and read original papers that gave information not available in anything that was in print at that time. I learned that he died of yellow fever in Hilton Head, SC. While in SC a year or so later, I read two local histories which said he died of malaria. One apparently made the error and the other copied it. That's why using the best sources is so vital.

Moderator: What do you do if your sources disagree? How do you know who's right?

Kay: It doesn't take long to find out who the "experts" are in any field. I always try to ferret out the ones that would be most likely to value the truth, and in case of a difference, go with them. This doesn't happen often, though.

Moderator: If sources disagree, can you present the material saying, "Sources disagree about ..., but..."?

Kay: Of course. In fact, when writing about something like Poe's mysterious death, all you can do is present all the theories and leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

Moderator: Do you travel to the places where the person lived?

Kay: When I can, I like to visit places connected with the person. I've been to several places--such as Orchard House, the Alcott's home--where the background really makes the person who lived there come alive. In that case, it was Louisa May Alcott. Many Poe sites are open to the public as well, and the Dickinson Homestead is a pleasure to visit.

Kevin: Do you get a travel budget for this? Or can it be tax deductible?

Kay: Very few writers get advances that include travel expenses for regular biographies. It is tax deductible, however, since it is a part of the cost of doing business. Of course, in that case you deduct your expenses but can't deduct those of your traveling partner.

Moderator: How do you find resource material when you get to these places?

Kay: Any town that has a halfway famous person always has a Chamber of Commerce or local Historical Society. People in these places love to show off their town's famous citizen, and there's always someone who knows tales that can't be found anywhere else. The local newspaper is a good place to start asking questions.

Moderator: Do you have to find the photos etc. and pay for permission to use them?

Kay: With my publisher, I do not have that responsibility. However, if you are thinking of doing freelance biographies, you will definitely want to obtain pictures and the necessary permissions. My editor asks that I let them know when I run across a potential photo source, but I don't have to do the legwork myself.

Satch: How do you credit sources like the Historical Society?

Kay: It's important to credit all information. In a way, writing a biography is like doing a term paper--a LONG term paper. Usually if the information is in pamphlet form, it can be included in the bibliography of sources consulted. If you use a direct quotation from someone, it is common courtesy to say so and give the speaker the credit.

Moderator: Do you interview people?

Kay: I interview people when I can find anyone that has information on the subject. I have done one biography on a living person, and unfortunately I was not able to obtain a personal interview with her. I did talk to a cousin of hers and others who had direct knowledge that I could use.

2write: Do you interview people through e-mail too?

Kay: I would if I had their e-mail addresses. This might be a good time to mention that many web sites are dedicated to people someone admires enough to dedicate a site to, but sometimes their accuracy doesn't match their enthusiasm. I am cautious about these sites, because I have seen many errors in them.

Ridley: If you quote a now-living person, what elements do you use to credit them? Just a name? An explanation of who they are in relationship to the subject matter?

Kay: Good question, Ridley. Give the name and explain who they are and make sure that you use "" marks when quoting them directly. The reader will certainly want to know why what that person has to say is important, so that usually comes first, before the quotation.

Moderator: Do you make up conversation in your biographies that might have taken place?

Kay: It's tempting to do that, but in great moderation. Several problems arise with this, not the least of which is the difference in speech between our time and past times. Certainly, I would never try to put words in the mouth of a living person. That is not a good idea, legally or editorially, either.

Moderator: Do you describe incidents that might have happened?

Kay: If the context calls for some interpretation of facts, I have added my suppositions about it, but when I do that, I make it clear that it is a supposition. Once in an article I suggested that a certain person might have been the inspiration for a Walt Whitman poem. In later research, I found I was right--one of Whitman's biographers had tracked down the probable sources of the poem. But it's always better to err on the side of supposition and say so.

Moderator: Do you fictionalize anything? And at what point does it cross over from nonfiction to historical fiction then?

Kay: It is probably not possible to write a biography without some "fiction" involved, but just as with incidents that "might" have taken place, it's best not to add outright fiction.

james55clinton: Would you write a biography on a living person who objected to it?

Kay: Probably not. Most well-known people like to have what is called "authorized" biographies. Once the person has agreed to the more or less official biography, he or she will not cooperate with any other biographers. It would be difficult to get something published when the subject didn't cooperate.

keeshlon: Once you have a final draft of your interview, do you get the written approval of the person interviewed in order to avoid a lawsuit due to inaccuracies?

Kay: Some writers make it a point NOT to show the finished article or segment to the subject. Others do ask the subject to sign a release. A lawsuit over inaccuracies sounds pretty drastic. I don't know of any cases where that has happened. A good way to interview is by tape recorder. That way the subject knows what s/he says will be recorded accurately.

Moderator: Nuts and bolts time now--how do you organize your notes?

Kay: I am a stickler for 3 x 5 cards. I put facts on the cards, keyed to a number which represents the source of the information. Then I can arrange them and rearrange them as needed. I also photocopy pertinent material and underline the material I want to quote.

Moderator: You touched on this earlier...what about research online?

Kay: I do a great deal of research online. My state has made the Virtual Library free to all who have a library card. Through it, I can access literary criticism, all sorts of data bases, and can research for specific topics in hundreds of periodicals. That is the most accurate research. If you type in a name in a search engine, you will get chaff along with the wheat.

Moderator: Wow! For general users, how do you know whether a source is reliable? Are there telltale signs either way?

Kay: Well, when I find a web site that talks about Edgar ALLEN Poe, I log out in a hurry. (It's Allan, not Allen!) If an individual is doing the site, as opposed to a school or other entity, that's not as reliable. One of my best sources recently was the Emily Dickinson Society.

Moderator: How many sources do you find before you consider a fact valid?

Kay: It depends on the nature of the fact. Things like when a person was born or when s/he died are usually pretty cut and dried. But for something that is the least bit controversial, I like to see at least two reliable sources agree before I go with it.

Moderator: How long does it take you to write a biography? From research through final draft, that is.

Kay: That depends on how long it is. I spend several weeks just gathering facts and getting a feel for the person before I start writing. Research continues all the time I am writing, but for a short biography, I allow six weeks. The longer ones take from two to three months.

Moderator: How long are your biographies, Kay?

Kay: The ones for children 8-12 are 8000 words, divided into 8 chapters. The Poe and Dickinson biographies, for ages 13-15, are 20,000 words. I have also done several articles running from 2500 to 5 or 6000 words.

Moderator: How long does it take to do the research? And which takes longer, the writing or the research?

Kay: As I said, research is ongoing, but the initial research can take as long as I am still finding information I need. The writing takes longer, because of the necessity to integrate the research into the text. Every fact has to be accounted for, and all documentation has to be sent to the editor. This is why it is so important to make sure every source is noted and good notes are kept.

Kevin: I have in my possession some original Civil War diaries. Would a biography of a non-famous soldier sell? I have the old photos, his personal stories, etc.

Kay: That is a good example of the kind of biography of a non-famous person. Such a book would be of great interest to many people. In fact, many such memoirs are being printed all the time, and they usually do well.

Moderator: How do you sell a biography? For adult nonfiction, is an agent required?

Kay: Agents are far more willing to handle adult nonfiction than fiction. Nonfiction a big seller, and agents like to sell books for their clients. I wouldn't say that you would have to have an agent, but it would help.

Moderator: You mentioned writing shorter bios. Can you write biographies for magazines?

Kay: Definitely. The magazine market for short bios is huge. People have an insatiable curiosity about each other, apparently.

Moderator: How does a magazine biography differ from a book, other than length?

Kay: The focus of a magazine article about a person will be sharper. Instead of the person's whole life, a magazine article will treat one aspect or event in it, as a rule.

Kevin: When you say "magazine biographies," are you talking about doing personality profiles?

Kay: Not necessarily. I did an article about a local artist who died in 1905, and another about the aforementioned Union general who, coincidentally, took over the artist's family's home in 1862. Another article dealt with an ancestor who was a Confederate scout in Mississippi. Other fertile fields include people who have overcome hardships, done unique things, etc.

Moderator: Are many publishers looking for biographies? Any particular ones you can recommend?

Kay: I believe that publishers are always looking for biographies. The best place to look is the book store--what publishers are doing biographies now, and what kind of people are they featuring? If you know you have an idea that hasn't been done, you have a better chance of breaking into the field.

Moderator: How can you promote your biography? Schools? Historical societies?

Kay: Anyone who is related to the person you wrote about will be happy to let all his or her friends and everyone else they know know all about it. Schools and libraries and historical societies are all good vehicles for publicity.

Moderator: How do you end a biography? Is it always with the death of the person? Sounds depressing!

Kay: It doesn't have to be depressing, if the last chapter doesn't deal with the death and that's it. The last chapter of the Poe biography lists all the places where Poe lived--and where his spirit is still alive and quite well.

james55clinton: Do you ever do commissioned autobiographies?

Kay: I have been asked to, once, and declined. It turned out that the person who wanted me to be his ghost writer had an ax to grind with just about everyone he ever knew. I didn't think I could write anything that would make us both happy.

JaciRae: How do you avoid being biased in your writing, especially if you admire your subject and want others to admire him/her too? How do you avoid being saccharine?

Kay: You can't help but have some bias. I have to admire the subjects, or I won't write about them. But that doesn't mean that I put them on a pedestal, either. I have never thought about avoiding being saccharine. I suppose I let the facts speak for themselves, and the lives are not all sweetness and light.

Moderator: I'm sorry to interrupt, but we're out of time now. Kay, we covered a lot of information tonight! Thank you for the specific help you gave our viewers so that they, too, can try their hand at writing a biography. We appreciate you coming tonight!

Kay: Thank you. It's been my pleasure.

Moderator: Do come back in two weeks on April 19 when Colleen McKenna will be talking on the dual subject of "Editors and Critique Groups: How to Take Feedback." We all need constructive criticism, but whose can you trust? Must you take all editorial suggestions? What about your critique group? How do you find or create a good group whose feedback you can trust? The competition is tough in the marketplace, and we want to submit our best work. But who do we listen to? Come back in two weeks to hear this author of l7 books discuss this important topic. Until then, have a great weekend! Good night, everyone!

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