How to Choose a Biography for Historical Research

With hundreds of choices whats the key to finding the right biography?

With hundreds of choices what is the key to finding the right biography?

I find tackling a book of pure history a difficult task, all that information takes my brain ages to decipher and pick out the details I need.  Reading biographies is how history first came alive for me and remains my favorite type of research.

Choosing A Biography for Research….

                                       Even when the person has nothing to do with the story you are writing. 

  1. The right time–For instance the reigning monarch of the day  is a great place to start as you already know their exact dates.
  2. The right place–Obviously if your story is set in New York reading a biography of Queen Victoria will be of limited use, however Theodore Roosevelt would be an excellent choice.
  3. The right field of study–If you are writing about a doctor try checking out a biography of Florence Nightingale for medical details or Louis Pasteur to see what changes were in the offing.
  4. The Right Style–This is vital if you are to actually finish reading the book and thus be able to benefit. I prefer a narrative style with extensive quotes in the person’s own words. But you may prefer one that is more nuts and bolts mostly pivotal dates what happened to whom, where were they and why did it happen.

Made your Choice? Good. Now take it a step further…

Use The Bibliography–Obviously primary sources are the best sources but knowing where to start is difficult if not impossible. Try studying the bibliography of a biography that meets the above criteria and see which sources you can access without personal connections and without being physically present. (For example if you are writing from Perth Western Australia about New York in 1885 On-line sources are preferable)

For the curious person who really hates research…

Look for biographies for the children’s market. Children’s authors are excellent at writing biographies with humor, drama and surprising details. And they are designed to engage reluctant readers perfect for the reluctant researcher.

If you are just beginning your research and don’t have a clue where to find the names of anyone other than the monarch try a Wiki search by time period and subject.  For example: Female Architects, Composers of the 19th century, British Artists  of the 1840’s… You get the idea. But if you need more help see my post on how to use Wikipedia to spring board your research.

Now that you have chosen your biography check out my 5 tips for how to use it to inform your fiction.


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