The contents page of a biography or memoir will give you an idea of the structure the author has used. Chapters in biographies are usually around 6-8,000 words in length but there are no hard and fast rules. The occasional short chapter can bring variety to the pace of the book. Some authors punctuate their chapters with short asides in which they pause from the main narrative to expand a particular theme without interrupting the narrative flow. Kathryn Hughes's The Short Life & Long Times of Mrs Beeton is laced with "interludes" in which she explores topics such as Mrs Beeton's awareness of the link between health and diet, and whether Mrs Beeton ruined British cooking. Each adds to the reader's knowledge of the period without causing the narrative drive to stall. Alternatively, you might prefer to weave themes into the central story.
Cradle to Grave
A biography typically starts with the subject's birth (it's surprising how many begin with a description of the weather) and continues in a roughly chronological order until their death. The advantage of this approach, which could equally apply to the history of a family, is that it is easy to follow. The downside is that it can appear plodding - especially if you're writing about someone who had an action-packed early life but whose later days were tame. One solution is to condense your treatment of the less exciting years but this can be difficult to achieve without making the book seem unbalanced. Alexander Masters turned the traditional form on its head in Stuart, A Life Backwards by telling the story in reverse chronological order.
A year in the life of ...
Another approach is to focus on a distinct period, as James Shapiro does in 1599, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. This was the year in which the playwright completed Henry V, wrote Julius Caesar and As You Like It and drafted Hamlet, but also a year of great excitement in England - an aging Queen faced the threat of invasion by Catholic Spain, rebellion in Ireland and intrigue at court. Shapiro's book marries both threads together to create an intimate picture of what life must have been like for Shakespeare and the influences that fed into his writing. Shapiro starts with the winter of 1598 and refers to events before and after 1599 to illuminate a single year.
This could work equally well for family history. The year 1948, for example, is significant for many families as it marked the arrival of West Indian immigrants on the ship Empire Windrush. Andrea Levy, herself the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, focussed on this one momentous year in her novel, Small Island.
Richard Benson, a journalist with The Face, based his book, The Farm, on notebooks he kept during the few weeks when he helped his parents to prepare the family farm in Yorkshire for sale after they reluctantly decided they could no longer afford to live there. Although the book focuses on a distinct period in time, he widens its scope to reflect back on his childhood, and the importance of the farm in his life.
Group biographies and biographical pairings
Writing about two or more people whose lives have a natural symbiosis can give the reader more for less. The subjects might share a similar background and context and the interaction between them will give the reader a deeper understanding of each.
This is especially true of family members and in particular siblings. James Fox's The Langhorne Sisters is both a group biography and a family history in which he uses letters and diaries to examine the lives of his great-aunts and grandmother who were born in Virginia, USA, but who made their mark on high society on both sides of the Atlantic
One of the advantages of group biographies is that there is usually at least one figure who is more flamboyant than the others. He or she can sweep the story along, carrying other characters, who may be less compelling, with them. Nancy Astor, who became the first woman to take her seat in parliament, fills this role in The Langhorne Sisters.
In some instances the rivalry and tension between the biographical subjects add a sense of drama to a joint biography whether the figures are Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes or the cousins Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Roland Huntford's joint biography of the polar explorers, Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen, The Last Place on Earth opens with a short description (less than a page) of the two men embarking on their expeditions before doubling back to outline earlier attempts to reach the South Pole and then jumping forward to look at Scott and Amundsen's biographical roots. His approach allows him to tell both their life stories at the same time as he recounts the race to the pole.
Another way of pulling together the lives of a group of people is to use a single event as a unifying theme. In A Night at the Majestic, Richard Davenport-Hines describes a famous dinner party at the Majestic Hotel in Paris in 1922 that was attended by Stravinsky, Joyce, Diaghilev, Picasso and Proust.
The structure of Nigel Slater's memoir, Toast, appears to be little more than a bundle of headings, mostly connected to food and each evoking a 1960s childhood: "Spaghetti Bolognese", "Arctic Roll", "Butterscotch Flavour Angel Delight" (which starts with a list of ingredients: "Sugar, Modified Starch, Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil, Emulsifiers ...)" Each is no more than a few pages long. But, despite its apparent simplicity, the characters develop and the story unravels in a way that is far from haphazard.
Since Slater is a professional cook, recipes provide natural prompts but this is a format that could translate to other subjects. If your parents met through their shared passion for amateur dramatics you could use theatre programmes to tell their story. Or if you have a box full of old photos you could write commentaries to some of the pictures. As you progress you will find that themes start to emerge: the annual camping trip when your mother stayed at home, the different houses you lived in, or family celebrations.
Once you've decided on a structure you will need a chapter breakdown outlining what you will cover in each chapter. This is a valuable way of helping you to organise your material and to assess the overall pace of your book. Are there sections that appear a little "flat" and where you might want to freshen up your writing with extra research so that you can inject some colour into the writing? Or perhaps you need to move material around. Does one chapter contain too many facts or maybe you've revealed too much of the story too soon? Expect your chapter breakdown to change and evolve as your book takes shape. A publisher or literary agent will want to see it, together with at least one sample chapter, as part of your book proposal.
A preface allows you to introduce your book and to tell the reader its scope and why you've decided to write it. This can be useful if you want to explain to younger generations why you've chosen to write a family history. A prologue gives you the chance to write an introductory scene - perhaps from a dramatic moment in the life you're about to write. The aim is to "hook" the reader but the danger in including a preface or prologue - or both - is that the reader doesn't quite know when the book proper has started.
Alexander Masters on structure
I'm rotten at planning books. Certainly I was with my first book, and I don't seem to have improved with the one I'm working on now. I write in blobs a possible chapter here, a couple of paragraphs there - and pray that sooner or later it'll all fit together.
With Stuart, I messed up royally on the first attempt. I used the old-fashioned, orderly biographical structure: begin before the beginning, dole out 20 pages of ancestors until the hero appears, meander on through school etc. Somewhere about page 50 the subject finally does something interesting. Stuart said the result was "bollocks boring", and he was right. It bored me to tears. That type of structure reflected nothing of his character. Stuart was the opposite of orderly: a chaotic, outrageous, alcoholic sociopath who spent much of his adult life on the streets or in jail.
Stuart discovered the solution. Tear up the first version and write the book the other way round, ie backwards, "like a murder mystery": start from the point when we first met, then work back to his childhood to find out "what murdered the boy I was". Not only did this structure offer a strong drive to the story, the telling of it became unpredictable and erratic again, and exciting to write. All that plodding preparation vanished. At last, the structure reflected the man.
· Alexander Masters' Stuart: A Life Backwards won the Whitbread Award for biography in 2005