Ask a Ghostwriter: How Can You Research a Memoir?

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 in that article. Whenever I ghostwrite a memoir, I always do a lot of research on a number of subjects. That way I can get the background information I need to tell the story with authenticity.

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.

Time periods

Research a memoir through old slides

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.

Locations

Research a memoir through locations on the internet

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.

Research in important in any memoir

So, Vi, research is a vital part of any memoir. If you and I worked together, we’d be a team, tackling this crucial 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?

If you’re interested in writing a memoir, here are a few other articles you might enjoy reading:

Tips for Finding Memoir Themes

Organizing and Outlining a Memoir

When You Shouldn’t Write Your Life Story

Memoir Mistakes You Should Avoid

Guide to Hiring a Ghostwriter

Writing a Memoir: Know Your Story

 

When writing a memoir you must know your storyWhen writing a memoir, it’s important to stick to one subject and one time period. In order to do that you really need to consider the story. If your book is too general, it won’t make for a good read.

A good friend and fellow ghostwriter attends many writer’s conferences teeming with agents and publishers. He once gave me some excellent advice. He said, “If a writer goes into a pitch with: ‘Hey, my book is about my life in the field of education,’ the agent is going to glaze over and start thinking about the conference lunch buffet. The best way to sell a book is to state the book’s focus upfront.”

I’d add that you should know the purpose of your story. When you understand why you’re writing the book, you’ll be able to begin to write your memoir.

Know your story

Each author will have a different reason for writing their book. In the example above, perhaps you are a high-school teacher in the inner city and you’re writing a memoir to encourage parents to be more active with their child’s education. Well, if that’s your purpose, tell that story. Make sure all the scenes of the book align with that message.

If your own educational path helps to illustrate your book’s purpose, by all means share it. You can do so with flashbacks or by starting the book at that period, if there is enough material to carry the story forward. However, if your past doesn’t really relate to your memoir’s purpose, skip it. For example, if you had supportive parents and went to expensive prep schools and Harvard, it just might not fit into this book, which is about working with inner city kids.

Know your options

you have options when you are writing a memoir

It might make more sense to open your memoir with a particular high school class and finish with their graduation. Follow those students. Include various gnarly parent teacher conference meetings that show what you wish to share with your readers and conclude with a result, one way or another.

Or your book might span two decades, showing your breadth of experience and many examples of neglect with final resolutions that all exemplify the problem.

Another option could be to focus on one family. Perhaps that one child made it out of the ghetto and into the sunlight. In that case, your story might just span one year, showing how that mom and dad took a strong interest in they boy’s education, while other parents failed to do so.

Note: We just discussed three versions of one life story. You can see how these three books would be very different. It’s the same life, told through different lenses. Each story would be shared with your voice but would make the reader feel and experience very different things.

Whatever you decide you must pick a lane and stick to it.

Know your readership

It’s important to define your readership before you begin writing a memoir, so you can communicated effectively to that group of people.

In the above memoir example, your reader would probably be parents of high school students because you wish to influence them to be more a part of their children’s education. 

However, your reader could potentially be written to other teachers and school administrators. If that is the case, your book would have a very different feel. Is this a David vs Goliath story, concluding with your victorious battle to make improvements within the school system? If so, you could potentially help others forge an improvement in a system that can seem impossible to penetrate.

Whatever you do, you must select your readership and write to them.

When writing a memoir, remember that you get to tell the story you wish to tell. Include what you want and toss the rest. Most likely you’ll find that you have a few books within you. Select one and start writing!

If you’re looking for a little help, please feel free to reach out to me. And if you’re considering hiring a ghostwriter, check out my book: Your Guide to Hiring a Ghostwriter.

If you’d like to read more articles about memoirs, please check these out:

Memoir or Autobiography

How to Write Your Memoir

What are Good Memoir Themes?