Useful tips to help provide a credible social context and cultural context for the subject of your biography

One of the most important considerations for your biography is to establish it in the chronological era in which it occurred. Your research must cover much more than the person about whom you write if the biography is to be a credible document.

Contextual Considerations

What was happening in the world, or locally, at a given time in your subject’s life? How did that impact on your subject’s actions and thinking? What hobbies did or does your subject enjoy? Your biography will gain substantial depth if you learn enough about that hobby and give life to it as part of your subject’s life.

Who did your subject admire? It’s important to learn about the people who inspired your subject because it’s likely they had an impact on your subject’s thinking.

What were their contemporaries doing? Sometimes a comparison is a useful way to highlight the social, political, educational, or economic backdrops against which your subject moved.

Chronological Order for Biography

Try to mark the eras through which your subject lived by illuminating them for your reader. It’s a useful way of breaking up the chronological order i.e. the dates; born this year, started school that year, married that year, and so on. The strict chronologically ordered facts of a life on which a biography is normally based, make dry reading of themselves. Good biographies provide the social context and cultural context for their subjects so that they live and breathe in the multi-hued panorama that is the backdrop of anyone’s life. Seek out this colour and do what you need to develop an in-depth enough grip on it that you could give a speech on the subject if asked.

This additional knowledge needs to be balanced with what you know of your subject’s thinking and actions and if you do it well, you will produce not only an excellent biography, but a jolly good read which is worthwhile beyond the biographical facts. People love to look into different worlds and feel they have learned something. A well researched biography provides this kind of enjoyable learning for readers.

Creating Vivid Biographical Settings

Where possible, stand literally in your subject’s footsteps. If you can describe the room the subject studied in, or slept in, or the atmosphere of a childhood living room, you add colour and depth. Stand at the places which you know to have been favoured by your subject, such as lakes, beaches, mountains, cafes, whatever environment you know to have had an impact on your subject’s consciousness. Here, in these places you will find colourful backdrops which will make your narrative authentic.

Be ready to enjoy broadening your own knowledge base as someone else’s life takes you into corners you would never have sought out of your own accord. This is one of the greatest gifts and pleasures of writing a biography.

©Theresa Sjoquist

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