One Writer’s Journey

August 18, 2016

Biography: How to write about someone who isn’t well known

Terrible Typhoid MaryMy audiobook of the moment is Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti.  The title may be all Typhoid Mary all the time, but after listening to the first 1/3 of the book, I’d have to say that the focus of the book is on George Soper.  Soper billed himself as an expert on epidemics, specifically typhoid but he had no medical background.  He was a civil engineer.  I had a grad class on urban history so this makes sense — a big focus for the early civil engineers and city planners was public health.  They fought to keep people healthy as American cities grew.

What a timely topic!  But without Typhoid Mary I don’t think it would have been an easy sell.

George Soper?  Whose George Soper and why do we care?  Civil engineering just doesn’t have any play as a “sexy” topic.

Flash “Typhoid Mary” in front of an editor and you just might grab their attention.  Sell it from a new angle – a medical mystery pursued by a new kind of investigator and you’re reeling that editor in.  If you can find a way to make it sing, you’ve likely got a sale.  Clearly, Bartoletti did and this reads like an episode of Bones or a crime drama.

As much as editors tell us to submit the biography they haven’t already seen, the completely unfamiliar is a remarkably hard sell.  Too rarefied and editors know it will be tough to locate an audience, no matter how fascinating the subject.

This means that if you’ve found someone unknown, look for a way to tie them into something well-known or timely.  Even if someone doesn’t know Mary Mallon, they’ve probably heard of Typhoid Mary.  Fears of West Nile and the Zika virus are rampant and this ties into that mind-set.  Bartoletti also found a way to make it sound like true crime.  It may not be easy to make the connections but the more you can make the more likely you will be to make a sale.

–SueBE

 

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