Writing historical biographies

 9 November 2011

Sarah Gristwood is an acclaimed biographer whose books include Arbella: England’s Lost Queen, Bird of Paradise: the Colourful Career of the First Mrs Robinson; and Elizabeth and Leicester.

Sarah wrote the historical biographies Bird Of Paradise: The Colourful Career of the First Mrs Robinson and Elizabeth & Leicester.
Sarah wrote the historical biographies Bird Of Paradise: The Colourful Career of the First Mrs Robinson and Elizabeth & Leicester.

In my first book, Arbella: England’s Lost Queen, I managed to write something at once popular enough to reach the bestseller lists, and closely enough researched to get a certain scholarly recognition. That’s quite a hard balance to pull off, and I may never manage it again.

A writing career

"I would describe myself first and foremost as a writer. I have worked, and continue to work, in several different genres. But for the last decade, the bulk of my time has been spent writing historical biographies – three of them so far (two Tudor, one 18th century).

"I don’t think there is such a thing as a typical working day, for me. Every writer of any kind has their own pattern but mine is that I don’t have fixed hours. Conversely, while I have a biographical project in hand I’m never really off-duty.

"Unlike many biographers I don’t choose to get all my research finished before I start to write. But there are still differences between the earlier, more study-based, and the later stages of any project."

Starting out as a writer

"I studied English at Oxford. What’s probably more directly relevant is that, while at university, I became involved in student journalism. I also got a vacation job working on Tatler magazine under Tina Brown, a very prominent journalist who had been at my college before me.

"I managed to write something at once popular enough to reach the bestseller lists, and closely enough researched to get a certain scholarly recognition."

"I worked for many years as a journalist – and particularly, in the end, as a writer of profiles. Mini-biographies, in effect. The connections are obvious.

"My work as a journalist certainly helped me as a biographer, but I never did any specific training for either. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who was trained for biography.

"In both professions, more experienced individuals were helpful with specific questions or projects, but I’m not sure any more general mentoring is even possible."

"I slightly wish I’d stayed in academic life after my undergraduate degree and moved into writing that way. Alternatively, I might have made the move from journalism to biography earlier, and since making it, perhaps been a little bolder in my choice of subjects and the way I’ve tackled them.

"But it’s always a sliding scale: a balancing act between the kind of work you have to do to make a living, and what you’d choose ideally to do."

3 tips for being a biographer

1. Choose your subject well

"In biography the choice of subject is all-important. You need to be aware that there are fashions. They need not wholly guide you, but it is best to be alert to them.

2. Get your synopsis right

"Trying to get an agent or a publisher interested in the synopsis you present is also crucial.

"It needs to showcase not only the interest of your subject but the skills with which you approach it. In fact, I think the term ‘synopsis’ is something of a misnomer. ‘Presentation’ might be more accurate.

3. Master the detail

"Once you begin writing, the most helpful; thing I can say is: detail, detail, detail.

"One thing I found when interviewing celebrities as a journalist was that no-one ever asked you, afterwards, about your subject’s opinion on the big issues. Everyone asked what they were ‘like’.

 

Find out more at Sarah Gristwood's website


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