Writing somebody’s life story

Journalism, Obituary, Reporting

How can you summarise the life of a human being, in a way that’s both interesting and respectful?

That’s one of the challenges facing an obituary writer. And probably the first thing to accept is that it’s impossible to do it perfectly. I mean, a whole life!

This week, I was invited to write an obituary for The Times.

I’ve attached the finished story as a PDF (below), and thought it might be useful to describe how I went about researching and writing it.

First, obviously (?) I Googled him.

There wasn’t a lot to be found, apart from stories about the business he founded, a restaurant, and the many famous people who ate there – this particular restaurant was a bit of a legend.

I looked for contact details for some of those famous people. These included “celebrities” and also people famous within the world of restaurants and hospitality.

Wherever possible, I used the phone. In some cases, I couldn’t find a number so I sent an email.

Surprisingly quickly, these busy people got back to me. One close relative, whom I had not wanted to approach directly, surprised me by phoning while I was cleaning my bookshelves. I dropped everything and dashed into my office to take scribbled notes on a pad of A4 narrow-lined paper.

Later, walking back from the supermarket, I got a call from a close family friend who is also a well-known actress. I walked into a nearby cemetery to get away from traffic noise, and left a message suggesting a time to speak the following day.

My deadline was approaching, and I feared I hadn’t enough (this fear looms over every writing assignment, of course, but it’s not merely an illusion: it can be well founded). The close relative had spoken movingly, but gave little in the way of anecdote – and in writing the obituary I couldn’t just list a person’s attributes. I needed stories.

Happily, a few hours later, an actor called me and gave me lots of stories. Quite a few were not relevant, or insufficient to convey the magnitude of a man’s life, and professional achievements. But they were a start.

The following day – less than 24 hours before my deadline – a well known figure in the restaurant industry telephoned me. His insights were fresh and his stories were rich with specifics (rather than generalisations), and no less entertaining than the actor’s.

Additionally, he forwarded to me some memories from another former colleague, written to help in preparing the eulogy. I asked him to to confirm that I was free to use this, which he did.

I started typing.

Having been writing for a long time, I don’t tend to plan very much. I follow my instincts. And I’ve written a lot of obituaries over the years, so I’m broadly familiar with the structure required.

The opening must establish why this person is interesting, and worth knowing about. That’s particularly important if the subject is not a household name – but even the most famous people need to be put into context – “He was the first prime minister to do X”, or “She never won an Oscar, but is credited with making that possible for other women” , or whatever.

From then on, the obituary should reveal the person’s character, gifts and perhaps also foibles through stories. If it’s for The Times, the writer should not attempt to sound like him/herself but as the impersonal voice of the newspaper itself.

Similarly, quotes should be kept to a minimum. Stories supplied by relatives, friends and former colleagues are paraphrased.

Towards the end the obituary sets out essentials relating to birth, family, and death.

Ideally, all these things are handled with some artistry, so that the reader’s interest is sustained.

I finished the piece in good time, and sent it by email. The editor replied with satisfaction, and a couple of questions about missing facts. I asked the close relative to fill me in.

When the obituary came out, it was substantially as I’d written it. The only significant change was the removal of multiple references to the people I had spoken to. The effect was to minimise any sense that they had contributed to the obit – a good bit of editing, for which I’m grateful.

You can open a PDF of the obit (and download or print it), here:

Walking and talking can be therapeutic

Journalism, Pilgrimage

The Times asked me to interview a therapist with a difference: one who takes his clients into the great outdoors, to share stories as they walk.

We did the interview on Hampstead Heath, where I plan to take people to play Chaucer’s Game, on storytelling pilgrimages.

A therapist’s work is different, obviously, because therapy tends to involve something very private, and potentially difficult.

But the similarities were delightful:

  • we had a destination in mind, but took the roundabout route
  • allowed the things we said to emerge spontaneously
  • noticed the effect of different environments (shady groves are nothing like open meadows with extensive views)
  • breathed fresh air, and
  • enjoyed each other’s company (mostly, as you’ll see if you read the piece in full)

You can view a PDF, and / or download it here:

Obviously, the best way to bring The Canterbury Tales back to life would be to travel from London to Canterbury. No argument about that.

But I’m excited about doing a walk from Aldgate, where Chaucer lived, to Westminster Abbey, where he’s buried.

It takes about an hour to walk, but I plan to be slower, and take a few detours. Specifically, I’d like to visit sites relating to some of the following (in approximately the order I’d stumble on them):

  • Benjamin Disraeli
  • Sir Thomas More
  • John Milton
  • Thomas a Becket (buried in Canterbury, but born on Cheapside)
  • Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke
  • William Hazlitt
  • Samuel Johnson
  • Charles Lamb

Naturally, being a journalist, I’d walk along Fleet Street – reaching the end of the City of London to enter Westminster.

In Westminster, the walk to the Abbey could easily take in the following:

  • Bram Stoker
  • Noel Coward
  • Samuel Pepys
  • Jane Austen (finally, another woman!)
  • Thomas Rowlandson
  • JM Barrie
  • Rudyard Kipling, and / or
  • Herman Melville

Then again, I could cross the river and walk through Southwark, where The Canterbury Tales starts.

Southwark was home to:

  • Charles Dickens
  • Percy Shelley
  • Mary Wollstonecraft (another!)

Naturally, I wouldn’t stop for ALL these literary superheroes on a single pilgrimage. Can you imagine!

But choosing one or two for each pilgrimage would allow me (and others with me) to think about very different kinds of storytelling as we spin tales…

I can’t wait.

Note: I love Dead White Men, and intend to be one myself one day. But there are perhaps a few too many in this list. Can you suggest anybody else I might include, to fix that…?

Pilgrimage

Book Group Q&A

Uncategorized

Thanks For Your Questions!

Click on each one, to see my answers…

1. Tell us about your research
2. How did you organise the writing process?
3. Why this period of history?
4. Were you writing about a specific historical event, or were other contexts in your mind?
5. What themes did you set out to explore?
6. How much is fact / fiction in your book?
7. What feedback have you had about the characters?
8. Why crowd funding? Will you use it again?
9. Have you used improvisation in other areas of your life?
10. With so much collaboration, how much of yourself goes into the book?
11. You took 16 years. Did you plan to use collaboration and crowd-funding from the start?
12. Why have you used pictures in this odd way?

 

Tell us about your research…

 

3 mins 03 secs

Back to top

 

How did you organise the writing process?

 

3 mins 33 secs

Back to top

 

Why this period of history?

 

2 mins 38 secs

Back to top

 

Were you writing about a specific historical event, or were other contexts in your mind?

 

1 min 39 secs

Back to top

 

What themes did you set out to explore?

 

1 min 50 secs

Back to top

 

How much is fact / fiction in your book?

 

1 min 39 secs

Back to top

 

What feedback have you had about the characters?

 

1 min 45 secs

Back to top

 

Why crowd funding? Will you crowd fund future books?

Let’s talk about this at your book group!

Back to top

 

Have you used improvisation in other areas of your life?

 

Saving this question for your book group!

Back to top

 

With so much collaboration, how much of yourself goes into the book?

 

See previous question!

Back to top

 

You took 16 years. Did you plan the collaboration and crowd funding/self publishing from the beginning?

 

This question will have to wait till your book group!

Back to top

 

Why have you used pictures in this odd way?

 

Answer to follow… 🙂

Back to top

 

Public talks, via video link

Events

Some time ago, for reasons outside my control, I was unable to make it to an event where I was scheduled to speak.

My daughter was taken ill. If you’re a parent, you know how that feels. If you’re not, I hope you can imagine my feelings, as I mopped her brow in London while contemplating the 200 or so students expecting to hear me speak about How To Be More Creative, in a lecture theatre 150 miles away.

When my daughter finally fell asleep, I phoned my host in Bournemouth, senior lecturer Alice Stevens, to ask if it might be possible to deliver my interactive talk using some kind of online conferencing tool.

You know, Skype or Zoom, or similar…

Alice was not ecstatic, because she’d not done anything like it before, and the time was tight. But seeing little alternative, and being fundamentally an adventurous type, she agreed.

And so the talk went ahead. For myself, I found it a little disorienting, because when I started doing the audience interactions I’m fond of, Alice kindly walked the laptop around so I could see people, which made me feel a little seasick.

But when I said that out loud, it went down very well indeed: audiences seem to quite like it when speakers admit to some kind of wobble. (This speaker, anyway.)

I was happy to learn afterwards that, despite everything, the motivational theme of my talk came through loud and clear.

In an email the following day, Alice kindly let me know that the event had been a great success, and that students particularly liked the Skype element. I suspect they must have been particularly good-natured students – but anyway, Alice pronounced herself satisfied.

Speaking for myself, I had a lot of fun. It was a bit wobbly, and I couldn’t read people’s faces at all, but Alice looked after me very well, and taught me that it’s possible to do more events than I previously managed – because it turns out that I might not always have to travel.

Avoid infectious disease! Save the planet! Get your next speaker on Skype!

How to print a book (while you’re still writing it)

Editors and experts

When I’m writing a book, I hate to read it on loose sheets of paper. I want to read it as a book.

For that reason, I often use Lulu.com to print my books on demand while I’m writing them. Sew Your Own went through several versions before it was ready to print “properly”. What If The Queen Should Die? is no different, and I thought it might be helpful to explain how I work with Lulu.

Very simply, I save my OpenOffice (or Word) document as a PDF, having first checked the dimensions of the page. (Lulu offers a huge range of sizes, but for simplicity I choose to print my book at A5, because it’s less complicated.)

I design covers for the book using an app on my iPhone, trying a variety to see what works best for the book as it currently stands. Here’s the latest, which I sent for printing today.

Lulu asks me to upload the image, and the PDF containing the interior of the book, and that’s that.

It’s also possible, on Lulu, to set prices on the book, and possibly even to open some kind of virtual online shop. I’m pretty sure that Lulu will sell you an ISBN number, so you can sell the book through other retailers too. But that’s not what I want it for. I just use Lulu as a private space, for printing one-off copies of my own book to send to me as books.

I hope this might inspire you to try doing it yourself. There’s nothing like getting your hands on your own book.

Note: This post first appeared on flintoff.org, 19 May 2015