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Writing a Biography

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on December 23, 2011

Jeffrey Marks is a long-time mystery fan and freelancer.   Jeff5

After writing numerous mystery author profiles, Jeffrey chose to chronicle the short but full life of mystery writer Craig Rice. That biography (Who Was That Lady?) encouraged him to write mystery fiction. His works include Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s/1950s, and Criminal Appetites, an anthology of cooking related mysteries. His latest work is a biography of mystery author and critic Anthony Boucher entitled Anthony Boucher. It has been nominated for an Agatha and fittingly, won an Anthony.

Jeffrey is the long-time moderator of MurderMustAdvertise, an on-line discussion group dedicated to book marketing and public relations. He is the author of Intent to Sell: Marketing the Genre Novel, the only how-to book for promoting genre fiction.

His work has won a number of awards including the Barnes and Noble Prize and he was nominated for a Maxwell award (DWAA), an Edgar (MWA), three Agathas (Malice Domestic), two Macavity awards, and three Anthony awards (Bouchercon). Today, he writes from his home in Cincinnati, which he shares with his partner and two dogs.

How Do I Pick A Biography Subject?
y Jeffrey Marks

Most people would think that the years of research, the critical reading of tens or possibly hundreds of books or the focus on details might be the most difficult part of writing a biography for me. It’s not. The first step for me is always the hardest. Who am I going to write about next?

I find that I tend to be drawn to the authors I’ve read in my youth. Perhaps it’s nostalgia or perhaps it’s other reasons discussed later, but all of my biographies have been written about authors I read when I could only afford a few used paperbacks a week. When I was making $2.12 (at a roller disco, no less – It was the 1970s and I have no other excuse!), I found that 25¢ could buy a used paperback while a new paperback made me labor for more than an hour while listening to “Boogie, Oogie, Oogie.” I chose the writers from the 1940s and 1950s, whose works were available used.

As an adult, I was fascinated by the stories of authors, and when I began to look around for a suitable subject to write about, I narrowed my list down to 10-15 names. I began to investigate each one. As I did, I made a list (can you tell I’m an unrepentant listmaker?) of questions to be answered.

They included:

· What has been written about this author? I don’t have any desire to rehash the same facts repeatedly; I want to have a biography which is new and different.

· What is the author’s contribution to the genre?

· Can I stand working with this person for the next 3 years? You’d be amazed how much time you spend with a biography subject, making it a requirement for me that they be pleasant and easy to get along with.

· Is there sufficient material to create a full-length biography of this subject?

My first subject was Craig Rice. She was the only subject who had conflicting biographies with so little factual information provided that it intrigued my interest. I couldn’t fathom how in the 20th century we did not know how many children she’d had or how many times she’d been married. It made me want to know why.

Jeff3      Jeff4

That biography, Who Was That Lady?, was published in 2001 and nominated for every major mystery award. All of the acclaim told me that I was on the right path, in terms of my writing. People began to ask what was next for me.

Interestingly enough all of my subsequent biographies have come from my previous works. In looking for a second biography, I looked around for another subject. Several women authors I had corresponded with regarding Craig Rice had passed away in the interim. I decided to do a group biography of them, looking at how the reading public had passed by these remarkable women in favor of Fleming, Spillane, and other hyper-masculine authors in that era. Thus was Atomic Renaissance born.

Next came Anthony Boucher, who of course was known to all of the authors of the era as The New York Times book critic. The idea was first suggested to me by an editor in a bar (which would have been more suitable for my biography of Rice.) Despite having been a lifelong resident of California, Boucher’s papers were all at Indiana University, a mere hop-skip-and-not-even-a jump from me. Jeff1

I stumbled upon Erle Stanley Gardner because of my earlier research. I’d read Dorothy B. Hughes’ biography of Gardner for Atomic Renaissance, and Gardner had reluctantly contributed to Los Angeles Murders, edited by Craig Rice. The Gardner biography by Hughes was an odd duck, and I wondered why it did not cover the elements of Gardner’s life that the reader would be most interested in, Perry Mason, the TV show, and Gardner’s own relationship with his secretary. So I began to dig there and learned so much that had never been printed before.

As I am winding up the Gardner book, I am beginning to look around for new subjects. I don’t allow myself too much time between books. There’s an ennui and emptiness when I’m not writing about an author. As always, my top four names have come from my previous works, and I’m investigating each according to the questions I have listed.

And of course, I listen to the suggestions of others. I’d love to hear who you’d want to read about and learn more about.

For more information about Jeffrey, go to:


10 Responses to “Writing a Biography”

  1. Jacqueline Seewald said

    Hi, Jeff and Nancy,

    As usual, Nancy offers an informative blog. Jeff, I very enjoyed reading about your work in biography. The lives and work of mystery writers of the past are particularly interesting and serve as an inspiration to those of us who are currently writing in the genre. Wishing you every success.

  2. Since I would never attempt to research, let alone write, a biography, I admire Jeff’s methodology. It’s interesting to read about how you pick your subjects.

  3. I enjoyed reading about Jeff’s biographies and how he picks his subjects.

  4. Marilyn, thanks for stopping by, as always! Every now and then, it’s nice to hear about something different, isn’t it?

  5. monarisk said

    I’ve never read authors’ biograpghy, but mostly historical ones. I’ve been asked by many friends and relatives, in addition to my own children, to write my own biography. I have to admit that my life has not unfolded the way your neighbor’s life did. In addition to being a romance autors I had my share of adventures. So I may set romance novels aside and start this new project. I will check your biographies. Jeff.

  6. Author biographies are much like historical biographies with the added discussion of their works, the critical value of their works, and the author’s own opinion of their works. IT’s a great way to learn about authors who you might have heard of or never heard of. Erle Stanley Gardner did not think of his books as having literary value. He thought of them more as widgets, a commodity. I do think that his opinion of his works influenced the public and the lack of lasting acclaim he deserves for his works. It’s sad, because his works do have lasting value.

  7. I would suspect many of the authors whose classics remain in force today thought of their work as commercial fiction, i.e. written for entertainment value. And yet many of these works have prevailed. As for Erle Stanley Gardner, you thought enough about him to write his story and so he is remembered.

    • I would agree with that, but most authors think of their books as children or cherished items. Gardner thought of them almost in a manufacturing standpoint, off the assembly line..

  8. Well, everyone here has been so nice today — I’ll leave you with an announcement. It’s very likely (about 90% so) that I’ll be doing my next biography of Ellery Queen!

  9. That’s cool, Jeffrey! Thanks for guesting on my blog.

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