Should I do Research for My Memoirs?


Should I do Research for My Memoirs?

First off, you need to know that I hate research so you need to take that into account when you read this post. My preference is to write it first and then figure out if it’s right. In fact, I’ve suggested in other posts a way to write both fiction and memoir which is more haphazard but I think more effective. However, I recognize that just because I don’t like doing it, doesn’t mean that some isn’t necessary.

Do I need it?

Depends on the type of memoir you’re writing. If it is intensely personal—your take on surviving cancer, or losing a child, or winning the Nobel Prize—you probably won’t need much. Checking names or dates, etc. all make sense but you are already the expert on this type of memoir.

Memoirs might need more research if you want to delve back a bit into your family history. Even if the focus is on you, as it should be, there may be facts or background which might help to illuminate what happened in your life.

What kind of research?

Again, depends on the type of memoir you are writing, but some sources might be:

Interviews with relatives. Relatives and older friends can provide an adult perspective on your childhood memories. Or provide answers to questions you’ve always wondered about.

Historical record: Particularly if you are covering when you were young, it might be useful to read any histories of that early period. You can be reminded of situations you’d forgotten or how the period shaped behavior which makes sense put into its context.

Old photos or diaries. Naturally. Don’t forget any teen diaries you have tucked away. Cringe material, I know, but it again might jog your memory on incidents or insights from that time.

Other memoirs dealing with a similar topic. If your memoir is focused on a particular major event in your life, reading how others handled your topic can give you ideas on how to approach it and even how to structure it.

For more on this, go to the good article called Why Research is Important to Your Memoir.

But it’s not a research project

This, I think, is the biggest trap with undertaking research, particularly before you start writing. If your objective is to fully explore your family tree, by all means, go ahead.  But that’s not a memoir.

You should be researching enough to inform your memoir, but not a lot more. It is easy to be trapped in a never-ending cycle of research because every fact you dig up will lead to three more questions.

In addition, you may not know what facts/background you’re going to need before you start. It’s more likely to come up when you are writing. So just-in-time research might be preferable. In particular, it avoids doing a whole lot of research that you don’t use, or worse, try to shoehorn into the story just because it’s interesting.

So research if you must but not necessarily research.

Can/Should I Make Up Stuff for My Memoir or Personal History?


Can/Should I Make Up Stuff for My Memoir or Personal History?

Of course not. You don’t change history

True. Well, at least you should not rewrite your personal history. As I’ve mentioned in another post, Do I Have to Tell the Truth in a Memoir? , the real downside of doing so is that you are unlikely to create a good story if you spend large parts of it hiding or distorting your past. There is a presumption in a memoir that you are telling the truth (unless you are a movie star or a politician—all bets seem to be off for them).

Having said that…

Unless you have perfect recall, there are likely moments which you can’t remember and are trivial—the color of the dress, the number of fish you caught, the weather that day. If it isn’t critical to your story, it makes sense to make it up rather than subject your reader to: “I think his name was Fido but that might have been the previous dog which was also a cocker spaniel.” Just call him Fido. Beyond the trivial detail, there are a range of other possibilities for not truth-telling.


There are instances when you might want to move beyond the literal or factual truth.

  • It was too much of a coincidence that they were both there at the same time—it had to have been planned.
  • Her nervousness and ill-temper made me think that she was seriously worried about something even though she denied it.
  • I can’t believe you’re accusing me of that,” when all you actually remember is a denial.

Stretching history

Maybe it’s okay; maybe not. It’s a judgment call.

  • Combining characters: Say you have a mess of cousins, none of whom will figure largely in your narrative. You could draw a character which represents your cousins and let him/her stand in for all. Of course, be prepared for Hey! There’s no cousin Lex!
  • Cutting corners: Readers get bored if an action is repeated too many times. Getting married, not getting married, reuniting, breaking it off, giving the engagement another try, a blow-up which calls the wedding off. Unless this is the main focus of your story and you plan to put a lot of meat on those bones, this repetition is tiresome even if true-to-life.  You might need to cut the number of repetitions so as not to lose the reader.


Be very leery if you are deviating from the straight and narrow to:

  • Maintain it never happened. This is the Big Lie—protesting that the event is a figment of the whole world’s imagination and perhaps substituting a more palatable version.
  • Avoid a particular important but embarrassing incident. Or skipping over the event completely—like writing about going from one job to another without mentioning that you were fired.
  • Clean up your story. Here you sanitize the story to put yourself in a better light. The DUI was all a big misunderstanding which you ended up being penalized for.

So, your memoir is going to be a mix of truth and fiction no matter what. The trick is to keep your emotional honesty.

Prologues in Fiction


Prologues in Fiction

Prologues are tricky things in fiction and operate quite differently from their role in non-fiction. In non-fiction, they often let you know what’s coming. On the lines of tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; and then tell them what you’ve told them. And in non-fiction that often works as the focus is on facts and information. But fiction is about emotion and the unseen.

Non-fiction approach to fiction

I once reviewed a would-be novel using a non-fiction approach. I recreate sort of what it read like:

Prologue: Jason is deeply concerned about the upcoming battle with his brother. He knows that all their history will come to bear and it wouldn’t be just about dividing up Mom’s furniture. It is going to be a knock-down, drag-out.

Story: Jason and his brother fight about who gets what in their mother’s house. Jason wants the blue bowl but so does his brother. His brother accuses him of always trying to grab the best. They fight endlessly.

Last chapter:  Jason is alone in the house. He puts his head in his hands. Just as he feared, things got out of hand.

In short, Jason feared it was going to wrong, it went wrong, and he reflected on the wrongness. I.e. tell ‘em what’s gonna happen, write what happens, and tell ‘em what happened.

Instead of prologues

Now, truthfully, if you wanted to use a prologue as I set out in the example, I suppose you could do it if it were short enough—a fleeting thought as Jason enters the house, for example. But then of course, that’s not a prologue.

Generally, I think you need to ask yourself why you need prologues at all.

I can think of some reasons which I then will go on to brilliantly refute.

I want to give readers the back story.

Why? Why do they need to know what happened before the story starts? How come you don’t start with this back story stuff as the beginning of the plot if it’s so important? Back story is usually most useful at the point readers need it to inform the story. Use a flashback or other device to impart the important bit of history rather than piling it all up front.

 I want to let them know how to approach the story

Doesn’t this sound suspiciously like telling the reader what conclusions they should come to or feelings they should have while reading? As I’ve mentioned, you heighten the reader’s pleasure when you Let the Reader Participate in the Story by allowing her to come to her own decisions. If deep down, this is the reason, for your prologue, I’d dump it completely. Trust that you can get the message across in the story and trust your readers to find it.

I can’t find another place to stick this stuff that I want them to know

I know—during research for the book, you found many riveting facts. But you can’t shoehorn them all into the plot, so why not whet the readers’ appetite in the prologue with all these cool things?

But news—unlike you, they’re not fascinated by your research. Instead, they want to be fascinated by the saga you tell, using the insights you gleaned from the facts.

So bite the bullet and drop all the information which doesn’t in some way further your plot. Save it for boring dinner guests.

Your Reader is Smarter than You


Your Reader is Smarter than You

Jack Bickam, a writer of fiction, quoted the above from a newsroom sign, somewhere, sometime. A warning to reporters to remember that readers are smarter than they are. A good thing for writers of any kind to keep in mind.

Now, I know that you would never condescend in this way. You’re not that kind of person. Would you? You can do it without meaning to.

Ways you don’t treat your readers as smarter

Too much background

As I’ve discussed in Exposition, giving the reader a lot of background before the real action starts slows down the forward motion of the story. It can also accidentally send the message that you think the reader is too stupid to pick up what’s going on unless you spell it out for him. But he can do very well even with a minimal amount of information. In fact, it can be intriguing. Who’s talking? What’s going on? Why did she say that? Readers can tolerate not only being puzzled but positively enjoy it. So enthrall rather than underrate.

Showing off your expertise

A related thing but it can happen at any point in the plot. I paraphrase an actual amateur writer’s approach.

“This dishonors my family!” he shouted. “I must have revenge!” He pulled out a scimitar, which is a short sword with a curved blade, used originally in Eastern countries.

Exactly the wrong time to drop in a piece of research. It can kick your reader right out of the story. If you really, really think your readers don’t know what a scimitar is and cannot get it from the context, introduce the term sometime earlier.

Telling them how to interpret your story

You want to get your message across. Of course you do. But it is both clunky and insulting to write:

This is a story of hope. Despite almost insurmountable odds, Ryan will triumph, showing the world that no disability can prevent his true spirit shining through.

This is what you want your reader to conclude (hopefully with less hackneyed words) once she has read your compelling tale of your protagonist’s travails and final triumph. Again, show don’t tell.

Driving the point home

Some writers think they can sneak in the message by one of the characters articulating it.

Brenda wiped a tear away. “It’s hard to believe Ryan could accomplish that with all his challenges.”

Gary nodded. “He’s an example of the unconquerable human spirit.”

Even if you write it more elegantly than this bit, you’re still trying to give the reader the ‘correct’ conclusion. The right one is the one the reader comes up with himself.

Trying to get away with something

You can run into a plot point which is needed but doesn’t fit with what has gone before. Yes, she’s a bitch but if she doesn’t volunteer at the shelter, she won’t meet Jake. Or The floor has to collapse. Otherwise, how do I get them to the underground cave?

The temptation is to motor along with what you need for the plot, hoping that your readers won’t notice. News. They do with annoying frequency. Whenever I have tried an easy way out, someone invariably says, “But wouldn’t they feel that the floor wasn’t solid as soon as they stepped on it?”

The answer is to go back and fix the bits inconsistent with where you now want to go in the action. A nuisance, I know, but you often get a better plot if you do.

It is easy to inadvertently give the impression you think you’re smarter than your readers. You can avoid it by being alert to unintentional slips.