How To Do Biography: A Primer

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Overview

It is not surprising that biography is one of the most popular literary genres of our day. What is remarkable is that there is no accessible guide for how to write one. Now, following his recent Biography: A Brief History (from Harvard), award-winning biographer and teacher Nigel Hamilton tackles the practicalities of doing biography in this first succinct primer to elucidate the tools of the biographer’s craft.

Hamilton invites the reader to join him on a fascinating journey through the art of biographical composition. Starting with personal motivation, he charts the making of a modern biography from the inside: from conception to fulfillment. He emphasizes the need to know one’s audience, rehearses the excitement and perils of modern research, delves into the secrets of good and great biography, and guides the reader through the essential components of life narrative.

With examples taken from the finest modern biographies, Hamilton shows how to portray the ages of man—birth, childhood, love, life’s work, the evening of life, and death. In addition, he suggests effective ways to start and close a life story. He clarifies the difference between autobiography and memoir—and addresses the sometimes awkward ethical, legal, and personal consequences of truth-telling in modern life writing. He concludes with the publication and reception of biography—its afterlife, so to speak.

Written with humor, insight, and compassion, How To Do Biography is the manual that would-be biographers have long been awaiting.

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Editorial Reviews

thebiographerscraft.com

No one writing biography can afford to ignore this edifying book. Nigel Hamilton has the depth and breadth of experience to write about a genre that he champions...While this is a “how-to” book, even the most seasoned biographer will find much of value about choosing a subject; doing proposals for biographies; handling interviewing; negotiating the perils of publishing unauthorized biographies; managing biographical narratives; writing with an audience in mind; and the nexus between memoir, autobiography, and biography.

— Carl Rollyson

Boston Globe

[How To Do Biography] offers a well-written, sensible, and, given its brevity, fairly encompassing assessment of what it is that a biographer does and how he goes about doing it...Hamilton is quite eloquent and persuasive in discussing how things come around at the end, not only at death, but after, when the life meets posterity.
— Sven Birkerts

The Age

The book is full of good advice and interesting stories.
— Owen Richardson

thebiographerscraft.com - Carl Rollyson
No one writing biography can afford to ignore this edifying book. Nigel Hamilton has the depth and breadth of experience to write about a genre that he champions...While this is a “how-to” book, even the most seasoned biographer will find much of value about choosing a subject; doing proposals for biographies; handling interviewing; negotiating the perils of publishing unauthorized biographies; managing biographical narratives; writing with an audience in mind; and the nexus between memoir, autobiography, and biography.
Boston Globe - Sven Birkerts
[How To Do Biography] offers a well-written, sensible, and, given its brevity, fairly encompassing assessment of what it is that a biographer does and how he goes about doing it...Hamilton is quite eloquent and persuasive in discussing how things come around at the end, not only at death, but after, when the life meets posterity.
The Age - Owen Richardson
The book is full of good advice and interesting stories.
Library Journal

This marvelous work-basically, a how-to book-is comprehensive in its treatment of everything necessary to creating a published biography. Hamilton, who has authored biographies of Field Marshall Montgomery, John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton, here leaves nothing unsaid on the subject. He thoroughly details biography's agenda and motivation and describes its target audience, who will expect something of a revelation concerning the human condition. Of paramount importance, Hamilton insists, is research-the verifiable truth-and a narrative that reveals the individual behind the image. Also vital to the biography's success is sequencing: of the subject's love life (not to be confused with his or her sexual life) and, if relative, of the subject's birth, youth, middle and twilight years, and death. He additionally scrutinizes autobiography and memoir writing, the consequence of telling the truth, and biography's afterlife. The exceptional excerpts Hamilton selects from published biographies to illustrate his points are both edifying and entertaining. Recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Robert Kelly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674066151
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/22/2012
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 992,949
  • Product dimensions: 6.80 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Nigel Hamilton is the author of prize-winning biographies of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and of John F. Kennedy. He is currently a Senior Fellow of the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
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Table of Contents

  • Introduction


I. Getting Started
  • The Task of Biography
  • What Is Your Agenda?
  • Defining Your Audience
  • Researching Your Subject
  • The Shape of a Life


II. Composing a Life-Story
  • The Starting Point
  • Birthing Your Subject
  • Childhood and Youth
  • Love Stories
  • Life’s Work
  • The Twilight Years
  • Ending Your Story


III. Variations on a Theme
  • Autobiography and Memoirs
  • Memoir
  • Truth—and Its Consequences
  • The Afterlife

  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index

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