story, science, technology and creativity

Tips for writing a biography or family history from writing Aussie STEM Stars

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This time next week my second biography in the Aussie STEM Stars series — Suzy Urbaniak: Volcano hunter and STEAM warrior — will be out in all good bookstores.

When Wild Dingo Press first approached me back in 2019 with the wild idea that I might write a biography of Dr Fiona Wood, burns surgeon and inventor of spray-on skin, plus Australian of the Year, National Living Treasure, multi-times winner of Australia’s Most Trusted Person and founder of the Fiona Wood Foundation, I had no idea how anyone (let alone me!?) could do justice to such a magnificent life story.

I’d never before written a biography. As a journalist, I’d written 1000-word or 2000-word feature articles and profiles of scientists and celebrities. But still…. a book-length biography of Fiona Wood!? I had no idea if I’d be able to do a good job.

Spoiler alert!

But (spoiler alert!), I said ‘Yes please’ to the project anyway. (Because who could give up the chance to work with Fiona Wood!!??)

I learned SO MUCH from working with Fiona and I loved the process so much, I signed up again to do a second Aussie STEM Stars, this time profiling Prime Minister’s Award-winning science teacher, geologist and founder of the CoRE Foundation Suzy Urbaniak. Both times I felt so incredibly privileged to be trusted with personal stories, to share their life lessons, and to try my very best to record these incredible life stories.

Hitting the books

The first preparation I did for this biography project was to hit the books: I studied and read loads and loads of biographies. I read biographies for kids and for adults. I read biographies of scientists and sportspeople and singers and stars. I learned as much as I could about how different writers approached the gnarly and unique challenge of writing someone else’s life.

Research, research, research

Once I had a grounding in how biographies could be structured, opened, closed and approached, I dived deep into my subject. Both Fiona and Suzy gave their time incredibly generously, but before we even exchanged a word, I had researched their lives for many hours.

I listened to podcasts they featured in, I looked up news articles, speech notes, research papers, a zillion websites and books too, if possible.

In Fiona’s case — after the media storm that followed the Bali Bombings — I had a file of notes that was 10,000+ words long. For Suzy I started with fewer notes, but since I’d already interviewed her six years earlier (hello, journalism career :-)), I had more confidence in how we might work together to write a biography that kids would love.

Let the interviews begin!

I only started chatting with Suzy and Fiona after I’d soaked up as much prior knowledge as I could. I was super-conscious that these remarkable women were busy making super-valuable contributions to patients, students, communities and our shared future.

So I tried to be efficient and strategic in my questions.

The Aussie STEM Stars books aren’t a long list of career achievements. They’re the true stories, anecdotes and turning points from childhood, told in narrative form.

The brief from Wild Dingo Press said: “These books must read like — and be as exciting as — novels.”

So, how to find the stories kids would love to hear?

Tips for interviewing for biographies…

Interviews aren’t just about getting the who what when where why how. You want to give your subject the space to open up, express feelings, ideas, thoughts, insights…and to uncover long-lost memories.

So, here are my top tips for interviewing people about their lives:

  1. Prepare: Like I said earlier, do your homework. Research, prepare, list a bunch of questions, and then sit down to listen.
  2. Record: Use Zoom or other software to record your conversation — but make sure you have permission to do this first! A recording means you can focus more on the conversation and less on your notes (because you can go back to check the recording for details later)
  3. Listen: Did I mention listening? Really focus on the person in front of you. What are they saying? What aren’t they saying? What words are they choosing?
  4. Be curious: Follow your gut…the questions that come up as you listen can naturally lead to more questions and then suddenly you’re down a fascinating rabbit hole you didn’t know was there.
  5. Relax: This is hard to do, but people can open up more when it feels like a casual chat and not a job interview.
  6. Go with the flow: Feel free to go where the conversation leads.
  7. Stay on target: If you sense that the conversation is going way off-piste, maybe it’s time for a new line of questions.
  8. Stick to a time limit: Not even the most focused subject in the world can talk and talk and give and give for hours at a time. Make sure your interview has a limit and stick to it.
  9. Batch your follow up questions: As soon as you sit down to write a scene or story, you’re absolutely guaranteed to discover you need more information. Rather than shoot off an email every time, batch your queries and send one email with 10-ish questions. (Sending 100 questions will freak your subject out :-))
  10. Ask for feedback: It’s vital your subject has ample opportunity to make sure you’ve told their story in a way that feels authentic and real to them. This means giving them lots of time to read through, mark-up and make suggestions for your draft manuscript. The whole point of a draft is that you get to make it better.

Thank you!

I’m always profoundly grateful to anyone who takes the time to share their personal story with someone else.

In the case of the Aussie STEM Stars, these amazing scientists, teachers and inventors give their time and their life stories in the hope that children who read it will be inspired.

Certainly, I’ve been inspired time and again by the chance to work with such incredible role models and change-makers. This series really a hugely special opportunity to learn more about all the different ways that Australia’s great STEM stars contribute, and all the different pathways they travelled to get there.

I’d absolutely love for you to read Fiona Wood and Suzy Urbaniak. I love these stories, I’m proud of these books, and I feel like readers will come away informed, inspired and encouraged to believe in a better future for everyone.

I think these stories deserve to be read wildly. If you do read them, I’d also absolutely love to hear from you with your feedback, thoughts, shelfies and reviews. THANK YOU for reading this far – you’re amazing! I very much value your support 💕🎉⭐

Thank you to my kids for this promotional tile😁😎😉

Author: cristyburne


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