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He said, She Said, They Said: Writing The Biography
by Charles W. Sasser

According to an old aphorism, everyone has a story to tell. Which writer has not been cornered at a party or gathering and offered the chance of a lifetime to become rich and famous? “I have a unique life story that would make a good book. I’ll tell it to you, you write it, and we’ll split the million dollars.”

While it may be true in some sense that everyone has at least one book in him, few such books are publishable. The truth is that the lives of most people are simply not interesting to anyone outside their immediate families. Having said that, however, I will add that I have published at least a dozen biographies about people who are interesting, sales of which have earned me upward of a quarter-million dollars. The trick is to select the right subject matter, research exhaustively, interview personally and thoroughly, and tell the story in an exciting format.

You might be surprised at the number of people in everyday life whose stories would fit comfortably between the covers of books. All you have to do is keep alert and listen. The name of Navy Lieutenant Commander Roy Boehm came up one day in a conversation. Boehm created the Navy SEALs and was the unit’s first commander. I called Roy on the phone. The result: First SEAL (Pocket,1997). The bio has gone through several printings in both hardcover and paperback and was the Main Selection of The Military Book Club.

Galen Kittleson, retired sergeant major from the U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets), was an unassuming little Iowa farmer when I met him. He was the only man in U.S. history to make four separate rescues of POWs--two in Vietnam, two during WWII, including the famous raid against Cabanatuan to free the Bataan Death March survivors. Raider (St. Martin’s, 2002) is still in print.

I met Lester and Norma Cobb (Arctic Homestead, St. Martin’s, 2002) on a hunting trip to Alaska. The last homesteaders under the Homestead Act, they took their four small children into the wilds of sub-arctic Alaska to build a life for themselves in the wilderness.

Patton’s Panthers (Pocket, 2004) began with an AP newspaper article I read. Ray Hildreth of Hill 488 (Pocket, 2003) was a karate instructor in a city not far from my ranch. Craig Roberts (The Walking Dead, Pocket, 1989) and I were cops in the same city. Ron Alexander and I served together in Army Special Forces; Taking Fire (St. Martin’s, 2000) tell his story as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.

Unlike some authors, I refuse to take advantage of my heroes and use their stories without compensation. That’s almost like stealing their lives. For a full-length bio, the split is usually seventy percent for me, thirty for the subject. I cannot pay for shorter stories such as the forty or so I used in my soon-to-be-released God In The Foxhole (Pocket, 2008). Splitting earnings that many ways, I would have to stop writing for a living and find a real job clerking at a local convenience store or something.

The interview is the most important part of writing the biography. However, preparing for the interview is almost equally essential. Before I ever tackle a one-on-one, I conduct exhaustive research through the internet and through published magazine articles and books, making notes and jotting down questions as I go along. I accumulated a box full of notes and clippings and read over twenty books before I seriously began interviewing Roy Boehm. I wanted to know everything possible not only about Boehm but also about the SEALs--training, history, missions, terminology, structure, prominent members. . .

I do similar research for every bio.

A subject will tell you far more and open himself more completely in a face-to-face interview. I spent several days on various occasions at the homes of Roy Boehm and Galen Kittleson, not only taping but also meeting their friends and family. Getting to know them personally. Evaluating their characters and personalities in order to feel them in my gut and understand their motivations, to find out why and how they react under various conditions. The only time I use a telephone is to clarify points or to interview for shorter pieces where it would be impractical and prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to make personal contact. Survivors of the African-American 761st Tank Battalion, for example, reside all over the United States.

Along the way, using this approach, I have developed firm and lasting friendships.

Now to the labor of writing the book. Most of the time I co-author, not only in order to tell the tale in first person, which seems more immediate and effective, but also because it is the one chance most of these people will ever have to be “author” of a book. It is little enough that I can do in exchange for their confidence in me.

Nothing puts a reader to sleep faster than an author stacking dates, times, places, names, facts and assuming that he is capturing the soul of his subject. Some of the most boring biographies I have ever read are about some of the most fascinating people, like Dwight Eisenhower, Ernest Hemingway, or Winston Churchill. A bio of Queen Victoria began with, “By 1819, the year of Queen Victoria’s birth, the British Empire was within sight of the heights of power and of wealth from which it was, briefly, to dominate the world. . .”

Yawn.

Academic chronology, I suppose, is okay if you’re after facts and it is required reading for class. Otherwise, most good biographers understand readers want to know their subject viscerally. They want to understand, to feel, to see. In other words, they want a ripping good story to go along with the facts.

The only way to satisfy this desire is to write the bio in the form of a nonfiction novel, possible by this time because you, the author, know your subject and subject matter intimately. Start in the middle of the action, hook the reader with the first paragraph, weave in facts and details piecemeal as part of the narrative, just like with any good thriller. Grab the reader by the throat on the first page and never let up.

Take the first paragraph of Arctic Homestead: “Being isolated and lonely is different from being in town and lonely. Few people can take it. They fall apart each in his own way just as I began to fall apart the moment Les pushed back his plate and looked at me across what remained of supper’s black bear roast...”

See what I mean? Maybe your next book should be a true life drama, a biography.

© Copyright 2007, Charles W. Sasser

Charles "Chuck" Sasser is author of more than 60 published books and thousands of magazine articles. Visit Chuck’s website, www.CharlesSasser.com

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