I started last year with a goal to write a book. Not just any book, but a biographical memoir of my late Father. I have not written a book before, and certainly not anything as complex as an account of another person’s life. Still, it was something I felt compelled to do, and, thanks to the encouragement of my husband, I ‘announced’ to my family what I was doing. That was the first step, and it took some courage.
I had no idea how to go about it. The longest thing I have written, in a long-time, is a blog, like this. That I know how to do. A biography? No idea.
I did some research, I tried to find a guide or how-to manual. There wasn’t one for this kind of book. I have read quite a few biographies and autobiographies, and took my early steps following some of their formulas – start with the background of the person in question, their parentage.
This set me off on a quest to gather together as much information as possible. That done, I started writing, and I soon discovered that for something like this, a biography, written by a close relative – I am not ‘neutral’. I wanted to include my thoughts, my insights, my analysis. I needed to find my voice.
While I have been struggling with the process, I have had moments of wonder. There were characters in my Father’s family tree where information was a bit light, and I had this feeling that it does not tell the whole story if you only talk about the known rather than exploring the unknown.
I took some time to investigate the key characters where I had less information, and I had a few delightful surprises to my enquiries, including responses from the school where my Grandfather attended, including a detailed cricket match report that described his unique left-handed bowling action. I also had replies from the London Transport Museum clarifying the jobs that my Great-grandfather (on my Grandmother’s side) had.
Still, there were serious questions that needed to be asked about one of the principal characters in the piece, my Father’s father. He died when I was 5 so I don’t have many memories of him, and my Father didn’t say too much about him, and his carefully chosen words revealed more in what they didn’t say than what they did.
My natural curiosity kicked in, and I wanted to understand this person, their upbringing, and see them as three-dimensional. I looked closer into his family life, and one discovery led to another, finally bringing me into contact with my late Father’s second cousin, Mandy. She has this last year done a forensic job in researching my grandfather’s family tree, finding the missing link to my South African great-grandmother’s parentage. This was a staggering find, and something my father and his mother had searched for on and off for over 50 years.
On this journey I have had time to properly reflect on precious letters held in the family. Letters written by my great grandfather to his wife, written in the trenches from the Battle of Ladysmith, in South Africa, where the British Army were be-sieged by the Boers for 17 weeks. Letters the same man wrote to his son 25 years later, after he left for Capetown, South Africa to start a new life. Written weekly, they show my great-grandfather’s demise as he gradually becomes ill and eventually writes his final letter, shaky and in pencil.
I still have many unknowns in writing this book. How to weave together lots of information to form a narrative. What to put in, what to leave out. How much detail. What to do where there are gaps. How many chapters. What chapters. How will I actually publish it.
There’s so much still I don’t know. But all I know is that even part-way through, this has been a fascinating project for me, and I have learnt so much.
So, if you have a project in mind, personal or work-related, don’t be put off if it is big and scary. You can chip away at it one step at a time. You can learn as you go. And sometimes the rewards are great before you’ve even reached the finish line.