Skip to Content

John Jenkins October 09


The October column from the former editor of Writers' Forum

John JenkinsAs a publisher and editor I have been answering queries from writers for something like 20 years and as a result I have recently published a book FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers.


How to kickstart a biography

You may not enjoy the celebrity status to receive an automatic advance running into thousands of pounds – like Mae West or Wayne Rooney - but that does not mean you cannot enjoy writing a family history, biography or memoir.

After all, that is how best-sellers A Year in Provence (Peter Mayle) and The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady (Edith Holden) began.

In my writing classes I always urge people to have two pieces of work in progress simultaneously. And the easiest and most satisfying second option is a family history.

Tackling a family history employs all the qualities you need to be an entertaining writer –and anybody who has a clear mind and can write a letter can write such a book.

Divide your time into the following sections:

  • Research
  • Writing
  • Publication

Research sounds a forbidding word – hours poring over books and copious note-making.  Not at all. It begins with talking to people.

Talk to the oldest people in your family. Ask for their earliest memories, significant happenings in their lives, scrapbooks, postcards, ration books, identity cards, service pay books, copies of school reports, membership of professional bodies or societies and their hobbies.

These are primary and the most important sources. Make yourself a checklist, start with the above and add, where appropriate:

Career details, marriage dates, birthdays of other relatives, religion, family bible, stamp, coin or other collections, letters, receipts, wills, holiday memories, sporting achievements, meetings with famous people, political activity, illnesses and operations, achievements of relatives, financial windfalls or setbacks, love affairs, wartime experiences, voluntary or charitable work and outstanding memories of international or national events.

The answers to these points will lead to a host of supplementary questions, which will give you a true picture of the minutiae of life.

Don’t forget that gossip is the spice to heighten the interest and most families will find skeletons tumbling out of the cupboard before you have covered three generations. This will help your story for, just as in fiction, baddies make more interesting copy than goodies. The checklist will help to ensure that you do not miss vital information. This will be equally valuable if you are intent on writing a personal memoir.

From primary sources move to secondary ones ranging from:

Parish records
Magazines to read
Books which will help
Websites to use
Societies that will help
DNA analysis

and organise your material, whether you use a computer or a card index and boxes.

Start in your newsagent, which carries the widest range of magazines.  Genealogy is the fastest growing hobby in Britain with interest fuelled by television programmes like Who Do You Think You Are?

You will find several magazines dealing with the subject.  Some will have cover-mounted CDs which give them added value with tips on how to search various census returns.  Judge for yourself which ones will give you the best value.

The next stop must be to join the Federation of Family History Societies. Tap in FFHS into your search engine and you will have access to an amazing amount of information valuable to beginners and experts.

The FHSS is an educational charity formed 34 years ago and has more than 200 affiliated societies throughout the world including national, international and regional groups.

It organises courses and speakers who are specialists in family history, heraldry and related subjects.

Through the FHSS you have access to research from the Society of Antiquaries, the Society of Archivists, the Historical Association, the British Records Society, the National Archives, the Family Records Centre and the Office for National Statistics.

You will also find a national network, which will almost certainly have a society dedicated to work in your county.

If, however, you live in Kent and your family originated in Cumberland it may well be worth your while to join both. Subscriptions are small and the benefits enormous. This can save you hours in your research.

You will be the beneficiary of advice from thousands of other people who have explored the historical trails of their own families.

Your next stop should be the reference section of your largest public library. Ask to see:

Writing Your Family History by Deborah Cass, published by the Crowood Press

The latest edition of The Family and Local History Handbookedited by Robert Blatchford

Ancestral Trails: the Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History by Mark Herber published by Sutton. 

Tracing Your Family History by Anthony Adolph published by Harper Collins

And if your family has members who have emigrated to the United States:

The Sleuth Book for Genealogists by Emily Anne Groome, published by Betterway Books.

Now you need a plan.

Of course it will be subject to change for as the Chinese say,   “No battle plan ever survived contact with the enemy.”  The more detailed your plan the easier your writing task will be. How you collate your information will determine your speed of progress.

Do remember to back up regularly on either CDs or memory sticks.  Nothing can be more disheartening than losing hours or even months of work because of a computer malfunction or thunderstorm.

Decide what period you choose to cover and let’s take a Family History as an example.

It’s relatively easy to go back to the middle of the 18th century. Hence your plan can include chapters based on decades: 1750-1760, 1770-1780, right up the present day.

You will find it easier to work backwards and with much more information available recent chapters will be easier to write.

Whatever you decide, do not delay making a start on the book. Even novelists can sometimes get so bogged down in research that they forget that the ultimate aim is to produce a book.

Your book should be interesting even to people outside your immediate family circle.  Hence there is no point in starting:

James Bray was born in Ireland in 1850 and came to England at the age of 12. when you could possibly write:

James Bray was born in Cork in 1850 and to escape the potato famine which condemned a million people to death by starvation, and forced another million Irishmen to emigrate, he stowed away on a ferry and arrived penniless and hungry in Liverpool  at the age of 12. He was my great grandfather.

You can set your ancestors against the background of history even if the only date you know is 1066.

The date of birth is not always the most significant event. Take your own life.  There has probably been a turning point which had a profound effect on making you the person you are: Take the following first lines, all better than I was born on…

I was five years old when Britain declared war on Germany in 1939 and apart from a short time in the country lived through the Blitz in the East End of London…

I was just four years old when my mother walked out on my father. It was 20 years before I saw her again.

The joy of a State Scholarship which gave me entrance to Balliol College, Oxford was more valuable than I could ever have imagined.

Sometimes luck plays a part in life and just through being a good cricketer at school I became articled to a firm of solicitors without my parents having to find the £250 fee.

A spell in hospital as a child convinced me that one day I would become a nurse but I never imagined I would one day run one of the biggest teaching hospitals in London.

There is a pivotal point in most people’s lives. Sometimes there is more than one and you have the luxury of making a choice.

A while ago I was commissioned to write a biography of a man who had lost two close relatives to cancer and vowed that he would support medical charities in an attempt to cure this disease. He founded a company which to date has donated more than £50 million to medical charities.  Here is how I began the book:

For most people the Sixties were swinging: the Beatles, Carnaby Street, fashion, mini skirts and the decade when Britain finally shook off the ravages of World War II and began to believe – and in a sense fear – that, in the words of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, they had never had it so good.

…It was also a time when more serious commentators could point to the Cuban missile crisis when Khrushchev and Kennedy stood eyeball to eyeball on the diplomatic stage while the world was threatened with the Cold War extending into a nuclear one and the extinction of mankind…cancer was a killer to be feared and three quarters of the male population still smoked…

Supposing you have an ancestor born in Wales who was a miner in 1846. Type in “Mining in Wales 1846” into your search engine and see what you achieve. I tried it and found an accident, which killed 35 men. There were many other fascinating entries.

As a detective investigating your family history you will almost certainly get hooked. As for publishing the results there have been dozens of articles on self-publishing and you will find Print on Demand an excellent way to begin.


If you have a question you would like John to answer please email it to:

The latest book from John Jenkins is FAQs and the Answers for Ambitious Writers

Related Items in our Amazon Store

Publisher: Cooper Johnson Limited
Kindle Edition
Sales rank: 1,480,471