The Biography Continuum

I’ve recently read two biographies – one on Clementine Churchill and another on Wallis Simpson. Actually the second is labelled fictional biography which brings me to the point of today’s post: the biography continuum.

In a post called Three Flavours of Historical Fiction, I suggested a taxonomy for historical fiction to illustrate the varying ways novels adhere to historical fact, present historical characters, and present historical detail. And what can be said about biographies of historical figures?

historical-biography-continuum

 

The facts, the facts: Some biographies – the one on Penelope Fitzgerald is an example – adhere so strictly to fact that the reader can discover the name of an individual’s favourite stuffed animal or their preferred brand of tea and likely both. No doubt I’m doing an injustice to Hermione Lee, however, the detail in this biography was so dense and, to my mind, irrelevant, I did not read past Penelope Fitzgerald’s early life. Alternatively, Patton: Blood, Guts and Prayer by Michael Keane weaves facts drawn from biographies, family papers, speeches, and Patton’s personal diaries to illustrate the complexities of this famous soldier while building a compelling picture of dedication and leadership.

Story elements: Some biographers incorporate a sense of story to the biography, captivating readers with a more selective approach to their subject’s biography and creating a story arc (to borrow a concept from fiction) that includes tension, conflict and rich character development. Sonia Purnell might be offended but I’ve put her biography of Clementine Churchill in this category. One aspect Purnell is particularly adept at is creating dialogue using actual words from the extensive correspondence between Clementine and Winston as well as friends and other family members.

Fictional biography: With fictional biography, authors more freely imagine aspects of their subject’s life to weave a novel from the facts. We might think of the facts as the background and the story as the foreground. The Shadow Queen by Rebecca Dean includes so much detail of Wallis Simpson’s life, I actually thought I was reading a biography for the first several chapters. Alternatively, when reading Circling the Sun by Paula McLain, I had no doubt I was in the grip of fiction.

I enjoy biographies and have been totally engrossed by many over the years. What are your thoughts and preferences?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Circling-the-SunWhen you’ve had a blockbuster like The Paris Wife, I’m sure most writers would find writing the next novel rather daunting. The question of whether or not you could create that magic formula again would hang over every sentence written. But Paula McLain did not give up, instead she wrote Circling the Sun, a wonderful story about Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly solo east to west across the Atlantic.

I attended a book discussion last week where the accomplished Elaine Newton gave us her take on Circling the Sun. Ms. Newton’s discussions are much more than a book review for she delves into the context of the work – in this case early 20th century Kenya – the author’s personal and writing background, and the story of how the book came about. Oh, and yes, she does review the book as well.

Imagine a woman abandoned by her mother at the age of four, left to live with her father on a ranch many miles from Nairobi, raised partly by an indigenous family, thrown out of boarding school, rebellious, determined, stubborn. Well, you can imagine what fodder that is for a great story.

Beryl Markham’s life and times come alive in this fictionalized biography and Paula McLain has done superb research to accomplish this feat. She took four years to write Circling the Sun and might never have had the opportunity if not for an offhand mention from her now brother-in-law that she should read Markham’s memoir West With the Night. That book hooked McLain on the idea.

According to Elaine Newton, Paula McLain uses the people, dates, and main events as the ‘spine’ of her novel and sets about creating the interior life of her protagonist, imagining the protagonists motivations and personal insights and building them into the story. She fills in the gaps of the truth, finding gossip and innuendo and then deciding what makes most sense for the character she has come to know. McLain brings great skill with dialogue, suspense, pacing and authenticity. Newton also admires the structure of the novel, bookended as it is with Beryl’s harrowing flight across the Atlantic.

It’s an epic tale of a woman who slowly becomes the woman she wants to be despite the personal costs. A woman who dares to put freedom first.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016.

Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

2015 A Year of Reading – Part 2

Books read 2015On January 6th, I posted 24 of the 40 books read during 2015. So today I’m including the balance using the same rating system: LR = light, enjoyable read; GR = good, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NMT = not my type.

In the process of writing this post, I’ve discovered two additional books read this year. You’ll see them listed at the end.

June The Dream Lover Elizabeth Berg GR Novel about George Sand; back and forth timeline was confusing; events felt repetitive
Mademoiselle Chanel C.W. Gortner ER Coco Chanel in all her glories and contradictions; not quite as compelling as The Queen’s Vow or The Last Queen
Will Poole’s Island Tim Weed ER In 17th century New England, a young man meets a visionary native; Excellent historical fiction
July Death of a Century Daniel Robinson NMT Read for an HNS feature; poorly written
Aug The Ashford Affair Lauren Willig ER A woman uncovers a family mystery; well written page turner
Claude & Camille Stephanie Cowell ER Claude Monet and his first wife Camille; great historical detail of impressionist era
Children of War Martin Walker LR Mystery set in Dordogne; lots of twists and turns; read as audiobook
The Children Act Ian McEwan ER McEwan is a superb writer; this is a poignant tale that is hard to put down
Sept H is For Hawk Helen MacDonald NMT Book club read; memoir; way too much detail on goshawks
Elizabeth I Margaret George OR Elizabeth I in her later years; superb characters and history; the second half is particularly compelling
Oct The Muralist B.A. Shapiro GR Art and intrigue at the beginnings of WWII; distracting dual time structure and multiple voices
Nov Mr. Churchill’s Secretary Susan Elia MacNeal LR Whodunit set in WWI England
Power Play Danielle Steele NMT I’m sure there are fans of Danielle Steele but I’m not one of them; trite and simplistic
The Golden Child Penelope Fitzgerald DNF Quirky people employed at a British museum
Dec Circling the Sun Paula McLain ER Based on the life of Beryl Clutterbuck the first woman to fly across the Atlantic; well written; rich characters & setting
The Secret Chord Geraldine Brooks OR The life of the biblical King David as told by his prophet Natan; historically captivating
Oops– forgot these Purity Jonathan Franzen DNF Annoying characters and thin plot; guess I’m not a Franzen fan
The Lover’s Path Kris Waldherr LR Novella told like a fable

2016 is off to the races with Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, The House I Loved by Tatiana de Rosnay, At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Blakewell which I began in late November, and Paris Reborn by Stephane Kirkland.

Wishing everyone a great year of reading.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.