Must I Contact Descendants for Biography?


Dear Editor…

During the recent Picture Book Idea Month hosted by Tara Lazar, I had a question that popped up (and was referred your way). I have a nonfiction biography I’m working on (creative nonfiction). If the person still has possible living descendants, do you track them down for permission to write about the historical person (if they’re not someone famous)? What would a publisher’s or editor’s perspective be on a project like this? Any idea?


Dear Jena…

Though you don’t need descendants’ permission for biographies of private people, descendants can conceivably sue for an aspect of defamation/ invasion of privacy. They may not have standing or a strong case in this legal gray area, but you’d have to deal with it. Publishing contracts are usually worded to put that on you, although in-house attorneys weigh in. If your portrayal isn’t complimentary, smart money says have a publishing attorney assess your specifics to prevent greater future expense. I recently urged a client to do that because her subject is current generation, the circumstances emotional. The longer your subject has been deceased, the safer you likely are. Is there a moral imperative to seek permission? Get their blessing? I and experts I spoke with don’t think so. What if they decline? Will you trash your project? Do consider that descendants can be great resources, confirming/correcting info and providing insights, photos, documents. You could reach out for interviews or info without asking permission. Share your angle and aim to be thorough and fair.

Happy writing!
The Editor

Finding the Story among the Facts for a Biography


Dear Editor…

I’ve done so much research on my obscure historical figure that I think I know what kind of candy and dogs he would have liked. How do I begin to write a PicBk Historical Fiction or Biography when there is SO much to his story?

Thank you,

Dear Pat…

Writing a biography requires giving your subject’s life a unifying narrative—which requires narrowing your focus from all those facts to personal interpretation. What do you see when you look at that collection of facts? A man embodying the phrase “Don’t stop when you’re tired, stop when you’re done”? A man helping others at his own expense? Picture book biographies help children identify qualities that they already have in themselves or would be wise to cultivate. At this point you should identify the personal qualities that underpin the facts and events of this man’s life. To do that, make a list of catch phrases that describe his most notable qualities, as I did above. Then, pick one of those phrases to act as your book’s theme. THAT’s what you’ll write about, following that quality through the person’s life, using the facts to show that quality/theme at work. And if you get to talk about candy, all the better. It’s a book for kids, after all.

Happy writing!
The Editor