Ask a Ghostwriter: How Can You Research a Memoir?
Dear Friendly Ghostwriter, Hi Laura, I am 48. I need someone to write my life story. I read your article about hiring a ghostwriter and didn’t understand when you said that I would need to prepare work and research. What sort of research would I need to do? After all, it’s my real life story? How do I research a memoir? Thanks, Vi
Dear Vi, What a great question! Let me explain what I meant. Whenever I ghostwrite a memoir, I always do a lot of research on a number of subjects in order to get the background information needed to tell the story with authenticity. To properly answer your question, I think it would be good to explore what sort of research your writer might need to write your book. And while it is helpful for an author to provide research information to their writer, the ghost will also need to do extensive research on top of that. Ideally the author and ghostwriter will work together as a team to uncover needed information on a variety of subjects.
Memoirs take place in the past, often in a period long gone. For that reason, I like to research the culture of that epoch to ensure I describe it accurately. For instance, cell phones wouldn’t have been used in the 1980’s, so your characters would need to find payphones or use landlines to call one another. By the same token, the internet would have been in its infancy, so there would be no “surfing the web” day and night. Of course, you’ll also need to reflect the correct clothing styles of the era. When I write a book, I find myself looking up the details surrounding the scene so that I depict them realistically.
In addition, it can be helpful to refer to the current events of the time. For instance, if I’m writing a memoir taking place mid-September 1959, most households would probably be talking about the moon landing. Or if your book centers around a key moment at the end of 1989, you might mention the Berlin Wall falling, as that would have been a hot topic. Discussing those major milestones would be a good way to help the reader orient himself to the time periods in your story.
Establishing the location is always important in any scene because it takes out the guesswork for the reader. That’s why I sometimes need to research places my characters will go. For instance, I had a client who described running down a major street near Miami. I wanted to get a feel for what the area would have looked like, so I used Google Earth and zoomed in to view the actual street. I learned it was an eight-lane highway and found there were lots of residential neighborhoods nearby. It helped me fill in the description.
Sometimes I will explore the homes I write about on the internet or through photos. Learning the layout helps me realistically put the kitchen next to the family room and the bedrooms upstairs (or not). Discovering the architectural style allows me to properly paint the picture with words. Sometimes I’ll do a search online to sneak a peek at the exterior of the home to get a feel for the front of the house. Of course, if the client has a photo of the place, that is very helpful.
When I can truly grasp the location, it helps me put myself in the space of the characters, which helps me write the story in an authentic way. I could make up details (and sometimes do), but it is wonderful when I can draw on researched facts.
Diaries, scrapbooks, and newspaper articles
When I research a memoir, some details comes in the form of firsthand recorded information. As a ghostwriter, the pages of personal diaries are like nuggets of gold. The words recorded years before provide information in a very organic way.
Likewise, newspaper clippings can help fill in missing pieces of important events, allowing me to understand more fully what happened. For instance, a wedding announcement would give the exact time and day of the event. This information allows me to look up the actual weather on that day. I’ll tell you, a wedding in the middle of a June thunderstorm is quite different from one that takes place in a heat wave.
One client had very little information about his ancestors, but wanted a story written about what could have happened. Through some online websites, I was able to determine the exact boat on which his grandfather arrived in New York in the mid 1800’s. My client had known the rough time period, so it was a joy to be able to discover the precise day, as well as the name of the ship. Then it was easy to research the boat to learn its size, crew compliment, and passenger list, all of which I could use to write faithful descriptions of the event.
So, Vi, research is an important part of any memoir. If you and I worked together, we’d be a team, tackling this vital area. So, consider collecting journal entries, newspaper clippings, photographs, and perhaps short biographies of the main players that will be featured in your book.
I’d love to hear from other writers on the subject. How did you research a memoir?