Help your biographer get it right

Biographers over the years have relied on letters as a source of information on their subject. These can be letters from the subject, letters to the subject, and letters about the subject by third parties. Sometimes both letters and replies exist, potentially even more useful to the biographer. Many of these will be to family members, if circumstances mean that they are separated by distance. Mozart would not have written so many letters to Leopold had they been living in the same place. But some are dashed off by inveterate letter writers.

For example, when Volume 5 of the “Letters of Ernst Hemingway (1932-1934)” was published, we learned that this was the latest instalment of an initiative to locate, fully annotate, and publish the nearly 6,000 surviving letters written by Hemingway, most of them previously unpublished. It is expected that the total number of volumes in the series would total seventeen. We are surely in the presence of an industry here.

But there are always pitfalls for the biographer. The writer may simply misremember details, even including the year an event took place. Or a given letter may be an attempt to cast the writer in a better light than justified by the facts. A writer may even, perish the thought, have an axe to grind.

In the case of a letter, this may be done in the expectation that only the recipient is likely to see it, but memoirs or autobiographies may be a further source of confusion, sometimes deliberate, and these are open to all.

In ‘Looking Back’ Maugham writes of this period, ‘The divorce had not been made absolute, and I could not have married Syrie just then even had I wanted to.’ But in fact it had and he could. (Selina Hastings)

Accepting these caveats, though, letters remain a valuable source of information. A model in this regard, or so it seems to me, is “Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music”, by Sergei Bertensson. There is hardly a statement in the book where the reader has to take Bertensson’s word for it, so well does he document Rachmaninoff’s life from letters. But he is only able to do this because the letters exist. What of the present age, where so many communicate by email and text? How can the biographer hope to deal with that?

At this point, it is tempting to trot out a phrase like “the art of letter writing” and claim it has died a death. But there will be some who compose an email as artfully as someone from the past might compose a letter. The problem then is how to access these emails. If the writer is still alive, he or she might make it possible. But if the writer has died, or the author is planning an “unauthorised” biography – essentially a hostile act – then the problem could be insurmountable. Password? Two stage authorisation? Facial recognition ID? An authenticator app? Accessing the material may be tricky, to say the least.

Comparing this situation to the past can be instructive. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote some 500 letters. One of the people he corresponded with was Hildegard von Bingen.

A correspondence of nearly 400 letters written in Latin has been preserved, exchanged between Hildegard and four popes, emperors, bishops, secular rulers, monks and nuns. Her correspondents came from all over Europe, including modern-day Germany, England, Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Italy and Greece. (Fiona Maddocks)

Bernard died in 1153, Hildegard in 1179. And quite apart from their prodigious output, we have to marvel at the postal service of their time: covering most of Europe, it was very much better than we might suppose.

So if you want your life to be accurately documented when you pop your clogs, write letters to family, friends, colleagues, literary agents, editors, and publishers. And if you really want to cover the bases, write letters to your husband or wife as well – even though you live in the same house. We like to think your industry will be rewarded.

Elmore’s Rules For Writing

1 Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2 Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”

3 Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

5 Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6 Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “Ameri­can and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9 Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.


Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of Writing is published next month by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.