How to Write a Biography of a Family Member

Young man talking to father and grandfather
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Picking a leaf off of your family tree and turning it into an all-out biography takes keen research skills, the ability to communicate and creativity. Unlike writing a stranger's biography, digging up secrets or baring information about someone who's close to you may cause friction within your family. Simply detailing your family member's life isn't enough to make a compelling read. Pick an angle that is sensitive, yet sensational enough that other people will find it compelling.

1 Begin with Genealogy Research

Before you begin writing, don't assume that you know everything there is to know. Even if you're close to the family member, you still need to do genealogical research. Chances are that you already have some information on the subject of your biography. As a family member, it's likely that you know if he was in the military, where he lived and from where he came to the United States. If some of your information is sketchy, search census, military, immigration, naturalization and land records from the National Archives website. Search the archives' online catalog, the microfilm catalog, archival databases, Library Information Center or the guide to federal records. If the family member is still living, he may have records that you can browse through.

2 Grab the Reader's Attention

Your biography does not have to start at the beginning of your family member's life. Review your research and pick the most intriguing fact that you've uncovered. Starting at this point can grab the reader's attention, suggests certified genealogist Sharon DeBartolo. For example, if your great aunt was Miss Illinois, start with a story about her experience in the pageant. After you have the reader's attention, move back to the beginning of her story. Don't include each fact or try to answer to all of your family interview questions.

3 Pick an Angle

While a general biography often calls for a chronological focus, some stories require a more specific angle. Turn your research into a timeline that includes dates, ages, events, locations and supporting documents. The timeline will help you to put the subject's life into context. Look for interesting information, such as a person's interesting job or his involvement in historical events. Or, choose an angle that is meaningful to you. If you have fond memories of your father's bakery, focus on how he became a baker, how his business came to be and how that influenced the course of his life. Make yourself aware of sensitive angles to avoid. An affair or deeply hidden secret may seem juicy but can leave your family open to embarrassment.

4 Conduct Interviews

Who you interview depends on if the family member is still alive and what your angle is. For example, if you're writing a biography on your living grandfather's military life, you would want to speak with him, some of his old army buddies and your grandmother. If you're doing a general biography that covers the family member's lifespan, you may ask questions about early childhood, family background, the teen years and adulthood, according to the UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research. Use the interviews to dig up little-known facts such as whether the family member was bullied as a child, favorite childhood toys, a first crush or an unmet life goal. You can also use your own memories or journal entries that you've written about the family member over the years.

Based in Pittsburgh, Erica Loop has been writing education, child development and parenting articles since 2009. Her articles have appeared in "Pittsburgh Parent Magazine" and the website PBS Parents. She has a Master of Science in applied developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education.