Just before we get to the tips, I do recommend that you tailor your expectations before you start writing. While you can’t write the book your loved one would have written, you can still preserve some of who they were, and why they were so special so that you. Your book can give future generations a true sense of who they were.
Writing a posthumous autobiography or memory book? Get the basics right
If you’re going to keep someone’s memory alive in a book, I suggest you start by collating all the basic facts you can. Knowing where and when they were born, where they went to school or university, and where they lived and worked will help you to establish the basic framework of your story.
These facts are useful, but don’t get too burdened by the need to get absolutely every detail down in writing. This isn’t a Wikipedia entry, and it really doesn’t matter if there are sections of their life that you can’t fill in. What matters much more is that you convey a sense of the person you’ve lost. The details will almost always be subservient to the insight you and the other contributors can bring.
Get a wide range of contributors
How you tell your loved one’s story is up to you. Perhaps you want to write a more intimate portrayal, based on your recollections of them. Or you may want to widen the scope…
If that’s the case, talk to as many people as you can to build up a picture of your subject. Cast your net as wide as possible to include friends, neighbours, and colleagues, as well as relatives. But you can go further – if your loved one was hospitalised or in a hospice, you can speak to the people who looked after them; they’ll almost certainly give you a unique new take on the person you knew. Are there any old work colleagues you can speak to? Past boyfriends or girlfriends? The more people you speak to, the greater the sense of the complete person you’re going to build up.
Undertaking a project like this is going to require time and effort, and you’ll probably need to do a bit of detective work. But the results can be so satisfying. More than that, the effort of putting the book together can help you to feel a new sense of connection with your subject.
You’ll almost certainly learn new things. As you speak to other people, you’ll see your subject from their perspective and you’ll gain fresh insights into what your loved one meant to other people.
Is there any source material you can use?
A client asked me to compile an autobiography based on her deceased father’s life. The book was based on a range of sources including his own journals, and actual recordings that he had made for a local historical society. It was wonderful for me to be able to hear the gentleman’s voice and vocal mannerisms; it gave me such a wonderful insight into understanding the kind of person he was.
You don’t have to have diaries or recordings though. Anything can be valuable source material. Here are just a few ideas:
- A few choice comments from school reports! You can learn a lot about someone (especially the characteristics that changed markedly and those that stayed exactly the same!)
- Letters and other correspondence. Old correspondence can be a treasure trove of material, with the added benefit that it’s all from the pen of your subject.
- Mementoes and heirlooms. You and your family and friends could photograph a few of these special items and write something about why they’re special or meaningful to you.
- Photographs – more on that below…
A visual commemoration to help keep someone’s memory alive
If you’re lucky enough to have photos, they’ll help you in so many ways. Most of all, they can jog your memories about events that you were and weren’t a part of. But even when you don’t know the story behind a picture, they can give you something special…
As a ghostwriter, I don’t often subscribe to the notion that a picture’s worth a thousand words, but in some cases, it really is. The right photo can convey so much. Not everything has to be put in context or given a date, sometimes, a picture just conveys a little look, a glance, or an action that really sums that person up.
Adding photos to a posthumous autobiography will turn it into the very best sort of memory book.
A few of their favourite things
When the time is right, why not get together with friends and relatives and talk over ideas for some lists of your loved one’s favourite things…
Structurally speaking, lists make nice breathing points in books, providing spaces for readers to pause and reflect. They’re a great way of giving you more material to work with too. But even more importantly, they add real value…
You can learn a lot about somebody from a list of their favourite places, foods, films, or music. It might even encourage you to go on visits to some of their favourite places, or work through some of their favourite books.
Remember, you don’t have to write this book alone
Getting other people to help you isn’t just going to make the job of writing easier, it can potentially extend what you’re able to say. If friends and family are willing, they can each take a section of the book to write their own reflections.
You can work with someone like me too, whether that’s as a writing mentor, or as a ghostwriter, I can help write you write the book.
I do know that writing a commemorative autobiography can be hard work, and you can expect to feel a range of emotions. As you move through the research and writing process, you’re bound to feel closer to your loved one’s memory. But it probably won’t all be plain sailing. There will certainly be times when the work feels too difficult. So I advise that if it gets too much, you simply stop. Give yourself a break and come back to it when you feel a bit stronger.
You might also find that finishing the work leaves you feeling a bit lost. That’s something that every writer experiences at the end of any project; and I think it goes double for a project of this nature. If you can, have some other activities on stand-by, ready to dive into when you finish working on the book.
One more word of caution: you might find that having worked on the book, you don’t feel able to read it. At least not at first. Even friends and family members who haven’t worked on the book may find that the pressure of expectation (and the sense that it might all be a bit too much) can actually stop them from dipping into the book.
I’ve worked with people who have been happy to have their loved one’s life in print but have found it hard to read it at first. For them, just knowing that it exists, and that it’s there when they want (and need it) is enough.
Ghostwriting and mentoring help
I hope this gives you a sense of just what you can do to help keep someone’s memory alive in a book. I’ve also written more about the idea of family memory books, and how to tell your story if you’re addressing your own mortality.
If you’d like a bit of writing support, do get in touch and tell me more. You can book yourself on a free half hour consultation and we’ll discuss the best way to tell your loved one’s story.