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

Should I Write My Memoir?

Should i write my memoir?Over the years quite a few people have approached me asking, “Should I write my memoir?” So many individuals have shared with me their ideas and dreams about writing a book. As a ghostwriter, I truly enjoy helping people fulfill their lifelong goals. It’s quite rewarding.

However, when most new writers sit down to share their life story, they get overwhelmed. They don’t really know how to go about starting.

Does that sound familiar?

If so, here are a few questions to consider:

What makes a good memoir?

This is a question many people fail to ask themselves. A book that seeks revenge or shares a horrific upbringing as its theme isn’t a book that should be written. That’s a common memoir mistake. Please write a book that you will still be proud of in five years.

Here are some elements to think about as you consider writing a memoir:

Will my book uplift others? Really, at the end of the day, you want to create a book that will inspire others toward greatness. You want to encourage them to live their lives to the fullest and to learn from your experiences.

Do I have an interesting story? A story is made up a series of incidents tied together by an overall theme. If you really only have an anecdote, even if it is hilarious, moving, or powerful, it isn’t enough for a book. It could make a good short story, though!

Is my story enlightening? If you have a powerful viewpoint and a story with lots of action, you have the makings of a riveting book. But it’s equally important that you have done something which would intrigue and educate the reader. Adventures are fun, but memoir readers expect to take something positive away from your life experiences. They want to learn from your example.

Should I self-publish?

If you’re a celebrity or have been the topic of a strong news story recently, you might be able to write a good proposal, find an agent, and get a good advance from a publisher. Otherwise, it’s unlikely (but not impossible) that you will land a decent publishing contract. The other thing to keep in mind is that this publishing route will take about two years. Then, in the end, most likely you’ll receive a 10 – 15% royalty, which will only kick in once the book starts selling.

In this day and age, especially with the advent of eBooks, you can do very well as a self-published author. You’ll have to learn a little about the industry, but if you can pull together a marketing plan, you can sell your book on Amazon and make money.

Should I hire a ghostwriter to write my memoir?

hire a ghostwriter to "write my memoir"The answer really boils down to time, money, and skill. Writing a book on your own requires not only a few hundred hours of work, but quite a bit of experience. If you don’t feel you have that time or skill set, and you have a good budget, hiring a ghostwriter is a good option. To learn more about what a ghostwriter charges, check out my article: A Ghostwriter’s Fees.

Also, if you’d like to learn more about the process of how to hire a ghostwriter, please read my book: Your Guide to Hiring a Ghostwriter.

If you’re still wondering “Should I write my memoir?” please contact me and I’ll do my best to help you sort it out.

Additional articles you might find helpful:

My Ghostwriting Process

Great Memoir Themes

How Much Does It Cost to Hire a Ghostwriter?

Interviewing a Ghostwriter

How to Write a Memoir

how to write a memoirIf you have been wondering how to write a memoir, here are a few helpful tips. A memoir is creative nonfiction, which allows a reader to step into the shoes of the author and experience their life as they did. It shouldn’t be a dry account of a series of incidents, but a passionate retelling of a personal journey.

Virginia Wolf said it best in her autobiographical essay A Sketch of the Past: “The reason so many memoirs fail is that they focus on the events or what happened and leave out the person to whom things happened.”

In order to accomplish the goal of putting the reader in the middle of the action, you really need to use the first person. This allows the reader to feel that the author is speaking to them directly. Of course, I’m sure there are exceptions and it might even be possible to write a memoir in the second person, but most prefer the first.

Is it a memoir or an autobiography?

Some writers will tell you that you can use memoir and autobiography interchangeably. And some would shoot me for saying that. People get very passionate about the subject.

If we dissect the difference, an autobiography is usually less personal and focuses on the complete chronological life of a person, whereas a memoir focuses on a specific event or time period.

Any autobiography can be similar in feel to a biography, just written by the author as opposed to a third party. It’s often more factual and historical in nature, whereas a memoir tends to be emotional.

Although memoirs are classified as nonfiction, they follow many of the same rules as fiction. For instance, dialogue is key to a good memoir. As with a novel, the conversations between characters help move the story forward. Also, even though one writes in the first person, the writer’s axiom of show, don’t tell applies well.

Another option

A diary is yet another style of telling your life story. it tracks a segment of your life through entries written on specific dates. The format is unique, sharing journal entries. One classic example is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. 

A diary is a bit like the author is having a conversation with herself (or himself). It is a challenging and restricting format, one designed to record a series of events. It can work well for certain stories.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter much what you call the style of your book, as long as it communicates to others and allows them a peek into your life. Consider your message and tie that thread through the tapestry of your story. Perhaps your readers will improve their lives as a result.

Additional articles you might find helpful:

How To Write A Nonfiction Book

Seven Tips For Writing A Great Memoir

A Ghostwriter’s Fee: How Do They Charge?

Working With A Ghostwriter – What Steps Should You Take?

How Much Does It Cost To Hire A Ghostwriter?