Mustering the mettle to write a book proposal

I am entering my first writing contest – it’s actually one specifically calling for biography book proposals. Though I started an outline a year ago and starting writing a few months ago I haven’t had a reason to shuffle my scribbling and random Evernote notes into a coherent package. With the deadline only five weeks away I have been furiously revising what I’ve written so as to become the “Sample Chapter” and creating a table of contents – a useful exercise as I now know where I’ve been and where I’ve still got to go! Like most emerging writers I’m sure, the idea of compiling a book proposal has me terrified but I’m pretty confident about where to go for advice. As I have hosted numerous classes...

The Inheritor’s Powder

The Inheritor’s Powder: a tale of arsenic murder and new forensic science by Sandra Hempel I’ve been burning to read this book since I first learned about James Marsh, a chemist employed by the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich (outside of London), and his discovery of a test for arsenic.  Marsh was an associate of my subject’s father and I was hoping the book would give me few leads as to the scientific environment and people at the Royal Arsenal. Unfortunately it didn’t, but despite that The Inheritor’s Powder is a fascinating read! The book traces the court case of John Bodle – the grandson of wealthy farmer George Bodle who suddenly fell desperately ill on the morning of November 2, 1833. Three days later he died in agony – presumably from arsenic. The resulting...

Jack London: An American Life by Earle Labor

Jack London: An American Life by Earle Labor; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. My great grandfather’s early life mirrored that of Jack London. Born in San Francisco to a seamstress whose husband abandoned her, my relative Edgar Rayner moved as a small boy to the more hospitable climate and open space of Oakland. There, family legend says, he helped the slightly older Jack London with one of his paper routes – working for candy. To test the veracity of this tale I pulled Jack London: An American Life off the shelf and was quickly swept away by the author’s style and telling of London’s remarkable, but short life. The author, Earle Labor, is the curator of the Jack London Museum in Shreveport, Louisiana and a Wilson Professor of American Literature at Centenary...

Assembling Your Chronology

One of the burning questions I had, once I made the decision to start my biographical study, was how best to organize my research? While I still haven’t fully figured out a system that I can truly say is perfect, what I started doing – I guess instinctively- was to start a chronology and lay down the “known facts” of my subject’s life using the available primary sources. In this case, a baptism record, a certificate of citizenship, a receipt issued by the Commissioner of Emigrants, and some business letters. I came across a free eBook called Story Based Inquiry, a sort of manual for investigative reporters, that advocates putting all your research into one Master File. As investigative reporting is very much like historical research – relying upon material...