About a year ago, I resolved to write the life story of one of my relatives – George Jennings Collis – over a series of blog posts. As I said at the outset, “At this stage, I’m not sure how many blog posts his story will need; I can see the horizon, so to speak, but I’m not quite sure how I’ll get there. In any event, it isn’t a sprint and let’s hope we enjoy the journey along the way, week by week.”
Well, now the task has been completed it’s time to reflect back. I’ll start with a confession: I had hoped to keep to the rhythm of writing one instalment each week, but alas, I couldn’t match the chapter-a-week discipline of Charles Dickens’ part works. Life managed to get in the way, as they say, and also some of the research took rather long than I’d expected. However, I got there in the end – telling George’s story over ten blog posts between June 2015 and August 2016.
So, what did I learn in the process? Here I share five top tips for blogging a life story.
(1) Choose your subject carefully – you, and your readers, should enjoy the journey with them. Choose a relative with some kind of narrative thread to their life story, and with scope to blend in aspects of social or local history that might be of interest to a wider readership. It doesn’t need to be a blockbuster storyline – rags-to-riches entrepreneurs and swashbuckling heroes are few and far between – but choose someone whose life included enough to give the story some kind of direction or theme. One of the reasons I chose George as my subject is that he moved around the country – from Leicester, Ardingly, Cambridge and Boston in his younger years to a succession of clerical appointments in Berwick, Embleton, Morpeth and Evenwood – which gave his story a natural momentum. I also figured that, as a vicar, he’d have a reasonable amount of documentation that I could draw upon in my writing. Not everyone has a roving vicar in their family tree. You might choose to write the biography of a factory worker who lived in one house their whole life – which could well need a slightly different approach, for example, structuring your biography around photos, recipes, music, or some other theme. Of which more, later.
(2) Sketch out a rough map, set your direction, and then follow your nose. One of the beauties of blog writing is that you don’t need to have it all mapped out at the outset. You can, to some extent, keep things flexible and follow your nose. You don’t have to write your biographical instalments in chronological order. You don’t have to tell the full cradle-to-grave life story of your subject. You could simply write a series of freestanding glimpses into aspects of your subject’s life. Having said that, it pays to have a basic map in mind before you set out on writing your biography. In George’s case, I constructed a timeline of the main moves in his life to get a sense of the broad direction of travel. I was keen to weave in a sense of his working life as much as his personal life. And there were some key documents and photos that I’d uncovered that were worth sharing. But with that loose framework in place, I felt able to concentrate on writing just one blog post at a time, without worrying too much about how the rest of the story would unfold. The journey did indeed take some diversions that I hadn’t predicted at the outset, which added to the enjoyment for me.
(3) Be resourceful in your research, and ask for help. You’re aiming to share a well-researched story with your readers, rather than simply relate the bare facts. Regurgitating a series of dates interspersed with factual text just won’t cut it. What might help you add colour to your story is locating and drawing upon a rich supply of resources. Firstly, seek out as many personal records about your subject as you can; this would include parish register entries, BMD certificates, census returns, directory listings and wills, of course, but take a look too for school records, newspaper clippings, military records and obituaries. You may be fortunate to have photos and letters amongst your family papers. With those in hand, your task then is to overlay a sense of place, time and context for your subject. Head to the local studies library or online for maps and photos of where your subject lived, research their occupation to find out how it was they made their living, and immerse yourself in social history to capture a sense of the times in which they lived. For George’s story, I drew heavily on Ancestry resources and the British Newspaper Archive, contacted his school, college and diocese, and was greatly helped by local historians in Evenwood.
(4) Experiment with your writing style, find your voice. Blog posts can work as standalone stories, which gives you a wonderful opportunity to try out a range of writing styles. Experiment with writing in the past tense and the present tense. Play with dialogue. Imagine an episode that, realistically, could have involved your relative. Could you illustrate your text with a quote from literature? A snippet from local history books? Some statistics? You can make up the rules as you go. But playing with different approaches might be a good way to ‘find your voice’ and the style that best suits you. In writing George’s story, for example, I was lucky enough to find a newspaper report of his leaving presentation at Morpeth that recorded verbatim the speeches made by him and his vicar, the Rev J J Davies. I’ve usually shied away from writing dialogue for fear of not capturing the tone and vocabulary appropriate for the period – so here was a chance to re-create a scene in the church hall, almost like the act of a play. In other blog posts, I included my own research trail as part of the storyline, rather like the approach taken in episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? where the viewer watches the story unfold in real time.
(5) Stick with it, share your work along the way, and celebrate. Writing can be a lonely business and it can be tricky to keep going. At times you might feel that your story has become bogged down, you’re struggling with the process of writing, or you’ve lost your initial enthusiasm. Each of us deals with writing discipline in our own way – some writers approach it like a timetabled job of work, others seem to wait for the creative urge to hit them – but the key thing is to stay committed to the process and to keep nudging forward. Some times, writing a full instalment might feel like a step too far, so you might want to get just a paragraph or some outline notes on the screen or page and save it as a draft to be re-visited tomorrow. In my case, I started with good intentions of writing a blog post once a week about George. But in practice it averaged out at once a month, with a long pause part way through. Not ideal, you might say, but there was always a working version of the next instalment on the drawing board – or in the ‘drafts’ section of WordPress, to be more precise. Part of the joy of blogging is that it enables you to share your work, piece by piece as you produce it. So, in the case of George’s episodes, I was able to share them with others via Tweets and Facebook posts, which helped me celebrate the point at which each post was finished. So, don’t give yourself too hard a time if your timetable slips, just ensure that you keep nudging forward and you’ll get there in the end.
So, what to try next? Well, I have in mind that I’d like to experiment with writing a life story based around a particular theme. For example, Mary Contini told her family story based around recipes in Dear Francesca, and Margaret Forster used houses to structure her autobiography, My Life in Houses. I’ll mull for a while longer – the dovetailing of person and theme needs to feel like a natural, unforced pairing – and before long I hope to get stuck into writing another life story to share with you.
And finally, in case you missed some of the instalments, you can catch up on the life story of George Jennings Collis here (with links to the previous episodes at the bottom of the post).